Monthly Archives: June 2010

Histories–Words Only, No Phrases or Clauses Allowed

The NY Times has an interesting article on the origins of the non-word “ghoti,” which some people says follows the rules of English spelling to produce what should be spoken as “fish.” They treat the non-word in much the way other experts in grammar do and trace its usage down through some fairly respectable sources. No too surprising, they find that the history of its usage is not so clear.

Its first use was apparently by a parent in 1855 who wrote the following in a letter: “My son William has hit upon a new method of spelling ‘Fish.’ ”

What strikes me about these discussions on the histories of words is that they focus on words, not phrases or clauses. They make points that are interesting to those who have too much training in language, but the offer little to nothing for people learning to write better.

The sentence from the letter, for example, uses the verbal phrase “hit upon” which is not all that common any longer. We might be able to trace its usage back a few centuries so some obscure source, but I think it would be more useful to know how verbs can be phrases and can include words such as “upon.” It would be interesting to know when these words we now recognize as prepositions started to be used as parts of verbs.

There is also the use of “My son William” to refer to someone who could be be called “my son” or “William” but is instead described with a phrase that leaves no doubt about not only who it is but also his relation to the speaker. I am wondering when this type of noun phrase became common since it is still used quite a bit and seems to be associated with claims that children are extensions of their parents.

When I read these word histories that are so common in discussions of English, I find them interesting but useless for my own writing or for teaching my students how to write. They are simply not concerned with the issue that take up so much space in such discussions and really should not be.

A more useful to discussing grammar would not be solely focused on the usages and histories of words, but would also discuss phrases and clauses.

When we produce ideas, we usually do so phrase by phrase and clause by clause, not word by word. The problem is that the histories of phrase and clause structures are not so easy to trace as histories of words. Words are also easy to search for in Google and other search engines.

That ease of researching the appearance and use of words should not turn nearly all discussions of grammar away from phrases and clauses. When I tell my own students that prepositional phrases act as either adjectives and adverbs or when they first see that a clause can be used as an object of a transitive verb, they wonder how something so obvious and so simple could have passed them by. The use of these structures are not unusual or novel in the way the history of “ghoti” might be but they are parts of how we think and how we need to write if we are to be effective communicators.

More frequent discussion of phrases and clauses would make grammatical discussions more useful to most people’s writing and reading because it deals with the units of human thought rather than the curiosities of a few specialists.

Grammar Cops Have a Point, at Times

The NY Times covers a situation where the actor John Cusack runs into a scolding from some self appointed grammar cops for what he posted through Twitter. Apparently Cusack misspells a number of words, including the word “breakfast” as “breakfasy” and the word “hypocrite” as “hippocrit.” The first misspelling seems to be nothing more than an easily forgiven typo, but the second one appears to be more of an ignorance of the spelling of this unusual word. Considering the unusual spelling conventions behind this word, I consider it equally forgivable.

What the grammar cops miss is that Cusack is writing in an informal setting and not paying much attention to the way he spells or types. This lack of sensitivity to the context of the writing is a common shortcoming of those overly concerned with correctness in writing. In their minds, nearly all situations seem to call for Standard Written English.

But their lack of sense for the context does not make Cusack and others correct by default. Writing reveals something more about us that we are often unaware of. As long as the language exists in a written format, it is going to carry signs of the education level of the writer that are not present in the speech. Cusack has probably called countless people hypocrites, but never created much laughter when speaking the word.  Most well mannered people would probably let Cusack’s error go without a comment, but they would silently take note of it and assess his intelligence.

What Cusack is missing is that his spelling and typing are part of his unintentional message even when he considers himself to be in an informal setting. Spelling and typing mistakes stand out in a text culture, especially when they appear to be either unintentional or committed out of ignorance. Colloquial language is marked by familiarity in tone and diction, but that familiarity is not extended to orthography when the audience includes perfect strangers.

Words Do Matter, But Not That Much

The most important elements of grammar have less to do with words than most people seem to think. Making correct word usage less important would allow grammar instruction to start working with the structure of our thinking and the development of our writing style.

The correct usage of words makes up a great deal of grammar instruction, but a word alone means next to nothing without the words immediately surrounding it. Most people think and speak in phrases and clauses, not words. Music works in much the same way in that a note suggests very little in nearly all cases, but a few played together create a tune and our minds begin to pay attention and hum the tune that musical phrase suggested.

