Monthly Archives: March 2011

Writing and Grammatical Fluency

I struggled a great deal with writing in my early college years and for some time even into graduate school. I would never have written a blog, for example, as a freshman in college because I simply could not write well. I would have loved the idea of having my writing be public, but I know I would have sat and stared at the screen.

I can vividly recall sitting in the office of New University at UCI trying to write up a quick story on some event that happened the day before, but I struggled for an hour to put together about a dozen sentences on a demonstration I had been a part of. It was not a matter of not knowing what had transpired but of not having the phrases and clauses to put the piece together.

Writing well was not so much a matter of having the words well thought out and sounding somewhat intelligent, but was more a matter of just feeling comfortable with the words, phrases and clauses that I needed to compose. The use of grammatical structures was simply something I was not able to undertake with any confidence.

Watching someone write fluently was much like watching someone speak Finnish or Chinese. It just did not make sense to me and seemed so foreign at so many levels.

Now I find it relatively easy to write. I cannot say I write well since I have reread enough of my work to know it is far too often filled with non-sensical phrases and clauses, but writing today is nothing like writing at UCI so many years ago. So what happened over the course of a few years?

I do not know for certain, but I know it was not a matter of learning some concept or following someone else’s directions. I did undertake a good deal of writing while in graduate school in the 1990’s, but I also started writing at message boards a good deal during the 2000s. My penchant for combativeness and argumentation had me posting frequently and at length.

My sense is that I became familiar with using not just certain words but with using certain phrase and clause structures in my writing. Fluency in speech seems to be some thing that is easy enough to recognize, but fluency is writing seems to be something few people discuss. My sense is that it is developed in much the same way that verbal fluency is developed in second language students. Basically, practice breeds internalization of certain grammatical structures.

Teaching grammar cannot help a student develop a written fluency all that much since fluency comes from extensive practice and not a few exercises. In fact, instruction might even increase levels of anxiety over writing since the student can become too aware of the potential for making what others might see as an error.


Thinking in Linking Verbs–Actions Speak Louder When It Comes to Verbs, and That Is Not Necessarily a Good Thing

One of the misconceptions I run into each semester deals with the idea that verbs are actions. The idea that verbs are actions is, of course, partially true, but it is commonly thought of as being entirely true. The lowly linking verb gets short coverage or is left out of the discussion of verbs when textbooks or teachers are covering them.

Linking verbs are mentioned in most textbooks when verbs are covered, but they get substantially less attention than action verbs and next to no coverage in the exercises. The end result is that students develop no real concept of what linking verbs are and how they work.

The sad, sad part of this situation is that linking verbs are probably used more often than action verbs even though there are only a handful of linking verbs compared to the legions of action verbs. There are some eight to 15 linking verbs depending upon whose count you are using, but this handful of verbs includes “to be,”  “to feel,” “to get” and a few others that are so common that they would be difficult to avoid when writing a paragraph, let alone speaking with another person for more than a minute or three.

Action verbs are sexier and tend to take over a sentence whenever and wherever they are used. That is why everyone remembers the Verb superhero from School House Rock. He gets things done and, of course, looks like this:

Verbs Shirt

Linking verbs are not so sexy, and if they had a superhero, he would look like this:

Linking verbs do nothing but set up fairly simple relationships between a subject and its complement. My Latin professor, a woman who had also earned a degree in mathematics, taught us that the logic behind most usages of linking verbs was A = B, which is undeniably some of the simplest math around. This simplicity is, however, often used against linking verbs as a way of dismissing them for their actionable brethren who have this unearned reputation for being more specific and accurate.
If students follow the common advice to use action verbs wherever possible, they do not necessarily improve their writing. Writing “I am late for the party” would be revised to read “I arrived late for the party.” Yes, the second sentence seems more specific, but it might or might not work better than the first sentence in any given context.
What the linking verb does is to slow down the thinking and make the verb presence in the sentence less important. In the first sentence the fact that the speaker was “late” is the primary focus of the sentence, while in the second sentence the verb “arrived” takes center stage. That might or might not be an improvement in the writing.

The issue is not a matter of whether one verb type is better than another. Most people know that they both work fine grammatically. What has happened, however, is that a stylistic preference for action verbs has developed into a pedagogical blind spot that is causing a good deal of confusion for our students.

What success I have had with teaching verbs has only come by teaching that there are two types of verbs in this world, action and linking. This requires two distinct definitions of verbs and two distinct discussions of how each type works. Action verbs are, of course, what the subject does, but linking verbs are the connection between the subject and a complement. Those definitions are nothing new.

The problem with teaching teaching linking verbs is that when you add this new type of verb, you also need to add a new definition of subject to your teaching. You cannot say that the subject of a linking verb performs the action of the verb since there is no action in the first place.

So teaching verbs as both linking verbs and action verbs means teaching subjects as who or what performs the action but also who or what is described through the verb. These definitions of subjects and verbs are built upon each other and require that we clarify how they work rather than focusing on the verb form we prefer while leaving the other verb to be misunderstood as often as it is used.


