The Printable Workbooks The KISS Grammar Home Page
The KISS Grammar Approach 
to Improving Writing 
and to Grammatical Errors
(It's the same approach.)
Grant Wood's 
American Gothic
(1891-1942) 1930, 
Art Institute of Chicago


     Too many teachers waste way too much time teaching grammar in order to "help students avoid errors." It simply does not work. Unfortunately, many teachers, who realize that it does not work, continue to do so because they don't know what else to do. (Now, of course, they will have the KISS Approach.) Those teachers  who think that it does work have never been able to prove so. If they had been able to prove it, NCTE would not have passed a resolution against the teaching of grammar. Indeed these teachers may be doing more harm than good. They may, for example, focus on comma-splices and then note fewer such splices appearing in students' writing. That effect, however, is more likely the result of the well-known phenomenon of the students writing shorter, safer sentences. The best way to deal with errors is not to deal with them formally at all. As this essay suggests, if we teach grammar as a way to improve writing, the errors will probably disappear on their own. 
     Currently, of course, most classroom teachers cannot effectively teach all five KISS levels. Will KISS help students improve their writing and avoid errors if the students can only work with KISS Level One? The answer to that question is "definitely." After some general remarks, this essay suggests how each of the five KISS levels relates to these two questions. We need to keep in mind here that KISS is a structured sequence of instruction that can be started at any grade level. All students should start at KISS Level 1.1 and work their way through the levels. 

KISS Grammar as Instruction in Writing

     Before KISS was as developed with exercises as it now is, some people had the impression that I hate sentence-combining exercises. They were right -- and wrong. As an undergraduate, I signed up for a psychology course. I thought I was going to be studying Freud. Instead I studied Skinner. I spent three hours a week (for fifteen weeks) training a rat. It was one of the most influential courses that I ever took. Typical books with sentence-combining exercises remind me of that course. But students are not rats. Typical books give students short sentences to combine into longer ones, but they do not expect students to be able to identify the constructions they are using to make the combinations. Nor do they give students a psycholinguistic model of how our brains process language. Like the rats, students are not expected to understand what they are doing. A short book could be written about the problems caused by such instruction, but here I'll simply say that KISS respects students' intelligence.
     KISS includes sentence combining and de-combining in the majority of the sections that introduce new constructions. Even in KISS Level 1.3 (Adding Adjectives and Adverbs) an exercise asks students to combine two simple sentences (They live in a house. The house is big.) into one (They live in a big house.) This may seem like an extremely simplistic exercise for older students, but even for them it addresses a common complaint of college professors (including many who teach subjects far removed from English and grammar) -- for many college students, once a sentence is written, it is as solid as cement. Thus, although the exercise is simple, it introduces the fundamental idea that written sentences can be improved.
     The overview below explains how writing exercises are integrated into the learning to identify various constructions. Remember, however, that each KISS Level is followed by a "Practice/Application" book. These books include more exercises from what is now called KISS Level Six. Most of the Level Six sections apply the constructions that students have learned to identify to questions of writing.

6.1 Studies in Punctuation
6.2 Style -- Focus, Logic, and Texture
6.3 Style -- "Free"  Sentence Combining Exercises
6.4 Studies in the Syntax of Little Words
6.5 Statistical Stylistics
6.6 Syntax and Writing
6.7 Additional Passages for Analysis
For more on what each of these sections is intended to do, see the "booklet" that explains them.

The KISS Approach to Grammatical Errors

    Part of the problem with trying to teach grammar in order to avoid errors is that almost no distinction has been made among the three types of errors -- usage, syntax, and pronoun reference. In addition, many teachers have never been taught that syntactic errors should probably be welcomed instead of being squashed. (Many errors are actually signs of growth -- or signs of poor instruction.) Usage can be considered the clothing of language -- it may or may not be appropriate for the occasion; syntax, on the other hand,  is language's skeleton -- without it, language is meaningless. 
     When I say that errors should not be dealt with "formally," I mean that specific errors should, with one exception, NEVER be the focus of class discussion. There is no reason to do so, and there is a strong possibility that giving students examples of errors, orally or in writing, not only reinforces the error among those who make it, but also spreads it to those who don't. The remedies for the two types of errors (usage and syntax) differ, and our exception concerns errors of usage. 

Errors in Usage

     "Usage" involves the "Don't" of the rules of etiquette, such as: "Don't say 'Me and him went to the store.'" "Don't use a double negative." ("We haven't got none.") "Don't use a double comparative." ("Gwynn is a more better batter.") and "Don't begin a sentence with 'but.'" In no case that I have ever seen does an error in usage result in misunderstanding, or even in lack of clarity. The rules of usage describe how educated people are expected, by other educated people, to speak and write. They are rules of etiquette! And in some cases, as in the rule about "but," they are themselves erroneous. As teachers, we have no right to force them upon our students outside our classrooms. 
     That does not mean that we should not teach them, but we should teach them for what they are. They are -- at least those that are valid are -- a feature of formal, educated writing and speaking. Our job as teachers is to make students aware of them and to help students see the degree of their validity. Here is where the exception to "formal focus" comes in. Individually or in small groups, students can be given one rule of usage with the assignment of reporting on it, either orally or in writing. A formal class period can be spent either reading or listening to these reports. The reports should include what the students found in manuals of style, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, several of which should be in the school library, if not in the classroom. (The grammar textbooks in the classroom, by the way, should be burned and not replaced. Teaching will improve and money will be saved.) Each report should also include the comments of, let's say, ten educated individuals briefly interviewed by the students. The students should ask these individuals, in addition to their level of education and brief job title, if they think that the rule is valid, why they think so, and how bad they would consider a violation of the rule to be (on a scale of 10 -- very bad, to 1). They might also ask if the interviewee perceives a difference between a violation in something written as opposed to speech. 
     In addition to getting members of the community involved in education, these reports, and the class discussions thereof, will show students (as opposed to being told by the teacher) the validity of whatever rules the teacher assigns. It is then up to the students to decide when and if they want to wear them. The classroom, of course, is at times a formal place. In correcting formal papers, responsible teachers should mark errors of usage. The degree to which these errors should affect the grade should be a matter of individual judgment (or departmental policy).
     Note, by the way, that KISS instruction should help with some usage errors. Students who regularly underline subjects once, and who label complements and identify objects of prepositions, will soon see part of the problem in "Me and him went to the store."

Syntactic Errors

     Unlike errors of usage, syntactic errors affect the reader's comprehension of what was written or said. If a student writes 

Thrown from the car, he saw her lying on the ground.
and means that "he" was thrown from the car, everything is fine. But if he meant that she was thrown from the car, the sentence does not say that. In the KISS Approach, the rules of syntax are validated by our psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes language. Anything that violates that model, or that causes the process to crash, is an error.  According to the model, a brain would chunk "Thrown from the car" into one unit, and then chunk that unit to the next word that makes sense -- which in this case is "he." This is, of course, close to the traditionalists discussion of misplaced modifiers, but whereas traditional grammar says "This is the rule because I say so," the KISS Approach says: "This is the model. The model makes sense to your brain. Then according to the model and your brain, the rule has these consequences if you violate it."
     I have, by the way, been told by one college English teacher that many college Freshmen are incapable of understanding the KISS psycholinguistic model. I don't believe that, but I do have serious questions about whether or not second graders can understand it. Part of the teachers' art is in deciding when and how to introduce the model. 
     As I hope to show, unlike the rules of usage, the rules of syntax can always be validated in terms of what will happen in the readers' brains. And these rules extend even to such problems as "its" and "it's" and "to" or "too." Consider: 
It's raining. He wanted to go too.
Its raining. He wanted to go to.