When students become more adept at utilizing phrases and clauses, much of writing becomes significantly easier. The odd thing is that as grammar instruction progresses beyond identifying the basic parts of speech students are often encouraged to focus more and more on specialized issues with words rather than moving on to issues with phrases and clauses. They are essentially encouraged to become lexicographers rather than writing stylists.

This turns the focus away from the production of ideas and the communication of information and towards the generation of words. Many students who want to write well often get the mistaken idea that the use of unfamiliar vocabulary is the surest way to do so.

Many grammar books and blogs encourage this approach by focusing on the usage of words rather than the effects of style. They often explain the complex histories of words and their uses with an enviable precision. The Gramarphobia blog, for example, does an excellent job of responding to questions and explaining particular issues that students and professionals run into quite frequently. The blog is undeniably one of my favorites because it is well written and shows a sense humor about these nuances between words and their quirky histories. But I also wonder how useful it is for students who want to write well rather than use certain words correctly.

Even when it is done incredibly well and with a playful and disarming style, such an approach to grammar can be quite intimidating, even for someone with a degree or two in English. For someone with limited knowledge of grammar and no real interest in the minutiae of the English language, grammar instruction becomes a long procession of rules for when to use “it’s” rather than “its” or when to use “lie” rather than “lay.”

These distinctions in word usage are important to grammar instruction but only if they come up frequently enough in most people’s writing. Too often they do not. The writing problems that come up more often for students and professionals deal with issues of phrases and clauses and are more closely connected to issues of style. These issues are always rooted in grammar, but to become better writers, students need to understand how their thoughts are constructed and can be reconstructed with phrases and clauses, and to develop that knowledge means developing an understanding of how grammar and style work together.

Style and Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases might be the most misunderstood but essential grammatical construction. I know the grammar books cover other types of phrases, but prepositional phrases are more important for students to recognize and understand.

Prepositional phrases create problems when students are trying to find the subject of a sentence because they end with nouns. Most college students would misidentify the subject in this sentence, for example:

One of my cousins threw a great party on Friday.

I give this sentence to my students at all levels of English composition, and the majority say “cousins” is the subject while a good number  say “party” is the subject. One or two know the answer.

The ones who say “party” fall back on the definition of a subject they learned in high school. They will tell me with utter confidence that the sentence is about a party, and a subject of a sentence is what it is about. The sentence is about a party, so that is the subject.

I consider these students to have been well trained in the school of best guesses when it comes to the logical parts of grammar. Unfortunately, they were probably told at one point or another that commas go wherever there is a pause and know that the rules of grammar are really not rules at all, but suggestions.

Such a thought process is not entirely wrong. Most people who know a thing or two about grammar know that many of the “rules” have numerous exceptions. And teachers who have had a linguistics course or two know how arbitrary these “rules” can be and might even be able to name some grammarian from the 18th or 19th century who tried to apply the rules of Latin grammar to come up with rules for English grammar.

The problem is that even if some of the rules are really no more than mannerisms taken to the extreme, they can be quite logical and useful when someone is trying to communicate clearly. Also many of the notions students hold dear about grammar are really notions they should be holding about style.

The students who claim the subject is “cousins” have a mechanical understanding of grammar that tells them the subject is the one who performs the action. These students tend to be closer to the grammatical truth of the matter, but further from a stylistic understanding. When I show the class that “cousins” is part of a prepositional phrase, they tend to catch on pretty quickly to the grammatical logic of the sentence and of prepositional phrases.

Most students catch on to the idea that prepositional phrases are not essential to an independent clause with just a little instruction and practice. Once I have them cross a few prepositional phrases out of a few sentences, they see that the sentence can stand on its own without the clutter.

Prepositional phrases bring up both a grammar issue and a style issue. In grammar, students need to know that grammatical forms can have grammatical functions that are quite different. I am not writing about homonyms or synonyms or how words can have multiple meanings in different contexts. Instead this is about the difference between a word’s or phrases’ form and function. These are a matter of what a word or phrase is as opposed to what a word or phrase does. A verb in an infinitive form, for example, can never function as the main verb of a sentence, but it can function as the subject of the sentence. Here is an example:

To give anything less than your best is to waste the gift. –Steve Prefontaine.

To give is in the infinitive form, but it functions as the subject of the sentence. Students usually see grammar as a matter of identifying parts of speech, but that is only the form aspect of grammar. Knowing who is performing the action or being described through the verb is necessary to knowing the subject of the sentence, and subjects are not parts of speech. They are functions that employ forms to do their work.

