Last Revised: 5/26/05
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Alternative Explanations
Morning, or Spring
Maxfield Parrish

      Often, within the KISS approach, more than one explanation is acceptable. Rather than having one explanation forced on them, students should be allowed to choose the explanation that makes most sense to them. This page is devoted to some of the cases which show up frequently, but the primary point is the principle -- there is often more than one "right" answer. *

Prepositional Phrases: Adjective or Adverb?

     Different people often see prepositional phrases as modifying different words in a sentence. For example, in "The Ant and the Grasshopper," Aesop writes:

"I am helping to lay up food {for the winter,"}

Some people will see "{for winter}" as an adjective modifying "food"; others will want to consider it as an adverb (of purpose) explaining "lay up." Because both explanations are within the rules of KISS grammar, both should be considered correct.

"Than" -- Preposition or Subordinate Conjunction?

     As I frequently tell students, little words cause the most problems. My favorite dictionary (Webster's New Collegiate, 1961) claims that "than" is a conjunction, not a preposition. It seems, however, both more logical and easier to consider it as both, depending on the context.
     Because "than" is often used with ellipsis, it is sometimes necessary to consider it as a subordinate conjunction. My favorite example of this is a sentence written by a young lady:

No one can train a horse better than me.

Expanded, this sentence means 

No one can train a horse better than *they can train* me.

That is not what the woman meant, but a number of young men may have, as a result of the sentence, had thoughts in that direction. When we view "than" as a conjunction, we need to consider the full S/V pattern that follows it.
     But should we always consider "than" as a conjunction? If I write:

Her explanation is better than mine.

do I necessarily mean:

Her explanation is better than mine *is good.*

What if mine is bad? What if both hers and mine are bad, but hers is simply a better bad than mine? To me, there are cases in which the explanation using the preposition simply makes more sense.
     It is, of course, also easier, especially because the KISS approach begins with prepositional phrases. At that level of study, I would never consider as incorrect an answer that marked "than" as a preposition. On the other hand, at that level, I would never consider a "than" that was not marked as a preposition as an incorrect answer either. In other words, at the level of prepositional phrases, I would simply ignore the problem of "than." Once students are learning about clauses, we would confront the problem, solving it, as always in the KISS approach, by appeals to meaning.
     The following example from Aesop's fables clearly suggests that, despite the dictionary, "than" can be considered a preposition:

"There is always someone worse off than yourself." (Aesop's "The Hares and the Frogs")
["Yourself" cannot be viewed here as the subject of an ellipsed clause -- "yourself *is bad off.* Certainly it makes more sense to see "than yourself" as a prepositional phrase.]

Verbal Tags

     Verbal tags are words which look like prepositions, but which do not function as such. Consider:

She ran up the hill; he ran up the flag.
{"Up the hill"} indicates where she ran, but he probably ran the flag up the flagpole.  Sometimes, as in "Come on," it is almost impossible to imagine a word which would make the verbal tag into a preposition. Often the verbal tag can simply be left out without much loss of meaning: "Come on" = "Come." A general rule of KISS grammar is that:
If a verb plus verbal tag can be replaced with one 
      word ("ran up" = "raised"), (More examples.)
or if the verbal tag can be left out without major 
      loss of meaning ("Come on" = "Come"),
then the tag is simply considered either as an adverb 
      or as part of the verb phrase.
This rule enables alternative explanations for several verbs, the most frequently used of which is "look at" (= "watch"). Thus

They were looking at the doggies in the window.

can be analyzed either as "were looking {at the doggies}" or as an S / V / DO pattern: "They / were looking at / the doggies."

Examples of other verbs that can replace verbal tags:

cry out = scream
go on = continue
look like = resemble
look out for = seek, guard, avoid, watch
put up with = endure
think of = remember
think up = invent
went in = entered
went up = approached
Remember that this list is not comprehensive. Just use your head and think about the meaning of what is being analyzed.

Direct Object? Or Main Clause?

     In a difficult, but wonderful essay called "Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts," William G. Perry distinguishes "cow" (raw facts) and "bull" (the contexts that make facts meaningful). In essence, Perry's bullster understands that facts have meaning only in terms of what Perry refers to as "frames of reference." Put more simply perhaps, Perry argues that facts have different meanings depending on the perspective from which one approaches them. Consider, for example, the following sentence from Ouida's A Dog of Flanders:

And a little child with curling fair hair, sobbing bitterly as she clung to her father's arm, cried aloud, "Oh, Nello, come! We have all ready for thee. The Christ-child's hands are full of gifts, and the old piper will play for us; and the mother says thou shalt stay by the earth and burn nuts with us all the Noël week long yes, even to the Feast of the Kings! And Patrasche will be so happy! Oh, Nello, wake and come!"
One of the questions that I have never seen a grammar textbook address is What is the direct object of "cried"? Obviously, from one perspective, it is the entire quotation. I certainly would not tell anyone who argued that perspective that they are wrong, and, within KISS, we can even easily analyze it:
... child ... cried aloud, "[DO Oh, Nello, come!][DO We have all ready for thee.][DO The Christ-child's hands are full of gifts,] and [DO the old piper will play for us;] and [DO the mother says [DO thou shalt stay by the earth and burn nuts with us all the Noël week long yes, even to the Feast of the Kings!]][DO And Patrasche will be so happy!][DO Oh, Nello, wake and come!]" /
But in the frame of reference of the KISS psycholinguistic model, from the perspective of how readers actually process such sentences, we probably do not process all the sentences within such quotations as subordinate clauses that function as direct objects. We probably process most of them as main clauses. Thus KISS uses an alternate explanation that reflects this perspective:
... child ... cried aloud, "[DO Oh, Nello, come!]/ We have all ready for thee. /The Christ-child's hands are full of gifts, / and  the old piper will play for us; / and the mother says [DO thou shalt stay by the earth and burn nuts with us all the Noël week long yes, even to the Feast of the Kings!]/ And Patrasche will be so happy! /Oh, Nello, wake and come!" /
Again, in general, either explanation is acceptable. The only time a choice is important is in stylistic statistical studies, when, for example, one is counting and comparing the number of subordinate clauses various writers use per main clause.

     Although it may occasionally be fun to explore the different implications of alternative explanations, in general, teachers should accept both -- and move on. One of the primary reasons for the failure of current instruction in grammar in our classrooms is that it gets too focussed on details -- and students never get to see the big picture.
     Finally, please remember that KISS is one of many grammars of English. If you study some of the other grammars, you will find numerous other ways of explaining various constructions. Both the research and my experience, however, suggest that the primary problem in the teaching of grammar is the confusing terminology. KISS has been intentionally developed for teaching students in K-12, and it uses as few grammatical terms as possible. The glossary, for example, explains several traditional terms that KISS eliminates. If you feel that those terms are helpful, by all means, use them. Questions are always welcome on the KISS List, and if you would like to see still more alternatives, you can post a question to the list of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar ( Good luck.

* Occasionally, students will insist on an explanation that does not seem to make sense. Depending on the circumstances, I do one of two things. If I feel that the discussion would only confuse or waste the time of the rest of the class, I invite the student to discuss his or her explanation with me outside of class. The other response is to give the student time to make his or her explanation to the class as a whole. I then ask for two votes. First, the students vote (by show of hand) on whether or not they understand the explanation. If the majority vote "no," then the student usually sees for him or herself that the explanation is not very explanatory. If they vote "yes," then I ask how many students agree with the explanation. This sometimes results in a "valid," but clearly minority alternative explanation.