"It's" means "it is," so "It's raining." is a normal sentence easily processed. But "its" means "belonging to it." A reader processes the "Its raining" and expects a verb after it, as in "Its raining made them cancel the picnic." The period therefore causes  confusion -- a crash. "To" always raises the expectation "to what?" "Too" never does. A person who reads "He wants to go to" is expecting something such as "to the store," or "to swim." The period thus causes confusion -- either something is missing, or the word is spelled wrong. 
     An occasional syntactic error may be no big deal, but a paper that is salted with them likely presents pretty barren reading. A reader's brain must use short-term memory not just for processing sentence structure, but also to keep track of the writer's thesis, topic sentences, etc. Just as blood rushes to any wound, the focus of STM shifts to any crash site. If, in the process of reading, one's brain has to deal with a "to" error, then, in essence, STM is invaded by superfluous questions -- "Misspelling?" "Something missing? "What's missing?" When these questions take up slots in a seven-slot STM, something else -- perhaps the writer's thesis? -- is likely to get shoved out. Simply put, the more such errors there are in an essay, the less likely the reader is to get something fruitful out of it. 

     The way to help students with syntactic errors is not to present them with a bunch of band-aide rules that focus on covering the errors. Teach them how sentences and punctuation are supposed to work -- and teach them by using real texts, including samples of their own or their peers' writing. Students who know how sentences and punctuation work, and who can apply that knowledge to their own writing and reading, do not need to know the names of, or to be given examples of, errors. The KISS Approach provides students with the instruction that they need.

Errors of Pronoun Reference

     Because the KISS Approach concerns how words syntactically function in sentences, and because pronouns can function in any way that nouns can, KISS pays only minor attention to pronouns. As in many other aspects of the teaching of grammar, both too much and not enough are being done. 
     I can't figure out why students need to know the names of so many types of pronouns -- relative, demonstrative, indefinite, interrogative, possessive, reflexive. Year after year we have been trying to cram all these names into students' brains, and the students forget all of it,  including the one group they should remember, the personal. The personal pronouns involve simple distinctions: 

First person --  the person speaking/writing 
("I," "me," "my," "mine," etc.)
Second person -- The person spoken/written to 
("you," "your," etc.)
Third person -- The person spoken/written about 
("he," "she," "it," "they," etc.)

Clarifying these distinctions for students may help those who have troubles with shifts in person. ("We went to the park. There you saw big elephants.") We cannot, however, as we now apparently do, just teach these distinctions and forget them. If we do, then students will forget them likewise. It isn't difficult to work these terms into assignments two or three times a year, just enough to keep students from forgetting. ("In your journal for this week, write to someone you haven't seen in a while. Use and underline second person pronouns.") 
     I must admit that I myself did not discuss personal pronouns with my students -- that is until two or three came back to report they were having problems. In fields such as Human Services and many of the technologies, first person is verboten. The instructors, incorrectly assuming that we English teachers are doing our jobs, simply told students not to use first person in their papers. The students didn't understand, used first person, and either got lowered grades or got their papers handed back to them to be rewritten. This is, of course, an excellent opportunity to deal with a question of usage -- in some contexts (for example, the autobiographical), first person is required; in others, it is optional, and in others prohibited. 
     The other undertaught aspect of pronouns is number. I'm still surprised that so few of my college Freshmen know what the term means in a grammatical context, especially since the concept is not that difficult. English currently distinguishes between one ("she," "he," "it) and more than one ("they"). Grammatically, and this, of course, relates to subject/verb agreement as well,  "singular" refers to words that denote one, whereas "plural" refers to words that denote more than one. Part of the problem is that students see the three terms ("number," "singular," and "plural")  as isolated, rather than conceptualizing "singular" and "plural" as the two subdivisions of "number." Errors in agreement can present psycholinguistic processing hazards -- "One can see their own reflections in the pond." But, more importantly, the distinction between one and more than one has major logical, philosophical, and psychological implications. A writer who can't keep track of whether he is referring to one or to more than one is not thinking very clearly. And if the writer isn't thinking, why should a reader bother to read what he wrote? 

     The KISS Approach, it should be clear, will not solve all of students' problems with usage and pronoun reference. Some time will have to be spent on usage, preferably, as noted above, individually or in small groups, and students should be taught a few things about pronouns. But because it focusses on meaning, and because it focusses on the meaning and function of every word in every sentence, the KISS Approach will help. The student who wrote "We went to the park. There you saw big elephants." doesn't really need an explanation of grammatical person; he simply needs to be asked, "Why should I see big elephants because you went to the park?"

Improving Writing and Avoiding Errors
from the Perspective of the Five KISS Levels

KISS Level One -- 
Basic Subjects, Verbs, Complements, 
Adjectives, Adverbs, and Prepositional Phrases. 

Improving Writing

     Teachers often ask students to use "string" verbs, but this instruction is not helpful to students who cannot identify verbs in the first place. In teaching students to identify subjects and verbs in KISS Level 1.1, KISS includes an exercise on filling in the blanks with verbs. The idea, of course, is both to help students learn to identify verbs and to help them find stronger and more interesting verbs. This exercise, which is repeated in many of the "Practice/Application" sections, works best in a classroom situation where students can share and discuss the verbs that they have used to fill in the blanks.
     Some teachers tell students not to use adjectives--to use forceful nouns instead. This is usually meaningless instruction -- most of my college Freshmen can identify neither adjectives or nouns. In KISS Level 1.3, students learn to identify both adjectives and adverbs. Once they can do this, they can explore the question of adjectives vs. forceful nouns for themselves.
      KISS applications to writing really begin to kick in at Level 1.4 (Compounding). In the 1960's and 70's Kellogg Hunt, Roy O'Donnell, and Walter Loban made major breakthroughs with the concept of "syntactic maturity." It is obvious that eighth graders write longer, more complex sentences than do fourth graders, but until Hunt's research validated the "T-unit," there was no accurate way to measure such maturity. The "T-unit" turns out to be the KISS "main clause." It is, in other words, a main S/V/C pattern and all the words that chunk to it, including any subordinate clauses. 
     This research resulted in the 1980's fascination with sentence-combining exercises, but far too many of those exercises were aimed at increasing the types of constructions that students used in their writing. Thus second graders were asked to combine sentences with appositives. The students, of course, were not taught what appositives are, but trying to get second graders to use appositives is a bad idea (for reasons too complex to go into here). The point here is that if you start to analyze randomly selected sentences, you will probably be surprised by the frequency with which writers use compounds (especially compound verbs and compound complements) as they write longer sentences.
    The exercises on compounding do, of course, give students examples of such compounding, but teachers might also want to stress how compounds can improve writing by replacing an abstract word with more concrete examples. Instead of "We played games," a better sentence would be something like "We played baseball, basketball, and soccer." Although the exercises in KISS Level 1.4 do not currently stress this, the "Practice/Application" sections each include an exercise on abstract and concrete words. (In the "Practice/Application" section for KISS Level One, this exercise is on "Common" vs. "Proper" nouns, but are not "common" nouns abstractions and "proper" nouns concrete?)
     Like many of the later KISS sections, Level 1.4 includes both a combining and a decombining exercise. (The noted educational psychologists Piaget and Vygotsky both claimed that cognitive mastery includes the ability to reverse a mental operation. Thus KISS uses de-combining exercises almost as often as combining exercises. Also like many of the other subsections, KISS Level 1.4 includes a writing exercise. In this section it is simply "Write a sentence that has three or more verbs for one subject. Write another sentence that has four or more complements for one verb." Teachers, of course, may want to adapt this exercise by, for example, having students include such sentences in something that they themselves write.
     I have, by the way, heard some teachers make fun of having students use specific constructions in their own writing. They remind me of people who make fun of something that they do not understand. Perhaps they are examples of such people? Surely, having students use a specific grammatical construction in something they are writing does no harm -- if students are studying that construction. Indeed, this type of exercise is precisely what many other teachers call for when then claim that grammar should be taught only in the context of writing. (The problem with this side of the balance, of course, is that the students are generally not taught how to identify grammatical constructions.)
     KISS Level 1.5, the addition of prepositional phrases, has three possible objectives. Teachers can, of course, stop at the first objective, which is simply the students' ability to identify such phrases. The second objective is to have the students see how such phrases chunk to the rest of the sentence (usually as adjectives or adverbs). But the third objective is the most important for writing -- the logic of prepositional phrases.
     In the "complete" books, level 1.5 includes two exercises on the logic of prepositional phrases. The KISS approach to logic is based on David Hume's concepts (See the essay.), one of which is extension in time and space. Many students write narratives that take place in a vacuum -- they include few, in any details of where and when the story happened. Prepositional phrases are a major way of adding such details. Thus, once students can identify prepositional phrases, and can see how these phrases add such details, they find it much easier to include such details in their writing.
     Another important stylistic aspect of prepositional phrases is as sentence openers. I once received an e-mail from a parent who was very upset that his children's teacher was encouraging them to begin sentences with prepositional phrases. He was sure that he had been taught that sentences should not begin with prepositional phrases. He was probably confused by the nonsense rule (frequently taught) that sentences should not begin with "But," but given that students are not usually taught to identify prepositional phrases in the first place, his confusion is understandable. KISS does not include any exercises specifically devoted to this question, but students doing KISS analysis exercises will frequently see prepositional phrases are the beginnings of sentences. Teachers who want to emphasize varying sentence openings should find it easy to do so once their students can identify prepositional phrases in the first place. (The same is true for subordinate clauses, verbals, etc.)
     KISS Level 1.6 is devoted to "Case, Number, and Tense." From the perspective of improving writing, most of this section enables students to understand "error" questions such as subject/verb agreement, tense shifts, etc., but the use of pronouns, especially personal pronouns, involves numerous stylistic questions. KISS itself does not address many of these questions, but it does enable students to understand them. In college, for example, the use of first person pronouns in actually prohibited in some papers in some disciplines. As a college writing instructor, I have found that the students' basic problem is that when they are told not to use first person, they have no idea what "first person" is. KISS, in other words, primarily addresses pronouns as a vocabulary question.