An important concept for students is that a phrase can be in the form of a prepositional phrase, but it can function as an adjective or adverb. Prepositional phrases never function as prepositional phrases. That is just their form. But adjectives and adverbs can be both forms and functions.  I know there is a high school teacher somewhere who is covering this ground in class and knows this stuff far better than I do, but I have yet to meet a student who understands this distinction.

No matter. Prepositional phrases are of limited use to students when they use them just to make finding the subject of the sentence a little easier, but that use is necessary. Prepositional phrase become meaningful when students see how they can develop their sentences and refine their ideas just by spinning out useful prepositional phrases and developing their sentences with them.

Developing Memory as You Develop Grammatical Skills

Grammar often seems to be a string of petty rules that are and should be easily forgotten.

Much of memory works by either repetition or structure. We tend to forget just about everything else we encounter in a day, and for good reason, but we tend to hold onto information or strategies that we repeat or that fit with the frameworks we have already developed.

So learning new methods of teaching calculus is easy for someone who already knows how to teach calculus because the new strategies can be related to the strategies that have already been developed through years of teaching. And learning new information about Emperor Justinian easy for someone who already knows quite a bit about the Byzantine Empire. But in both cases, these strategies and this information are difficult to hold onto if the person has not already developed the cognitive apparatus for storing and sorting the new material.

The challenge with teaching grammar is finding a way to make the material stick to memory in a meaningful way. A math teacher is going to have a pretty easy time holding onto any strategies for teaching calculus, even if those strategies are different from the strategies she is currently using. That history teacher would also have little trouble holding onto any information that might just be coming out regarding an archaeological study recently completed on Justinian’s tomb. But a student of English grammar has no pre-existing way to file all these new strategies and information he or she is receiving in a grammar class.

This leaves us with a need to repeat material a good deal, but it also means we need to develop connections to cognitive strategies the students already have but also are developing.

A Comma “Rule” that Must Die

I suspect that many students do not learn much about English grammar because their English teachers do not know much about English grammar. Grammar has too many exceptions to too many rules which make it a little too likely that the teachers will be caught in an embarrassing moment where they do not know the answer to a seemingly simple question. The solution becomes ignoring the topic all together or treating it in a cursory manner while making up ridiculous “rules.”

The “rule” that probably does the most damage is the “put-a-comma-whenever-you-hear-a-pause” rule. I hate this rule because it is not only wrong, but it teaches students that grammar is intuitive rather than logical. A bigger problem is that this rule sticks. Students forget just about everything else they hear about grammar, but they remember this “rule.” It’s simple, and it seems to make sense.

The problem is that it makes no sense if you know anything about grammar.  It makes the logic of grammar into an arbitrary set of “rules” that can be applied in any way the writer seems to think makes sense. One writer might pause here while another might pause there, and no attention is given to the structure of the language. In the backs of their minds, I suspect that students know this “rule” is meaningless, but pushing their teachers on the subject would make for a longer day and a more complicated lesson.

Students end up internalizing this meaningless “rule” and examine their sentences for these pauses that might or might not be there.  The result is a fairly random approach to using commas and a good deal of frustration about writing.

What seems to be happening is that students are learning to confuse an approach they should be taking to style with an approach they are taking to grammar. Style should avoid giving absolute rules and should rely on the intuition of the writer. Grammar should not. It needs to be logical, and students need to recognize that logic in the their own writing and the writing of others.

A Way to Learn Grammar

Like most teachers, I have heard again and again that teaching grammar makes no significant difference in a student’s ability to write grammatically. That’s just never set well with me.

One of the primary issues seems to be that grammar is taught as content to be learned rather than a skill to be internalized. When a student learns that a noun is a person place or thing, he quickly forgets this because it is information that is not reinforced. Knowing the parts of speech is simply not a useful knowledge because it is not put to work any more than  much of the content a student might learn during a history lesson.

Grammar can be learned better if the structures of it are practiced in much the same way other skills are practiced, such as a musical instrument. A boring as it may sound completing exercises on grammatical principles would ensure that students internalize the core idea.

To make grammar more meaningful and more memorable, it needs to be put to use in developing a writing style. When students can see how it is used by other writers and how it can be used by them to create certain effects in writing, they are more likely to hold onto what they have learned and put it to use in their own writing.