Category Archives: Grammar

Pity for the Poor Conjunctive Adverb “However”

Most folks know quite well that just about every word has more than one meaning. A dictionary is not necessary to figure this out. A moment of reflection on just about any word demonstrates this quickly enough.

The shifts in meaning in many of the words we use are often accompanied by shifts in form, but rarely does this cause any confusion. Most native English speakers seem to pick up on the differences with little trouble and register the new meaning and new form without pausing to consider how illogical this is.

The word “book,” for example, usually calls to mind the noun with the cover, pages and all that printing in between, but it could easily be used as a verb when you schedule a flight to Hawai’i or Singapore or Roswell, New Mexico. I am sure just about anyone could come up with a few dozen words with multiple meanings and multiple forms in a little less than a minute or two.

One word that gets caught up in this multiple meaning and multiple form melee is the word “however.” This seems a bit odd at first since the two different forms that exist have similar meanings but are used differently. In most instances, “however” is used as a conjunctive adverb, which is basically a fancy grammatical term used to confuse students and please grammarians. But the important thing to notice is that “however” is an adverb, not a conjunction like “and,” “but” and “or.” As an adverb, it is not essential to the clause it modifies and could be either moved around the sentence or eliminated without doing much harm to the sentence. So these sentences would be perfectly acceptable:

Jim, however, was late for the party.
Jim was late for the party, however.
Jim was late for the party.

The “however” in the first sentence is joining the meaning of the sentence with a previous sentence; it is not, however, joining it grammatically to the previous sentence. Joining the sentences grammatically would require a conjunction in the form of a either a coordinating conjunction or a subordinating conjunction. Both of these sentences use such conjunctions and would also be acceptable:

Terry wanted to be early for the party, but Jim was late.
Terry showed up early for the party even though Jim was late.

In these sentences, two different types of conjunctions are joining the clause “Jim was late” to the clause right before it. The first conjunction “but” is a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses. Notice that each half of the sentence could stand alone, but the coordinating conjunction glues them together. The second conjunction “even though” is a subordinating conjunction that makes the second clause into a dependent clause and then joins it to the independent clause in front of it.

One of the more common errors I see in the writing of educated people is the use of the adverb “however” as a coordinating conjunction. They might be trying to get across the basic idea of either one of these examples and would come up with something such as this:

Terry wanted to be early to the party, however, Jim was late.
Terry showed up early to the party, however, Jim was late.

Both of these are wrong because they use an adverb as if it were a coordinating conjunction. One way to tell that “however” is an adverb is to try to move it around the clause it is in. Most, but not all, adverbs can move around in a sentence without doing any real harm. In the clause “Jim was late,” you could move the “however” to different positions without doing any harm to the clause itself. That flexibility is a clear sign that “however” is an adverb and not a conjunction.

In these cases, both halves of the sentences are independent clauses and need to be punctuated with periods or joined with coordinating conjunctions and commas. These revisions would be more acceptable:

Terry wanted to be early to the party. Jim, however, was late.
Terry showed up early to the party, but Jim was late.

Using “however” as a coordinating conjunction is fairly easy to forgive since “however” is a conjunctive adverb and not a run-of-the-mill adverb such as “wildly” or “quickly” or “simply.” What conjunctive adverbs do is connect the content of one sentence to the content of the previous sentence or sentences. Words such as “therefore” and “then” and “furthermore” are such adverbs and create similar problems for many people. They cannot, however, join the sentences grammatically. [This web site on grammar gets this basic point all wrong:  Everything English “Subordinating Conjunctions” .]

Even if the conjunctive adverb is joining the sentence to the one before it, the union is only at the level of the meaning in the sentence and not at the level of  grammar. And, as we all know, grammar is more important than meaning, far more important.

That would seem simple enough and not worth the labor of writing a new blog entry. But there is more, much more, because “however” can, in fact, be a conjunction.

(You might be sitting there thinking, “Ha, I knew Joe was wrong. He just proved it himself. “However” can be a conjunction. He’s such a turd.” But you would be only half right.)