Prescriptivism’s Limited but Unavoidable Utility

[This post is a cut and paste job of some things I wrote at another blog, Motivated Grammar. The people over there know language far better than I do and tolerated my presence in the discussion after another good entry by Gabe. You can bounce on over to his blog or waste another few minutes of your life reading the slightly edited version I have put together below.]

I get the sense that many people who study language or work at universities have rarely worked with students who struggle with writing. I certainly would not side with anyone who thinks there is a single way to write correctly or with people who cling to grammatical “rules” at the expense of thoughtful writing, but I see enormous value in teaching students about the grammatical structures they produce and the stylistic effects they have, even if what I teach is often what some might call prescriptive.

I do understand the core debate between what linguists might call descriptivism and prescriptivism. Really, there is no debate. In fact, it is much like the “debate” between creationism and evolution. If you do not understand how theology and science work, you are prone to “believe” there is actually a legitimate debate between the two fields and will pick a side. In this case, it is not a matter of agreeing with or believing with the basic descriptivist position, but of understanding it. And, even though I am no linguist, I do understand it and know it is scientifically sound.

But I also walk into my classrooms every day and need to teach students how to write in a way that sounds professional and allows them to come across as educated. The vast majority of my students have elements of regionally or ethnically based dialects that simply do not match what is most commonly used in Standard Written English, and they have a hard time learning the grammatical structures they need to get by in an educated and professional environment.

This, for example, is the slightly altered text of an e-mail I recently received from one of my students. (The name and a few other items are changed, but the punctuation, capitalization and other grammatical elements are as they were originally written):

Hey its douggie schwartz from mon. Wed. Class at 10.45. I need help seting up the article revew please contact me back at 555 555 5555. Or email me back with example please… thank you

Some might think this is an unusually sloppy e-mail, but the student’s approach to spelling, punctuation and capitalization is common, especially among my younger students who have been text-messaging for many years, but have yet to read a complete book or write a single essay. Besides the obvious problems with punctuation, the message demonstrates that the student does not grasp independent and dependent clauses and has no concept of how to flesh out his ideas with prepositional phrases. Teaching him about grammar is not simply a matter of showing him where the commas go, but also of going through the nature of the English language in a way that allows him to see it as logical and predictable.

When I go about teaching them grammar, I cannot provide students with an “accurate” picture of English. They do not want that. They want to understand how educated people write so clearly and fluidly. They do not want to know, for example, how different verb tenses in Black English can be created by dropping out helping verbs or how double negatives add emphasis.

Instead, they want to know how to use helping verbs in Standard Written English and how they change the functioning of the main verb. They want to know that double negatives are not used in most professional writing. They want to know how to spell and use capitalization according to the conventions that have been accepted as standard for the last dozen decades or so by most educated people. They really want to know where the commas go and hate it when I tell them there is more to it that “put a comma wherever there is a pause.”

In short, they want to know many of the “rules” that prescriptivist folks up with which come. These “rules” are arbitrary and often just plain silly. There is no way around this. But they often have fairly good rationalizations, especially in the context of the other “rules” of Standard Written English. The problem is that many of these rationalizations often make sense only when they are not examined closely. And that is what the linguists do.

Even if many of the “rules” do not hold up to close scrutiny or historical analysis, they are usually good to know since other educated people often follow these conventions and tend to snicker where others do not follow them, let alone understand them. (If you do not think so, consider your reaction to the e-mail I received. He is actually a perfectly intelligent person, but his writing makes it clear that he is not well-educated. Most people ignore his basic intelligence and only see his lack of education even if they do not say anything about it to him. And he knows this. He knows it very well, and that is why he is in my class.)

As odd as it may sound, much of the egalitarianism I read in the writings of linguistics and composition professors often strikes me as a product of the privileged positions they hold within the middle-class, especially the white middle-class. Simply put–they never receive the e-mails I receive and they never speak with the students I teach every day.

So I would caution against painting prescriptivism as inherently elitist and wrong. Those characteristics are undeniably part of it, but there is more to it than that. The personal and professional ambitions of people from different cultures and classes are often more complicated and ambiguous than research into their language patterns might reveal. There are may who use double-negatives in their speech but would like to leave that habit behind when they start writing.

You cannot teach comma placement or many other topics in a way that students can actually learn to use them without relying heavily on those very pedants and their rationalizations in the textbooks. Some rationalizations are silly, such as the one that makes splitting infinitives wrong, but many are quite useful and make sense to students who are trying to make sense out of Standard Written English.

Many of the grammar books I have seen over the years teach six distinct occasions for using commas, but anyone who has glanced at just about any professional writing knows these “rules” are far, far from being set in anything but sand. I teach these “rules” anyway to help students move away from the idea that commas go just about anywhere and base my teaching of the comma “rules” on the other principles of grammar that I have already covered concerning different phrase structures and independent and dependent clauses. Students learn to place commas in logical spots and provide some kind of rationalization based on the relations among the words, phrases and clauses. And I am well aware that these rationalizations would not hold up if they were investigated carefully.