Avoiding Errors

     Native speakers rarely, if ever, use simple prepositional phrases incorrectly, and when they do, the problem is usually one of modification. One student, for example, wrote "At the age of thirteen, my father obtained custody of me." To help students avoid such errors, teachers should probably NOT focus on them. As students place parentheses around prepositional phrases and draw arrows to the word each modifies, errors such as this one will become apparent to the students themselves, especially in view of the psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes language.

Subject/Verb Agreement Errors

     Prepositional phrases do often contribute to errors in combination with other constructions. The most widely recognized of these is the slipped pattern in which the object of a preposition is confused with the subject of  a verb, thereby resulting in a subject/verb agreement error, as in "Neither of these are very difficult." This is one of the reasons why KISS addresses prepositional phrases. With prepositional phrases neatly tucked in parentheses, students find it much easier to recognize subjects and verbs. Once they recognize them, many students automatically fix agreement errors; some students, however, do need a little prompting.
    Year after year, students are "taught" the rule that subjects and verbs must agree in "number" -- if the subject is plural, its verb must be plural; if the subject is singular, its verb must be singular. This is, perhaps, the most destructive "instruction" that ever occurs in our classrooms. It is destructive because it is meaningless, hence boring, and it teaches students that grammar itself is, for them, a meaningless morass of menacing mistakes. In other words, it teaches students to tune out.
     As noted in the discussion (above) of prepositional phrases, once students can identify subjects and verbs, they can usually fix problems in subject / verb agreement. Their problem is that typical instruction in grammar has never taught them how to identify subjects and verbs in the first place. KISS very directly addresses this problem in that students learn to identify subjects and verbs in Level One, and they will continue  to identify subjects and verbs in every sentence that they analyze. As they learn to recognize subjects and verbs, in any text, including their own writing, the rule about agreement in "number" makes sense. In fact, they probably do not even need the rule since, as native speakers of English, they have already taught themselves that subjects and verbs should so agree.

"Its" and "It's," "Their" and "They're" and Their Relatives

     Magazine and newspaper articles about grammatical errors are fairly common. In them, "its" and "it's," "their" and "they're" and similar homonyms usually rank near the top of the list of errors. We can, of course, remind students that "it's," with the apostrophe, means "it is," but the larger problem here is that many students, including those who are most likely to have problems here, read words and not sentences. Thus our "instruction" is not easily applied to their writing. In the KISS Approach, however, students will be underlining hundreds, more likely thousands of subject / verb patterns. Among them, they will quickly discover "it's" and its relatives -- or they won't find them and thus realize that they do not have a subject/verb. Or they will find them, where they don't belong, and realize that they wrote "That is it is doghouse."

The "Of" and "Have" Problem

     A student once complained to the President of the college I was teaching at. He sent the President a letter in which he wrote, "I should of passed this course." The President called me in to share a laugh. Most experienced writing teachers realize that this problem is the result of students mastering the language orally, rather than through a lot of reading. The only effective way to eliminate the problem, however, is to teach students that "of" is a preposition and "have" is a verb. But even this instruction is useless unless students analyze the prepositional phrases and S/V/C patterns in numerous sentences. And that, of course, is precisely what the KISS Approach has them do.

The Logic of Complements

     College professors in electronics, automotive, and several other disciplines have complained to me that their students do not answer their questions. "I ask the students why, and the students tell me what. I ask the students under what conditions, and the students tell me what. I ask the students when, and the students tell me what. Whatever my question, the students answer it as a "what" question." In KISS, students learn to identify complements by asking the question "Whom or what?" after the verb. The question cannot be "when?" "why?" "how?" or any question other than "whom or what?" Every semester, I tell my students what I have just written. And every semester I am amazed at the trouble that some students have in limiting the question to "whom or what?" I also tell the students that, in learning how to identify complements, they should also be learning to stop and think about the questions that their instructors are asking them. If they answer a "how" question as if it were a "what" question, they are probably guaranteeing that what could have been a "A" instead comes back with no better than a "C" on it.