“However” can be a conjunction but only a subordinating conjunction. This usage is less common that the adverbial usage and probably less common than the erroneous usage as a coordinating conjunction, but it seems to be quite important since it tends to show up in the writings of some of the more advanced writers I have read. So this is how it is used as a subordinating conjunction:

Terry dances however she likes.
Terry needs to let John dress for the party however he wants.

The word “however” sets up the underlined dependent clause and joins it to the independent clause right before it. Notice that in these two sentences the word “however” cannot move around the second clause. You could not do this, for example:

Terry dances she however wants.
Terry needs to let John dress himself for the party he wants however.

“However” cannot move in these sentences because it is not an adverb. It is a conjunction, and conjunctions do not move without messing everything up. You can see the same basic structure in sentences that use subordinating conjunctions that are more widely recognized:

Terry dances a lot because she loves music.
Terry needs to let John dress himself for the party even if he wear plaid again.

Notice that “because” and “even if” both set up dependent clauses, and neither of them can be moved around their dependent clause without making a grammatical mess. You would not write these sentences, for example:

Terry dances a lot she because loves music.
Terry needs to let John dress himself for the party he wears plaid again even if.

So this should all be simple enough. The word “however” should be included among those icons of subordinating conjunctions. We should be able to punch “subordinating conjunction” into our search engines and come up with a list that includes “however” alongside “since,”  “when,” “before,” and many others.

Not so fast. There is a problem. This is grammar, so there is always a problem.

With all the other subordinating conjunctions, you can make the sentence do a little dance and switch the positions of the dependent and independent clauses for stylistic purposes. You could, for example, rewrite those earlier sentences:

Because Terry loves music, she dances a lot.
Even if he wears plaid again, Terry needs to let John dress himself for the party.

Both options are fine. The only differences are stylistic differences. But when we try to do this with the examples using “however,” things fall apart:

However Terry wants, she dances.
However John wants, Terry needs to let John dress himself.

These simply do not work.

The problem is that “however” is doing something more than setting up a dependent clause. It is also turning the entire dependent clause into an adverb to describe how Terry dances and how John dresses himself.

“However” ends up being quite the peculiar word. When “however” is used correctly, it is most often used as an adverb that makes a weak-hearted attempt to be a conjunction and join two sentences, but it always fails to do so at a deeper level. When it actually is used as a subordinating conjunction and tries to leave its adverbial ways behind, it ends up turning an entire clause into an adverb.


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.

Bad Writing

Dick Cavett is generally well regarded as a writer, but I am trying to understand why. I do not remember reading anything he has ever written that had not been overwritten. His recent piece “The Wrath of Grapes” in the NY TImes is typical of what I have read by him.

Like most bad writing, the nastiness of the piece exists on a number of levels. There is, of course, the obvious problem with writing about being drunk, which is a topic best covered by adolescents at MySpace or ex-boyfriends in text messages. Cavett figured the NY Times readers were missing out on the fun, so he decided to write a two-part piece on his adventures with a bottle of Scotch during the 1960s. Thanks, Dick.

Things get worse when he starts writing and comes up with this paragraph:

The mouth was a distinct displeasure. I remember saying aloud, to no one, “It tastes like I’ve eaten an assortment of larvae.” I tried to laugh but the head pain forbade any more than a murmur of self-appreciation. I made it to the sink as Vesuvius erupted.

The paragraph starts off well enough, but when Cavitt describes the larvae as an “assortment,” he has started overwriting. Most people cannot identify with eating larvae in the first place, so I doubt describing the taste as “an assortment of larvae” rather than as “larvae” is much like differentiating between the tastes of cookies-and-cream and vanilla.

Then there is the use of “forbade” which only  a nun at a grammar school in 1962 would use with a straight face. But the coup de grace is his allusion to Vesuvius, which fans of classical correspondence know quite well since it suffocated Pliny the Elder under a blanket of volcanic ash and rock.