Most students I work with see sentences as collections of words and not as being made up of various types of phrases and clauses. Learning about dependent clauses, for example, is advanced stuff and quite exciting for them. It marks a point where they begin to construct complex sentences, and they can see and hear their own writing gain a level of sophistication. Learning that a comma comes after a dependent clause when it comes before an independent clause but not before a dependent clause when it comes after an independent clause is, for them, quite cool.

They learn that these two sentences are essentially the same:

  1. When the game is over, we will go out for ice-cream.
  2. We will go out for ice-cream when the game is over.

The only difference is the placement of the dependent clause. One requires a comma, but the other one does not. In this case, teaching this comma rule that is often not followed by many good writers is actually an excellent way to have students start writing complex sentences and see how many stylistic choices they have.

These “rules” are arbitrary and cannot be traced back more than a few decades or so. In fact, most good writers do no follow the same conventions when using commas. But teaching these “rules” as they are set out in the textbooks reinforces the lessons on phrases and clauses that students are trying to learn.

These prescriptivist rules act as something akin to training wheels while the students are getting the core structures of the English language down. Gabe could tear them apart and show how silly they are and I would agree with him, but I would still walk into class the next day and teach them with the idea of helping students write a little more like you or I do.


National Grammar Day?

Apparently yesterday was National Grammar Day, but nobody told me.

Thank you.


Being Open-Minded to University Bias

Jonah Lehrer has another excellent piece at Wired on some recent work by psychologists at the University of Michigan, University of Toronto and Harvard University on the inabilities of some students to focus and a surprising correlation this inability has with creativity and achievement.

The University of Michigan study is more of a survey and finds that U of M students who have been labeled with ADHD are more likely to have won awards at science fairs or juried art shows. That is pretty cool to read, especially since so many of my own students have been labeled with ADHD.

Then there is another study by the University of Toronto and Harvard University which Lehrer cites, and it is even more good news for the easily distracted. They find that students who struggle to ignore irrelevant distractions, such as air conditioners and other noises, are seven times more likely to be rated as “creative achievers.”

Lehrer writes:

Here’s where the data get interesting: Those undergrads who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.)

As someone who teaches students who would never leave their homes without their cell-phones and iPods and laptops, this sounds like great news. My highly distracted students seem to be award winners with enormous creative potential. I cannot wait to tell them. Hopefully they will show up to class on Monday.

As usual, my students are not in these studies nor are they anywhere near the vast majority of studies that come out of universities. When these universities run studies on their students, they are working with students who have adapted very well to the demands of their surrounding even when they are easily distracted. In fact, the students who are easily distracted might even have higher I.Q.s than the average university students they are being compared to.

Lehrer is quite clear about the shortcomings of this research and its selection process, and he points this out in parentheses at the bottom of the article:

(It’s also worth pointing out that these studies all involve college students, which doesn’t tell us anything about those kids with ADHD who fail to graduate from high school. Distraction might be a cognitive luxury that not everyone can afford.)

And that is the problem. But it is a far bigger problem than I think Lehrer is aware of.

Lehrer is more attuned to the issue of bias in the studies than most, but even he gives little more than a parenthetical remark on this significant problem with so much research coming out of universities. Far, far too often universities study their own students and spend little effort considering how different these students are from the average students coming out of high school and struggling through college.

The kids with ADHD who fail to be graduated are not the exception to be dismissed and ignored but very well might be the majority. To take them out of the study is wrong, very wrong. In fact, the study is not just dealing with the kids who were graduated from high school but those who passed highly selective entrance requirements to get into these competitive universities. For U of M and Harvard to tell us how creative distracted students are is like Cindy Crawford telling us how lovely moles are, especially when they are on your face.

In one sense, this is no big deal. I could just ignore these studies and show up on Monday no worse for wear. But that is not how it works.

These studies are frequently covered in the news or are disseminated though graduate schools and other places where educators are educated. They are written about at numerous blogs and make their ways into e-books that are read on iPads and Kindles by the well-washed masses on their way to UCs and Ivy League schools. In short, these studies and their flawed conclusions become the common knowledge that people with power and influence know, but they end up having little to do with the common college student who never won an art show or a science fair and is instead struggling to get off academic probation and wondering if he should have stayed at the pizza delivery job.

This problem with selection bias in these university studies reminds me of the early dyslexia research that showed how intelligent people with dyslexia really are. There were some initial studies showing that people with dyslexia had higher I.Q.s than average folks. This research was cut down when more comprehensive research showed I.Q. really was not a factor either way, but this misconception about the high intelligence of dyslexics has remained and has been promoted by books such as The Gift of Dyslexia. This book and its conclusions are still being promoted by a select group of people who have been quite successful with their dyslexia.

In both cases, the majority of students are being left to look at themselves as being stupid for not being able to keep up, let alone win the art contests and science fairs. These students do not just lack the abilities to make it at the University of Michigan or Harvard University, but carry with them a good deal of emotional baggage from years of struggling and failing.

Maybe, just maybe, some of those highly creative graduates of these highly competitive universities could start paying attention to people outside of their highly successful circles.