S / V / Predicate Noun Logic

    The KISS Approach to teaching complements focuses on meaning. Thus one finds the complement by asking "Verb + What?," and if the verb implies equality, and the subject and the answer to the question are in any way equal, then the complement is a predicate noun. One student wrote:

Often the practice rooms are the only time one can be alone. 
The verb "are" implies equality, but a room is not a time. Although some people would consider this to be a minor error, it is a clear reflection that 1) the student wasn't thinking, or 2) the student cannot distinguish time from space. This error is far more common than one might expect. It has not been discussed in any detail because traditional grammars don't have an effective way of describing it, and even if they could describe it, they cannot address it effectively because they do not teach students to identify S/V/C patterns. As I try to suggest in the section on "Syntax and the Logic of David Hume," the concept of identity (What is equal to what?) is essential in life, and it is crucial in the technical fields that many students go into. And the S/V/PN pattern is a fundamental way of expressing such an equality. 
     Students who have trouble handling the pattern often say things they do not mean. In technical writing, this causes extremely serious errors, but even in everyday writing it can lead the reader astray. The problem, moreover, gets worse as students embed more and more constructions into a single clause. Thus one student wrote:
The taste of a sizzling foot-long hotdog coated with tangy sauerkraut with mounds of pickle relish is a typical snack when accompanied by a tall, chilled paper cup of Coke. 
Having read that sentence, I was basically useless as a reader for the rest of the student's essay. I was too distracted, wondering how a "taste" could be a "snack." I tried to imagine a "taste" as a snack, but most people I know want more than just a taste when they have a snack. Perhaps the student was writing for ghosts? My point here is not to make fun of the student, but rather to suggest that such errors will lead thoughtful readers off track and into a series of questions that the writer had no intention of evoking.
     By teaching students to identify S/V/PN patterns, the KISS Approach enables students to recognize such errors in their writing and shows them how to fix them. In this case, the meaningful subject is in the prepositional phrase, and thus the sentence can be fixed by changing it to "A tasty, sizzling, foot-long hotdog ... is a typical snack...." 

KISS Level Two -- Expanding the Basic Concepts

     Level Two is where KISS really begins to differ from most grammar textbooks. Its primary focus is to help students find S/V/C patterns and prepositional phrases in real texts. Thus it deals with questions that most grammar textbooks ignore. For example, Level 2.1.6 teaches students how to distinguish finite verbs from verbals. Typical textbooks teach students what subjects and verbs are, but they use very basic, sanitized exercises. When dealing with real texts, however, students will find sentences such as:

a.) Swimming is good exercise.
b.) They saw her swimming in the lake.
c.) Bob went to the park to swim.
"Swimming" and "to swim" are verbs, and given what is taught in most textbooks, students will want to underline these words twice, only to find out that they are wrong. This is the type of problem that Level Two helps students with. As a result, level two does not introduce new questions of writing or of errors. Note, however, that as students do exercises in KISS Level Two, they will continue to analyze real sentences from randomly selected texts. Thus all of the items discussed in Level One can continue to be a focus in Level Two.

Improving Writing

     The one thing about writing style that is introduced in Level Two is Level 2.1.2 -- Varied Positions in the S/V/C Pattern. Many students are surprised to see that complements can come before subjects and/or verbs, as in "Him I know." For those of us who have analyzed texts, this is a very simple idea, but it is a revelation to some students, and, of course, the varied patterns change the emphasis and variety in the sentence structure. 

Avoiding Errors

     Here again, not much new is introduced in Level Two, except for some teachers. The subjunctive mood (Level 2.1.7) is introduced here primarily to make sure that teachers do not make errors by marking a sentence such as "I wish he were here" as having an agreement error in "he were." This material, of course, also enables teachers to explain to students why "he were" is not an error in such sentences.

KISS Level Three (Clauses)

Improving Writing (and Reading)

     The February 1984 issue of English Journal, the dominant publication for high school English teachers, includes an article by Trevor Gambell. Gambell claimed that his research showed that many students have problems with exam questions that include subordinate clauses. Apparently, many students have problems distinguishing the main idea in such sentences. Gambell did not, however, conclude that we should teach these students how to understand sentences that include subordinate clauses. He concluded that exams should be written in simpler sentences. Need I comment on this? If you work with KISS Level Three, you may conclude that it is the most important of all KISS levels. Indeed, KISS Levels one and two may be seen as preparing students for KISS Level Three. A "clause" is an S/V/C pattern and all the words that chunk to it. Students who have mastered KISS Levels One and Two should have relatively few problems with clauses.

Compound Main Clauses

    The section below on "avoiding errors" explains why comma-splices and run-ons are serious errors. But if you look at why students make these errors in the first place, you will probably find, as I did, that students often use either no punctuation (or just a comma) between main clauses because they sense a logical connection between the clauses so joined. In other words, they have not been taught about how experienced writers use semicolons, colons, or dashes to connect compound main clauses.

     Although some writers apparently use these three punctuation marks interchangeably to separate main clauses, many writers use the semicolon to imply or reinforce a contrast:

(a.) He went swimming. She did the dishes.
(b.) He went swimming, and she did the dishes.
(c.) He went swimming; she did the dishes.
Most readers will interpret both (a.) and (b.) as two equally important statements of fact. The semicolon in (c.) however, will lead many readers to look for an implied contrast -- which they will probably find. Example (c.) implies that he's out there having fun, whereas she is stuck working in the kitchen.
     Colons and dashes, on the other hand, usually suggest that whatever follows them will be a restatement (often in more detail) of the first main clause:
It was a nice day: it was sunny with a light breeze.
It was a nice day -- it was sunny with a light breeze.
The colon tends to be used in formal writing; the dash, in informal. By teaching students how to identify main clauses in real texts, and by giving students these generalizations about the semicolon, colon, and dash, KISS not only addresses two of the most complained about writing errors, it shows students how to change the negative of the error into a logical positive of their style.
     In the "complete" workbooks, KISS begins Level Three with exercises on compound main clauses. Four of the nine exercises in Level 3.1.1 focus on the logic and punctuation of these clauses.

Adding Subordinate Clauses

     Having learned the concept of "clause" in Level 3.1.1, students add subordinate clauses to their analytical toolbox in Level 3.1.2 Stylistically, this level is probably the most important in KISS. Among other things, it includes having students rewrite main clauses as subordinate and subordinate as main:

He went swimming while she did the dishes.
While he went swimming, she did the dishes.
The stylistics of subordinate clauses is debated; the teaching of the stylistics of clauses should be more so.


     For example, if you press most grammar teachers, they will admit that in most well-written sentences, the main idea is in the main clause S/V/C pattern (MIMC). That idea, however, is too simple for many teachers of future grammar teachers. They want to focus on the exceptions to the rule. Admittedly, numerous exceptions can be found. But if you talk with many middle school teachers, they will probably tell you that their students often have trouble getting their main idea into the main clause S/V/C pattern. The problem with all of this yakety-yak is that textbooks do not teach students how to identify clauses in the first place. KISS does, and because it does, it can introduce students to the questions -- Is the main idea of most sentences in the main S/V/C pattern? Should it be? Why, or why not? KISS, in other words, gives students the tools they will need to discuss these questions intelligently and to come to their own conclusions.


     The same is true in regard to left-branching and right-branching subordination. "Left-branching" means that the subordinate construction comes before the main subject and verb; "right-branching" means that it comes after:

Left: While she did the dishes, he went swimming.
Right: He went swimming while she did the dishes.
What precedes a sentence has, of course, some influence on whether a writer will use left or right branching, but often writers unconsciously make that decision for other reasons. What troubles me is that some writing instructors push students (who usually cannot identify clauses in the first place) toward either left or right branching.
     I admire, for example, the work of Francis Christiansen, but I am annoyed when he pushes students toward right branching constructions, apparently because most writers use it more than left-branching. (That most people do it is not really a good reason.) On the other hand, I admire Walker Gibson, who, in Tough, Sweet and Stuffy, suggests that left-branching implies a more organized brain. His argument is that in order to write a left-branching sentence, the writer has to have the whole idea organized in his or her mind. Otherwise, the writer would not know what the subordinate clause is subordinate to. Gibson goes on to note that right-branching is comparatively easy--and it can reflect thoughts that are simply tacked on to what has just been said. Personally, I have no position in this debate. In KISS Grammar students can explore this question and make up their own minds.

The Logic of Subordinate Clauses

     In addition to focus (MIMC) and branching, KISS Level 3.1.2 includes exercises on the logic of subordinate clauses.