What strikes me about Cavitt’s writing is not that its stuffed with pseudo-intellectual silliness but that it relies on diction and allusion for its sophistication. Those two rhetorical tools mark the style of Cavitt, and both are focused on words, not phrases and clauses. When Cavitt needs precision and accuracy, he reaches for individual words with multiple syllables and uses them to make himself sound worldly and well-read.

Word choice is an important part of writing well, but it is only a small part of good style and has the danger of leading to overwriting. Having an ear for what sounds right means more than reaching for a thesaurus; it means being in tune to the rhythms of phrases and clauses and how they affect the style and aesthetics of the sentences and paragraphs. Good writers know this.

The Not-So Simple but Oh-So Necessary Task of Defining Words and Sentences

One of the more difficult things to do in grammar instruction is to define what a sentence is. It is almost as difficult as defining what a word is. No kidding.

Words seem self evident. They are units of language that are made up of letters and have an identifiable meaning or definition that can usually be found in a dictionary. In speech they can be pronounced as a single unit, while in print they have spaces on both sides. That seems simple enough.

We could keep this simple and exemplify this with a solid word, such as the word “establish,” and proceed to find it in the dictionary. Then we would find that even has eight definitions for the word. All of them are the same part of speech, so this is not really that much of a problem. (I can imagine that the OED has a few extra definitions, but that is a silly book we should not trouble ourselves with at this point.) But if I look at how we defined the parameters of a word as having an identifiable meaning, would “establish” be one word or eight? I will try not to think about that right now.

Instead I will move on to another issue brought up by the modification of words with suffices. (Is that supposes to be “suffices” or “suffixes”? And would that count as one word or two? They seem to be two different words but they have the same exact definition. No matter. I should be writing and not thinking.) I could, for example, add an “es” to the end of “establish” and make it “establishes.” Does this count as a different word or a modification? Probably a modification, eh? How about if I slap a suffix on the end and change it from the verb “establish” to the noun “establishment.” Seems good. How about if I add an “s” onto the end and make it “establishments”? Not really? How about if I slap a prefix onto the “establishment” and create “antiestablishment.”  Or “antiestablishmentarian.” And then “antiestablishmentarianism.” And we should not forget “antiestablishmentarianisms.”

Our most basic unit for grammatical instruction seems hopelessly undefinable in any practical sense. I am sure a good linguist could go through all this silliness and make sense of it with precise definitions of concepts only a linguist would be familiar with. The problem is that a linguist’s precision would quickly become silliness for most students.

We run into a similar problem with the definition of a sentence. The most common definition I have heard is probably the one that has created the most confusion. Most students come into class with the definition they picked up in junior high or high school: “a sentence is a complete thought.”

This definition tells students very little since a “complete thought” can be as simple as a one word answer to a question. If someone asks you “When are we going to Disneyland?”, an answer of “Tuesday” would be perfectly complete since nothing else is needed to answer the question. A complete thought could also answer the question “What is a sentence?” but that question seems to be demanding more than a one word answer at this point since I am nowhere near completing this thought.

The “complete thought” definition becomes mildly useful, however, when students try to determine if a dependent clause can be punctuated as a sentence. The dependent clause “When Claude was waiting in line at the Matterhorn”  sounds as if something is missing. Most student say they want to know what happened when Claude was waiting in line.

It seems many people have this vague sense that something is missing when there is no independent clause. Asking about what happened when Claude was waiting in line forces the students to come up with an independent clause that would change the fragment into a sentence. It would seem that the “complete thought” people might have a point about fragments. But, thankfully, they do not. A simple erasure of the subordinating conjunction “when” would change things entirely. The stripped down clause would read “Claude was waiting in line at the Matterhorn,” which most people would probably consider to be a complete thought, but this transformation happened not because something was completed, but because something was eliminated.

I do understand that linguists can break this stuff down far more effectively than I can and are able to provide more precise definitions of words and sentences. I get that. These linguistic definitions are not useful for someone who wants to write better for a job and does not care much for discussing the shortcomings of Chomsky’s universal grammar in light of the fMRI studies published in Volume 114 of Brain and Language. The problem is that when we simplify things for grammar instruction, we often create problems for our students. That is usually not the goal of simplification.

