Monthly Archives: April 2011

Using Prepositional Phrases-The First Step to Sounding Intelligent

Students usually take grammar not because they want to write without errors but because they want to write in a matter that sounds intelligent. This might seem odd to some since wanting to sound intelligent seems to be more of a style issue than a grammar issue. Style and grammar, however, are not  easily separated.

One of the ways students mistakenly try to make their writing sound more intelligent is by using larger words and trying out a semi-colon here or there. I am not a fan of semi-colons mostly because they are usually erroneously or, even worse, needlessly deployed by writers trying to give their writing an appearance of sophistication. They are often used by students who have seen them used in more educated writings, but do not know what an independent clause is in the first place.

One of the more common misconceptions is that vocabulary marks the sophisticated writer. This misconception is what causes students to pump their writing full of words that sound intelligent but are usually misused or meaningless. Or they start using the dreaded metatextual phrases and clauses such as “in this essay” or “as it has been said” or “I will be discussing.”

Students know they are fluffing up their writing with these phrases, but they often think this is how sophisticated writers sound, For them, good writing sounds good. The idea that good writing is about precision in thinking is something of a new idea and often quite liberating especially when students realize that it can be done through using phrases and clauses more effectively.

In most cases, teaching students about words gives them the idea that good writing is about choosing the right words. That is where, unfortunately, a lot of goofy notions about writing begin. The first problem is that we really do not think in words. We think in phrases and clauses. So writing with the idea that good writing means using words well causes a basic disconnect between how you are trying to writing and how you are thinking, and not much good can come of that.

Prepositional phrases are probably one of the easiest phrase types to use but they also tend to be one of the most useful because they function as adjectives and adverbs. When I show students that they do not include either the subject or verb and are “non-essential” to sentence structure, students often start to dismiss them as not being all that important, but once they see a few examples of writing where it is used effectively, they start to realize how important they are to making their ideas and explanations more precise.

There is, for example, this paragraph which avoids using prepositional phrases:

Descartes had three dalmatians which he named Cogito, Ergo and Sum. He allowed them to run outside. Descartes taught them a few tricks, but they mostly liked to be left alone to think.

The writing here is clear enough and grammatically correct, but most students recognize it as sounding a good deal like Dr. Seusss’ or even their own writing. It is comprised of a series of declarations composed with independent clauses and not much else. This style is quite common among students who have been criticized a good deal for their grammar since it passes under the the red-pen radar and does not include a great number of errors, especially such bug-a-boos as comma-splices or fragments.

But I could change the stylistic effect of the writing by introducing a single grammatical construction, the prepositional phrase, and adding it throughout to provide more precision in the writing:

In his younger days, Descartes had three of the cutest dalmatians which he named Cogito, Ergo and Sum. On most days, he allowed them to run outside in the open fields with the butterflies and daffodils. Descartes taught them a few tricks with sticks and balls, but they mostly liked to be left alone to think about the ineluctible modality of the visible.

The second paragraph is nothing impressive by most standards, but it reads far, far better than the first one, and the only difference is the addition of prepositional phrases at certain locations. This one grammatical structure ends up making a significant difference in moving the writing towards sounding more intelligent, which is one of the primary goals the students want to achieve with their writing.

Getting students to use dependent clauses and relative clauses would move them further along, but one of the early stages of grammar instruction should be getting students comfortable with and capable of using prepositional phrases. Learning how to use clauses can be quite a challenge, especially when students have so many difficulties with finding subjects and verbs in the first place, but learning prepositional phrases is a good deal easier and makes an immediate and tangible difference in writing style.

Making Grammar Memorable

I have been thinking a little too much about the differences between the students who get it and those who do not. I was reminded of this basic distinction when I was reading through another one of Jonah Lehrer’s posts on the nature of expertise and the research he cited by a few folks at various universities.

One of the behaviors that research pointed to as essential to learning well was the ability to tolerate boring and repetitive practice without distractions. Lehrer cited to work of K. Anders Ericsson at the University of Florida and Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania who have both done a great deal of research on memory development.

Ericsson has worked with music performers to find out why some excel while others languish in mediocrity, and Duckworth led research that focused on students in the National Spelling Bee to find out how some students nailed those impossible words while others made it there but received nothing more than a congratulation and a pat on the back.

Ericsson found that the best musicians tended not to be those born to perform but those who spent hours and hours in their rooms practicing by themselves. This reminded me of a story told by Paco de Lucia’s father about how the young Paco was not able to go to school, so he ended up staying in his room hour after hour practicing his guitar and listening to records of flamenco guitarists. For musicians, this ability to practice scales to the point of being able to go through them without thinking is part of internalizing complicated movements into something the brains considers to be a single motion.

Duckworth found essentially the same discipline in the top spellers at the National Spelling Bee. They were were not the ones who asked other people to quiz them, and, contrary to what many English teachers would like to believe, they were not the ones who read a great deal. They were the ones who were willing to put up with the drudgery of repetitive practice. They tended to practice even after they had already spelled the word correctly once or twice, and made sure they had, essentially, nailed it.

For anyone who has been following memory research, these findings are nothing new. They are quite consistent with what has been showing up in studies for decades. Research on chess players showed that the ones who were willing to practice hour after hour developed better memories for various strategies and the conditions under which they can be used. The research on chess players showed that practice and not intelligence was the key to being able to learn and employ the various strategies during matches.

In spite of all the mounting research on the utility of repetitive practice, I have not found many books or teachers who put this approach into practice. It seems grammar is already such a boring topic that making parts of it repetitive would push it over the edge and make teaching it a violation of the Geneva Convention.

The issue is determining which parts of grammar instruction should be drilled. According to Ericsson’s and Duckworth’s studies, only those materials that can be reduced to small segments of randomly accessed memory should be learned through repetitive drill. Doing this would allow students to focus on the structural elements without sweating over whether a certain word were a preposition or an article.