"He went swimming while she did the dishes.' has a focus on "He went," and a logical connection of time.
"He went swimming because she did the dishes.' has a focus on "He went," and a logical connection of cause/effect.
"She did the dishes, so he went swimming." has a focus on "She did," and a logical connection of result (a variant of cause/effect).
Some students, of course, unconsciously feel these distinctions and automatically use the version that reflects their intended focus and logical connection. But many  students do not get it. Indeed, they have no idea that such "subtle" distinctions can be made. KISS exercises on the logic of subordinate clauses not only help them realize more possibilities than they previously saw, the exercises give them practice in manipulating clause structures.

     KISS Level 3.1.3 focuses on embedded subordinate clauses. Actually all subordinate clauses are embedded in a main clause, but at KISS Level 3.1.3 students explore sentences that have subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses. "Is that possible?" some students usually ask. My response is, "Don't ask me. See for yourself." For some students the embedding of subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses is no revelation. But even for many college students, the analysis of such sentences raises serious stylistic questions. Is heavy embedding good? Or bad? Our psycholinguistic model provides a context for answering that question, but what yardstick can one use to determine how deep embedding should be -- or how long main clauses should be?

     Although the exercises in the KISS levels include many application exercises, some "applications" can evolve into major research projects. This is definitely the case with the questions of how deep embedding should be and of how long main clauses should be. KISS approaches these two questions (and many others) in statistical exercises in  the "Practice/Application" books that follow each KISS Level. (Note that these "Practice/Application" books also include additional exercises on the logic and punctuation of main clauses and on the logic of subordinate clauses.)

Statistical Stylistics

     As noted above, Kellogg Hunt did some widely respected research on syntactic maturity with his basic yardstick, the "T-unit." And, for Hunt, the "T-unit" was exactly the KISS concept of the main clause -- a "T-unit" is a main clause defined as including all its subordinate clauses and other subordinate constructions. Thus the main clause gives students a basic yardstick with which they can do math in English class. The results of Hunt's and others' research is included in KISS Level 6.5 "Statistical Stylistics." There are some serious questions about it, but basically it suggests that third and fourth graders average around eight words per main clause; fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, around nine; eighth and ninth graders around ten; tenth and eleventh graders around eleven; and twelfth graders average between thirteen and fourteen. Profession writers, they claim, average around twenty. My own college Freshmen usually average between fifteen and sixteen.
      Although these numbers offer a general sense of the statistical norm, within KISS grammar students who can identify main and subordinate clauses can analyze their own writing (and that of others) and use their own studies to determine how long, on average, and how deeply embedded subordinate clauses (on average) writing should have. Determining words per main clause, for example, is simply a matter of counting the words in the analyzed text. (Most word processors will give students that number so that they do not even have to count the words.) In KISS, we put a vertical line after each main clause. Students, therefore, only have to count the number of vertical lines that they have put in the analyzed text. If the divide the number of words in the text by the number of vertical lines (main clauses) they have arrived at Hunt's "words per T-unit" or, in KISS, "words per main clause."
     If they are working in a classroom context, they do not even need all those statistics cited above. Teachers can arrive at an even better norm simply by averaging the averages of the students in the class to arrive at a "norm" for the students in the class. Almost two decades ago, Robert Boynton, of Boynton/Cook Publishers, was interested in publishing a book about KISS Grammar. But he adamantly objected to statistical statistics. Stupidly, I insisted on including them. I say "stupidly" because I could have agreed, published a book with a well-known publisher, and then written about statistical stylistics in articles or in another book.
    I think I understand why Mr. Boynton objected -- I did a poor job of explaining the importance of the psycholinguistic model. At that time, sentence-combining was the rage -- students should write longer, more complicated sentences. Mr. Boynton, I think, did not agree with that, and he was afraid that any move toward statistical analysis would promote the American fallacy -- bigger and longer is better.
     The psycholinguistic model, however, puts an upper "limit" on sentence length and complexity. Bigger is not better if most readers will have trouble reading the text because of its long, complex sentences. At the other end, of course, readers will perceive a college student as immature if he or she is writing, on average, simple main clauses that average ten words. In other words, I regularly suggest to students that they want to be somewhere close to the norm. True, some high school (and even some college) English teachers give high grades for long, complex sentences. But most college professors don't. What they care about is the content. Note that I'm not saying that length and complexity of sentence structure it totally irrelevant; I'm saying that length and complexity for the sake of length and complexity often distracts college professors from what they are really interested in -- the content of the paper.
     Statistical analysis can be connected with another important aspect of writing -- the writer's intended readers. Would it be surprising to learn that papers written for college courses typically include more words per average main clause than do articles in popular magazines? How about professional journals? It would not be difficult to divide a class into groups and to have one group analyze passages from different magazines, another group passages from newspapers, etc. Indeed, the students might even be asked to write papers that explain what texts they analyzed and what they discovered. These papers could then be used by students in later years as sources of discussion and further study of the typical sentences in different types of texts.
     From the students' point of view, an obviously more practical series of studies could focus on writing samples from the assessment documents of various state Departments of Education. Many states have evaluated examples of students' writing available on the internet These usually include the writing prompts, directions, and criteria for the evaluations. Studying these essays is obviously good preparation for students, but the KISS approach enables students to extend the study of these essays not only to questions of errors, but also to the statistical analysis of the various samples. Do the eighth grade essays that get the highest evaluations also have the highest average of words per main clause? Do those with the lowest evaluations have the lowest? The KISS site already includes some of these samples, statistically analyzed. But having the students do the analysis themselves would probably be more convincing for the students. And even if these studies suggest that bigger is better, the "bigger" would be, as noted above, a statistical norm appropriate for eighth graders.
     If you do have students do statistical studies, you will probably decide that the process itself is more important than the numerical results. Counting subordinate clauses forces students to look closely at subordinate clauses. Students particularly find analyzing samples of their own writing interesting, especially if it is being done against the framework of a norm, whether the norm be their own class, a set of papers from state standards, or professional writing. When a student finds no subordinate clauses in his or her own writing, but is convinced by the norm that most of his or her peers do have such clauses, the student is much more motivated to do sentence-combining exercises. If, on the other hand, a student finds his or her clauses too long and too heavily embedded, the student, in light of the KISS psycholinguistic model, is usually easily persuaded to do some de-combining exercises.
     But there is more. KISS statistical projects enable teachers to introduce many of the intrinsic problems of statistical conclusions. How many individual samples have to be analyzed and then averaged for a "norm" to be credible? Why are definitions of terms important? The credibility of some of the professional studies that followed Hunt's is very weak because the researchers for a vaguely explained reason counted adverbial clauses of cause as separate main clauses. Another question that students will run into is how to count constructions that can be explained in more than one way. And, if the samples are hand-written by students, what does one do with "garbles." (Hunt and most of those who followed him defined "garbles" as words or phrases that were illegible.) The point here is that KISS can bring the essence of the scientific method (inductive conclusions from individual observations) and the whole questions of the methods and credibility of statistical research into the classroom. And it does this in the context of the students' research into the way that their own brains process language.