But instead of doing away with our rules and definitions because of their short comings, we need to make it clear that many of the terms we work with are good only within a certain context and are not so much rules as they are conventions. Students who learn grammar in college just want to write better and have no use for the particulars of language. In a sense, our students are learning to become mechanics and need to know and need to know where to pour the oil; they are not learning to become mechanical engineers who need to calculate velocity using the Bernoulli theorem.

More Taboo Than Religion or Politics: Correcting Grammar and Coining Money

I guess I would not be much of a blogger or grammarian if I did not write something about Jared Loughner and his rantings about grammar.


I first saw his views on grammar and a few other subjects at YouTube a little after his murderous rampage in Tucson. He made about four videos which include a good deal of  silliness about the U.S. Constitution, Pima Community College police, currency standards and other such stuff, but he also made a number of comments about grammar.

Here is a taste of what he posted at YouTube:

Don’t be scared to know you can’t

find the location of a subject. Most

students can’t locate the subject!

Most people know all the subjects

are for mind control and brainwash!

The students are unconstitutionally paying

for free education!

The students are attending a torture facility!

You know the teachers are con artists?

It seems as though Loughner has been given some fairly basic instruction on how to identify subjects and verbs which is pretty standard stuff in entry level composition courses, Oddly enough, Loughner seems to see grammar as being akin to mind control, and I cannot say I disagree with him entirely on this point. But Loughner takes his critique a bit further and maligns community college teachers as “con artists” in an unconstitutional institution. I have been called much worse on most days, so I will endure the insult and point out that people such as me are clearly threatening to Loughner’s sense of self and are part of the crew who have tortured him.

I am well aware that there are few things in this world as irritating as someone who tries to correct your subject/verb agreement or tells you that “ain’t” is not a word or provides some other nonsensical insight into your speech or writing, but Loughner’s response goes beyond annoyance and attempts to identify grammar instruction as a clear threat to himself and other students.

Oddly enough, Loughner’s critique of grammar instruction is quite similar to his view of money production. He places people who teach issues regarding subject identification on par with those who mint money for the treasury. Here are some of his thoughts on how he will get around the people who print off the money and press out the coins we use:

If I’m thinking of creating a new coin

that’s in my control as treasurer then

I’m thinking my new coin is starting a

new currency system.

I’m thinking of creating a new coin

that’s in my control as a treasurer.

Hence, I’m thinking my coin is

starting a new currency system.

Evidently Loughner sees coining his own money as being an important step to freeing himself from the economic constraints he feels bind him. Behind his anger against his grammar teachers and his scheme for producing his own currency is a mistaken notion that he can ultimately free himself from the limitations that come with these two systems of communication. Each day we communicate with each other through words and money, so fiddling with someone’s spoken and written language is not that much different than fiddling with someone’s money. The people who try to manipulate language and money are the true threats, at least in Loughner’s mind, and are guilty of the worst crimes against humanity, including torture and mind control.

Loughner mentions religion and politics at times in the videos, but these two subjects do not rouse nearly as much anger in him. His ranting focuses on grammar and money because these two areas are so much a part of our views of ourselves and our relations to others.

Anxiety Envy

My college offers classes that help students deal with math anxiety, and I imagine many other colleges offer similar classes for their students. I have taught math to basic skills students and know these classes are necessary. I have, however, never seen any classes offered for grammar anxiety.

Oddly enough this makes sense. Even though students come to the college with grammar skills in just as poor shape as their math skills, I have not seen students demonstrate the same levels of apprehension with English grammar as they have with math. It seems this situation is related to how the different subjects are perceived by the students.

Math is more intimidating and often seen as something of a foreign language that students cannot comprehend without careful study, while English grammar strikes students as being more familiar and is perceived as being a series of isolated rules.  A college course in English grammar should cover those rules that we all covered in high school, right?