Avoiding Errors

     Some students, especially those who learned the language orally and did not do a lot of reading, make frequent errors related to clause boundaries. These errors are serious because the clause is the primary unit in the process of reading. As words enter a reader's short-term memory, they are chunked to each other until everything that is supposed to go together is eventually chunked to the S/V/C pattern of a main clause. At the end of that clause, the writer should have used punctuation which signals a dump to long-term memory. If parts of the pattern are missing, or if the punctuation is missing or incorrect, the reader becomes confused. Although students do not need to know the names for various errors, teachers probably do so that they can understand the nature of the students' problems and determine what, if anything, to do about them. Because clause-boundary errors are a focus of "Cobweb Corner," my research area, the following brief explanations include links to the relevant discussions in that research material.
     To my knowledge, almost nothing that we are currently doing in our schools helps students with these problems. The reasons for that are simple. The sentences in the exercises that students are given to work with are too simple, much simpler than the sentences that the students themselves often write (and thus have problems with). Then there are the teachers who tell students to put a period wherever they would make a "long" pause in speech. That advice is simply stupid. "Because we talk in fragments."
     The KISS Approach definitely helps students because as they analyze real sentences from randomly selected texts, they come to learn how sentences -- and punctuation -- work. We need to understand, moreover, that we cannot expect immediate results. Under pressure, as in in-class writing, students will still make mistakes, and as for out-of-class writing, we need to teach students the difference between editing and revising. Then we need to force them first to revise and then to edit.


     As the name suggests, fragments are parts of sentence patterns that are punctuated as complete sentences. Often, fragments are the result of an overload of the writer's short-term memory (STM). With STM overloaded, the inexperienced writer simply puts down a period (or some other main-clause-ending punctuation mark), and then writes the rest of the main clause (often a subordinate clause) as a separate sentence. In the KISS Approach, the teacher's job is to point out to students that the fragment can probably be connected to the sentence either before or after it.
     The problem with fragments appears to be most common in grades seven through nine. For anyone familiar with the research of Hunt, O'Donnell, and Loban, this is not surprising because these researchers have convincingly demonstrated that these years are the period of most intense growth in the use of subordinate clauses. Unfortunately, most English teachers are not familiar with this research, and even more unfortunately, almost no thought has been given to its implications. It is quite possible, for example, that the current attempts to "help" these students actually do more harm than good.
     We know, for example, that as young children we all said such things as "I cutted the paper," and "Turn on it" (for "Turn it on.") Even if no one EVER corrected us, we all learned the correct forms. But just as the learning of irregular verb forms is part of natural syntactic development, so is the growth of subordinate clauses. There are, of course, two significant differences here. Errors such as "I cutted" are made orally. Children will hear the correct forms and naturally assimilate them. Clause boundary errors are all graphic. Students who read a lot tend to assimilate the correct forms as they read.
     The other difference is that subordinate clause growth occurs well into the school years, when teachers feel that they have to "do something," especially because these errors are heavily penalized in the evaluation of state-wide writing exams. But instruction, by its very nature, is an intervention into the "natural." And what we tend to do is to impress upon students -- by the very fact that we give them exercises to avoid fragments -- that there is a problem, but the exercises we give them do not work -- for the reasons stated above. By interfering, in other words, we might well be making the problem worse -- adding both anxiety and lack of clarity to it.
     I would like to see a lot more research done on actual students' writing to determine the nature of students' fragments, on their relative frequency (per main clause), and on the grade levels at which they occur. I'm wondering if fragments that occur in students' writing before students study KISS Level Three should simply be ignored. (Teachers might correct them in students' writing, but not count off for them or do any instruction about them.) In the KISS Curriculum, students will be learning to analyze the clauses in their own writing. In this process, they will begin to recognize any fragments in their writing, and, as suggested above, they will have a clear context for understanding the problem -- and for fixing it. 
     We should not leave the question of fragments without noting that some fragments are totally acceptable. Currently, instruction is vague about which are acceptable and which are not, but the KISS Approach here, as almost always, relies on the psycholinguistic model of how the brain processes language: a fragment that might cause a crash is bad; one that probably will not, is not only acceptable but sometimes a sign of good writing. Good fragments usually, but not always, appear at the beginning of a paragraph, where they establish a topic or attitude that is developed in the paragraph, or at the end of a paragraph, where the reader can obviously see the coming paragraph break and will therefore not expect a completion to the fragment. (Click here for the Cobweb Corner discussion of fragments.)

Comma-splices and Run-ons

       Comma-splices and run-ons are related in that two main clauses are joined by only a comma (CS) or the second main clause runs into the first with no punctuation between them (RO). These errors create the exact opposite of the problem created by a fragment. Instead of being directed to dump to long-term memory with only a partial pattern in STM, the reader has a complete pattern in STM and starts trying to chunk the words from the next pattern into the previous one. Because they don't chunk, a crash may occur. I say "may" because, as most grammar textbooks state, comma-splices are acceptable if the main clauses are short. Unfortunately, they do not say how long "short" can be. 
     KISS, relying on the psycholinguistic model, states that if the intended readers can be expected to have no problems processing the sentence, then the splices should be considered acceptable. Parallel constructions, for example, make sentences easier to process, and adults can process longer sentences than can fifth graders. This still leaves the question with a subjective answer. The KISS Approach would settle any questionable case in the student's favor, provided, of course, that the student has been taught through the KISS Approach, and therefore understands that the splices might cause readers to crash.
      The opening of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, by the way, was included among the exercises precisely because of his use of comma-splices and parallel constructions. For the Cobweb Corner discussion of comma-splices and run-ons, click here.

Incomplete Subordination

     I haven't had the time or opportunity to collect a lot of examples of it, but teachers should expect to see cases of incomplete subordination:

     Although the author Kent Scheidegger of the essay "Habeas Corpus is Abused by Convicts" relays many good examples of the abuse of this procedure, but the fallacies in which the author commits weakens his essay and argument dramatically.

[In this case, the writer has subordinated the first clause with "although," but has retained the "but" that would join two main clauses.]

Incomplete subordination probably results from one of two things (or perhaps a combination of both). For one, the student may be in the process of  mastering subordinate clauses. Part of that process involves reducing a main clause in a compound sentence into a subordinate clause. In the example, the student made it half-way. The other cause is that the main clause that the student is attempting to write is beyond his (or her) STM processing capacity. As a result, the first part of the sentence, once written, gets pushed out of STM, and the sentence then, to use Mina Shaughnessy's term, "slips" into a different pattern. Shaughnessy's Errors and Expectations, by the way, should be read by every teacher of grammar and/or writing.

     From the perspective of errors, KISS Level Three, the mastery of clauses, is the most important -- as long as the students are also well-grounded in the psycholinguistic model. The model addresses the question of modification, and if the students understand it, they will be able to address the errors that are discussed under Levels Four and Five without even studying the concepts for those levels.

KISS Level Four (Verbals -- Gerunds, Gerundives, and Infinitives)

     Compared to KISS Level Three, KISS Levels Four and Five add only a few grammatical constructions that seriously affect the style of writing. Teachers who want to emphasize the connections between sentence-structure and writing, can, of course, use additional exercises from KISS Levels One through Three or from the "Practice/Application" books.

Improving Writing

     Of the three types of verbal, gerunds and infinitives tend to develop naturally, and their use depends on the topic the students are writing about.  They do not need any special focus. They do "grow," but they tend to do so by having additional constructions added to (embedded in) them. Thus "We like playing baseball," may grow to "We like playing baseball with our friends from Dover High School on Sunday afternoons when there is no interesting Orioles game on T.V." KISS does include "free" sentence-combining exercise (in the Practice/Application" books that can be used to encourage this type of growth, but special focus on it is probably not needed.
     Gerundives are a different question. Most gerundives can be viewed as reduced subordinate clauses:

Many children like the Harry Potter book. These books were written by J. K. Rowling.
Many children like the Harry Potter books that were written by J. K. Rowling.
Many children like the Harry Potter books written by J. K. Rowling.

In the "complete" books, one exercise in Level Four is devoted to this type of sentence-manipulation exercise.

Avoiding Errors

     Students have few problems in using verbals correctly, but the two problems that some students do have are fairly serious.

Misplaced or Dangling Modifiers

     "Misplaced" and/or "dangling" modifiers are errors that frustrate many high school teachers (and college professors). They are also known as "dangling and/or misplaced participles" because most grammars don't make the distinction that KISS does between "participle" as form and "gerundive" as function.
     One student wrote, for example, "Being of an impulsive nature, my mother often accompanies me when purchasing clothing. " In that sentence, the gerundive "Being" chunks to "mother," but that is not what the writer meant. Her mother accompanies the writer to restrain the writer's impulsiveness. Although some English teachers claim that these errors are not important, they can be very important. Assume, for example, that the following sentence appears in a police report:

Thrown from the car, he saw her lying on the ground.
If "he" was the one thrown from the car, the sentence is fine, but what if she is the one who was thrown? The legal case may be entirely different. And writers who cannot control gerundives (such as the writer of the sentence about impulsiveness) may write this sentence and mean that she was the one who was thrown.
      Obviously not many dangling or misplaced gerundives will have serious legal consequences, but they can seriously affect communication, especially when they result in a humorous sentence that the writer did not intend:

Our stomachs were full of butterflies wondering whether, after all this work, we could pull this performance off as a success.

As I tried to read the rest of this student's paper, I could not get these wondering butterflies out of my mind. I pictured them fluttering up to each other, hovering, and chit-chatting -- "What might go wrong?" "Will we succeed?" Yellow ones, tan ones, white ones! Butterflies. All wondering. As I wondered about the wondering butterflies, I probably did not give the paper a fair reading. I was too distracted. And that is, perhaps, the primary problem with misplaced modifiers. It is the writer's responsibility to control the structure of sentences. When writers do not, and readers get distracted, whose fault is it?
     In order to help students avoid errors such as these, KISS focuses on the adjectival function of gerundives -- Gerundives "always" function as adjectives. Actually, most gerundives have both an adjectival and an adverbial function, but the adverbial function rarely, if ever, results in any kind of error. The following sentence, which prompted me to add this explanation, was submitted by a user of the KISS site:

She dropped her sword and grappled with his knife hand, 
trying to free her left arm from the shield so she could draw her own. 

Doesn't, I was asked, "trying" function as an adverb to "grappled"? The answer to that question is a definite "Yes," but it also functions as an adjective to "She." Note what happens if we eliminate the "She":

Her sword was dropped, and there was grappling with his knife hand, 
trying to free her left arm from the shield so she could draw her own.

The sentence may still be comprehensible, but it is more difficult to read because it is not as clear as to who is doing the "trying."
      Some gerundives have an entirely adverbial function. For example, "Considering the circumstances, the case is dismissed."  Certainly it is not the case that is doing the considering. But these gerundives that have no adjectival function are relatively rare, and when they do occur, the context makes the performer of the action clear. (In our example, it is obviously the judge who makes the statement who did the considering.)
     Having considered the adverbial function of gerundives, we can address the question of how KISS helps students eliminate dangling or misplaced modifiers. First of all, I have serious reservations about the typical "correct-the-errors" exercises that present students with sentences that contain the error and expect the students to make the corrections. I have seen no evidence that such exercises are effective, and I fear that they may add to the problem. Presenting some students will visible stimuli of poorly structured sentences may simply confuse them. If many students are having problems with misplaced modifiers, teachers may want to put on the board one or two examples and discuss them, but otherwise, let the KISS Approach itself naturally take care of the problem.
     The KISS psycholinguistic model explains that every word in any sentence chunks to another word or construction until everything is chunked to the words in the main S/V/C pattern. The brain will chunk words as quickly as it can, and thus it will chunk words and phrases to the nearest word or phrase that in any way makes sense. This will not be a new idea to students who have been working within a KISS framework. And, as they analyze sentences, they will be looking for the adjectival function of gerundives. Thus they will see, over and over again, that gerundives "chunk" to the performer of whatever the verbal means. In the errors discussed above, for example, students will quickly see that "Being of an impulsive nature" chunks to "mother"; that "Thrown from the car" chunks to "he"; and that "wondering" chunks to "butterflies."
     When a dangling or misplaced modifier appears (and they will) in the writing of a student who is being trained in the KISS Approach, the teacher can simply write "Ref" (for "reference") or "SS" (for "sentence structure") in the margin. And the teacher can expect the student to be able to correct that error without going to a grammar textbook. In most approaches to grammar, any "Ref" or "SS" in the margins of a paper might as well be in Greek because the students have not been taught how sentences work. Note also, that these marks can be meaningful for students even before they have formally learned what gerundives are. 
     Assume, for example, that the writer of "Thrown from the car, he saw her lying on the ground" had not yet been taught about verbals. In the KISS Approach, the principle of chunking is taught at Level One, with prepositional phrases, adjectives, and adverbs. Thus the student does not need to know what a gerundive is. All the teacher has to do is to point to "Thrown" and ask, "What does it chunk to?" If the student appears confused, the teacher can follow up with "Who was thrown?" At that point, most students are smart enough to see that, according to this sentence, "he" was. And likewise, most students are smart enough to deal with the occasional gerundive that has an exclusively adverbial function.

Gerunds as Subjects

     Some students have problems using gerunds as subjects. Thus you may find sentences like the following which was taken from a college Freshman's paper:

By simply making the request that the ladies wear longer skirts 
is not asking too much. 

For students who have been working within the KISS Approach, this error does not have to be directly addressed. All we need to do is to ask the student to analyze the sentence:

{By simply making[Gerund, object of "by"] therequest[DO of "making"] }
[Adj. to "request" thattheladieswearlongerskirts (DO)] is
not asking [Gerund, PN of "is"] too much

In performing this analysis, students find that there is no subject for the verb, in this case, "is." Realizing this, some students immediately know how to fix it, but others need an explanation and some practice with examples.
     In every case that I can remember, the error occurs because the meaningful subject is imprisoned in a prepositional phrase. The psycholinguistic model helps students see that, in this case, for example, the reader will chunk "making," the meaningful subject, in the prepositional phrase. By the time they get to KISS Level Four, students have had a fair amount of practice with prepositional phrases, and they have verified for themselves the rule that objects of prepositions cannot function as the subjects of verbs that are outside the prepositional phrase. Thus they need to free the subject ("making") from the phrase. And this is done by simply eliminating the preposition:

Simply making the request that the ladies wear longer skirts 
is not asking too much. 

Errors in using gerunds as subjects are not very common, but they can be very distracting because they force the reader to have to reprocess the sentence to find the subject of the verb. In most cases, however, readers can reprocess and at least determine exactly what the writer meant. That is not the case with the more frequent, and more serious errors with misplaced or dangling modifiers.

KISS Level Five (Additional Constructions)

     Remember that constructions are labeled "Level Five" because they can be taught after everything else has been basically mastered. In a sense, they are the least important constructions for understanding how sentences work. Except for an error by teachers (discussed below), any errors in punctuation involving these constructions are explored as the students learn to identify the constructions.