Most students know that a partial understanding of a certain concept in mathematics can get you into a good deal of trouble since you get no credit for  a close but incorrect answer. There might be different approaches to factoring a polynomial or solving for y, but there is only one correct answer at the end of the problem. This idea that you need to learn it all before you can do the problem correctly is what makes some students anxious. In most cases, the anxiety can be alleviated by helping students learn how to break the problems down into workable segments that they can handle. There is no magic to this approach.

My sense is that students are not inherently more capable with English grammar than with mathematics. Students use English more often in daily conversations and in text messaging than they use basic math skills to pay bills or balance checkbooks, but these forms of English usage only act to reinforce simple grammatical structures and make learning grammar at a more sophisticated level more difficult. Chatting with your friends online or sending a few dozen text messages prepares students for understanding English grammar about as well as operating a cash register prepares students for college algebra.

Most students I work with come to a grammar class thinking they already know the English language because they have been using it for as long as they can remember. There really is no issue with anxiety since the students do not realize how little they know about the workings of their mother tongue and how wrong many of the “rules” they were taught in high school really are.

And that is why I am somewhat jealous of the math teachers who often confront a room with many students who are anxious about what they are about to learn. The students know that they do not understand math on the first day. They know learning math is more than memorizing a series of petty rules. And they know it is going to take practice to learn the material.

The students I work with often bring simple rules to the class regarding where to put commas or apostrophes, and these rules must be thrown out before the students can learn how the language actually works. Often these “rules” need to be thrown out again and again. If they do not master the new materials, they fall right back on the old useless “rules” they learned from a teacher who never bothered to show them how simple questions can often have more involved answers and require a more developed understanding.

And so I envy the math anxiety that many math teachers encounter on the first day. Anxiety is, at least, a sign that the students know learning the language is not such a simple matter and is going to require some effort.

Thinking In and About Phrases

Phrases are probably the most essential unit of language but so little is written about them.

One of my professors at UC Irvine wrote a books called The Differend, which placed the phrase not just at the center of writing but at the center of what is. Doing this always struck me as somewhat odd since words were smaller units and letters even smaller still. But he was not writing about the units we have broken our language down into as much as he was writing about the units of thought.

We just do not think word by word. We think in phrases and sometimes in clauses. This is where I think much of the discussion and instruction in grammar misses the mark. Without a doubt we run into problems at the level of individual words. We misspell words, not phrases and clauses. We look up words in the dictionary, not phrases and clauses. We search for just the right word, but rarely struggle with just the right phrase or clause. And we mock people who misuse words in the speech, not people who speak in phrases or dependent clauses.

People who write well tend to be able to compose not in words or even in sentences but in phrases that come to mind. I do not think in words. That would be silly and would result in a fairly scatter brained approach to both thinking and writing. And I do not usually think in well developed clauses. I usually do not know, for example, how a sentence is going to end when I have begun writing it. My mind thinks phrase by phrase. It might have words at its disposal and some notion of what kind of clause is going to come out at the end of all this cognition, but my thoughts tend to find themselves connecting phrase to phrase.

The centrality of phrases in thought can probably best be seen in the corrections we make to our own writing. There are usually a few errors in usage or spelling we correct as we compose, but it is far more common to erase or move or add whole phrases.

For this reason I see grammar instruction as misguided when it spends so much time on correcting the usage of words rather than the composition of phrases. We focus too much on the correctness of words rather than the style of the clauses and phrases that we write. Our thinking and our selves are not so well shown by the words we choose as they are by the phrases and clauses we use.

By moving away from words and on to phrases and clauses, we cannot get away from the issues of style that these units of writing bring up. It is in style that we probably have a better chance of getting students to think about how they think and how they write. Word choice has a good deal to do with style, but words also bring baggage with them. They are more often going to be corrected for being right or wrong. If we spend more time on phrases and clauses, we can spend more time on style and how it affects the reception of our writing. Style becomes the organizing principle of grammar.

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.