Improving Writing

Level 5.1 - Nouns Used as Adverbs; Level 5.2  - Simple Interjections; and Level 5.3 - Direct Address

     These are three relatively simple constructions that most students naturally use. If you have the time, they can be taught with the KISS Level Two constructions. Stylistically, the only important point here is probably  the KISS explanation of subordinate clauses that can function as interjections. (For more on this, see KISS Level 3.2.3 - Interjection? Or Direct Object?)
     Some teachers simply tell students not to use "I." What they probably really mean is not to use first person pronouns, but most students have not been taught to recognize "first person." (Teachers can only do so much.) In many writing contexts, however, first person is not only acceptable but even preferred. What really causes problems is the use of "I think . . . .," "I believe . . . . ," and "in my opinion."
       Professional writers do occasionally begin sentences with these constructions, but professional writers understand that whatever they are writing is already understood to be their opinion. Thus, when they use these constructions, they are, in effect, flagging whatever it attached to these constructions as their opinions that they realize are weaker, more open to attack, than the other ideas in their writing. It is as if they are saying, "I know what is connected to this is weaker than my other ideas, but I still think it is relevant."
     Many student writers, however, fill their papers with sentences that begin with these constructions. In effect, the students are saying one of two things -- either they think that all their ideas are weak, or they do not understand that the very fact that they wrote it automatically implies that it is their thought, belief, or opinion. There is some research (supported by my own experiences with student writers) that many students feel more comfortable writing this way. Therefore, forcing students to avoid these constructions in their drafts probably hinders the students ability to focus on their ideas. But students can be taught how to edit their writing to eliminate many (or all) of these constructions. Usually it is simply a matter of deleting them, but students can also be taught how to use them effectively.
     Effective use usually involves moving them from the beginning of the sentence. "I believe that women are smarter than men" can be rewritten as "Women are, I believe, smarter than men." Here again the KISS psycholinguistic model suggests the reason for the move. In "I believe that women are smarter than men," readers process "I believe" as the main subject and verb pattern -- the pattern that receives the most attention. (See the discussion of MIMC, above.) The psychological model suggests that in "Women are, I believe, smarter than men," readers will process "Women are" as the main subject and verb -- the pattern that receives the most focus. The "I believe" then becomes what many linguists call a "sentence modifier." KISS, in keeping the list of concepts simple, considers the "I believe" a subordinate clause that functions as an interjection. Either explanation reduces the focus that is placed on first person. The writer can still flag the idea as weaker than others, but can do so in the same way that you will probably find most professional writers doing.

     Appositives, post-positioned adjectives, delayed subjects, and passive voice can be taught immediately after KISS Level 3.1 (The Basics of Clauses). Note, by the way, that passive voice could be taught immediately after (or even in) KISS Level One. But the time that you spend on passive voice will have to be taken away from the more important question of clauses. (Have you ever seen a grammar textbook that even discusses what constructions should be taught in which order?) In the "complete" (grade-level) workbooks, these four constructions are included for the first time in fifth grade, after KISS Level 3.2.

Level 5.4 - Appositives

      Students who read a lot will probably have assimilated a command of appositives, but students who do not may have problems using them. Appositives are an important aspect of a lean, clean style, simply because most appositives can easily been seen as reductions of S/V/PN clauses:

Loren Eiseley wrote All the Strange Hours. He was a fossil hunter.
Loren Eiseley, who was a fossil hunter, wrote All the Strange Hours. Loren Eiseley, a fossil hunter, wrote All the Strange Hours.
The third example (with the appositive) also illustrates the importance of appositives in indicating the credibility of an author in the framing of source material in a research paper. Some college Freshmen, even after an exercise on appositives, do not seem to be able to use them. Instead, they will use the two-sentence version, or I have even seen some students who give the first sentence, then the quotation or paraphrase, and follow that with a sentence such as "Eiseley was a fossil hunter."
     Within the KISS framework, every high school student should be able to master basic appositives, but how soon students should be introduced to them needs to be determined by the art of the teacher. 

Level 5.5 - Post-Positioned Adjectives

     Whereas the appositive is a reduction of the S/V/PN pattern, the post-positioned adjective probably develops as a reduction of the S/V/PA pattern:

The tree fell during the storm. It was old and rotten.
The tree, which was old and rotten, fell during the storm.
The tree, old and rotten, fell during the storm.
The construction surely adds variety to, and even changes the pace and focus of information in, sentences, but it is not as important as are appositives.

Level 5.6 - Delayed Subjects and Sentences

     The subtle stylistic implications of delayed subjects and sentences are probably not important enough for class assignments. I can, however, see someone collecting examples and comparing them and their contexts to see when and how writers tend to use them. I'm writing this soon after reading Edgar Allan Poe's "The Case of M. Valdemar," a story that includes several delayed subjects in the opening paragraphs. For example, "It is now rendered necessary that I give the facts -- as far as I comprehend them myself." In the non-delayed version, this sentence would read "That I give the facts -- as far as I comprehend them myself -- is now rendered necessary." Is Poe using the delayed subjects to distance the narrator from responsibility for what he is about to explain?
     Perhaps, but to really understand the stylistic implications of this construction, we would probably have to collect hundreds of examples from early writing. It seems to have the purpose of emphasizing the complement in the main clause -- "It is true that he did it." But the construction has become so common, that (if it was originally used for emphasis) that emphasis has probably been lost. The stylistic implications of this construction, in other words, are probably of interest only to the amateur or the specialist.

Level 5.7 - Passive Voice and Retained Complements

     Passive voice is not an error, but there are teachers who tell students not to use it, which is, in effect, saying that it is erroneous. The trouble with all such instruction is that it is usually meaningless. "Passive voice" makes sense only to someone who can identify subjects and verbs. Within KISS, therefore, the primary focus is on enabling students to identify passive verbs in the first place. Teachers who want to have students explore the effects of using passives can easily have students find real texts that include passive voice and then discuss why the writer may have used it. Ultimately, students can decide for themselves when it is, and when it is not, an appropriate writing tool. 

Level 5.8 - Noun Absolutes

     When they are used as adverbs, noun absolutes are elegant reductions of subordinate clauses, clauses whose subjects are not included elsewhere in the sentence:

Bob left. The party became lively.
After Bob left, the party became lively.
Bob having left, the party became lively.

Perhaps this is the place to suggest that students should probably not be pushed into using appositives, post-positioned adjectives, or noun absolutes until the students are sufficiently syntactically mature. All three of these constructions can be viewed as reductions of subordinate clauses, and there are both theoretical reasons and research that suggest that students can cognitively master these constructions only after they have mastered subordinate clauses. Simply put, students' brains have to master the subordinate clause before they can master how to reduce these clauses to appositives, post-positioned adjectives, or noun absolutes.
     This is a complicated question -- these constructions can be found in the writing of some very young writers. Usually, however, these writers are also avid readers. Or, in some cases, the students have "mastered" a specific type of appositive or noun absolute as what Roy O'Donnell explained as a "formula" -- a set phrase that the student has (probably repeatedly) heard or read -- "The game over, we went home." 

Avoiding Errors

     By the time they get to KISS Level Five, students will find that there are few errors left to be dealt with. Some students do write fragments that consist of appositives, but they will have learned how to fix these fragments, in most cases, simply because they will not find and S/V/C pattern in the fragment. If they have been introduced to the psycholinguistic model, they will understand how to attach the appositive to the preceding or following sentence.

An Error of Some Teachers

     The one serious error that KISS Level Five addresses is an error made by some teachers. Almost a quarter of a century ago, when I first taught a grammar course for teachers, we came across the sentence

The plane crashed five miles from here, its tail pointed at the sky.

It is a perfectly correct sentence with a noun absolute after the comma. Several of the experienced teachers in the class, however, noted that in their students' papers, they were marking sentences like this as comma-splices. There is nothing worse than teachers telling students that there are grammatical errors where there are none.