Category Archives: Pedantries

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.

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.

Contradicting Myself on Standard Written English–Well, Not Really

Reading Research Quarterly has an excellent article on a topic quite similar to the rant that College English published last month. But, unlike, College English, Reading Research Quarterly shows its usual dedication to good research to back up the article.

The article is a review of research by Melanie Sperling of UC Riverside and Deborah Appleman of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Sperling and Appleman look at the research on the poorly defined concept of “voice” in the writing of college students. There are essentially two ways of looking at voice, one that focuses on the individual as the producer of a rhetorical position within his or her writing and another that is ideologically constructed and shaped by the context in which the student develops academically and socially.

Sperling and Appleman do an excellent job of going through both conceptions of voice and review the literature in both areas thoroughly. The students who achieve a fluency of voice have progressed in a way that allows them to be understood and to center their identities in their spoken and written communications. Even though voice is not something that can be clearly defined in this sense, instructors often evaluate for it and see it in the abilities of students to navigate their rhetorical contexts with a good degree of dexterity.

Here is what Sperling and Appleman write:

In this view, the ability to write with voice and to imbue reading with voice demonstrates not only a particular  threshold of linguistic accomplishment but also a threshold of identity achievement, with identity understood to be firmly centered in the individual.

The important element for the students is the development of a personal mastery over their language. The characteristics of this “voice” are not all that easily delineated for a rubric, but they are evident to anyone who has read the writing of a developing student. Even if we cannot quantify voice all that well, teachers know that watching students find their voices in our own classrooms might be the single reason we slog through those stacks of essays.

Sperling and Appleman then go on to describe the conception of voice as a social or cultural construct. To readers of Vygotsky, this notion is not all that new, but Sperling and Appleman develop this approach a good deal more with the perspectives of Bakhtin and Wertsch, among others:

For Wertsch, following Vygotsky and Bakhtin, human thought including language and learning, is fundamentally social in nature. From Vygotsky’s perspective, humans learn and develop language in social interaction. What begins as interaction or dialogue in the social sphere becomes, for the individual, internalized as thought.

Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Wertsch show that an individual’s dexterity with language is not simply a personal mastery of a set of cognitive skills, but is a manifestation of social conventions and the ideologies that refined them in the individual him or herself. Linguistically speaking, no one is an island, and this has much to say about notions of voice in the writings of our students.

What we see as voice in the writings of our students represents not just a level of personal development but also a navigation of the rhetorical modes originally developed by social and political forces. A student’s name may be on top of an essay, but an ideologies he or she is not aware of are shaping much of the language and rhetorical approaches used throughout the essay.

This should give pause to English teachers, especially ones such as me who argue for the utility of teaching Standard Written English to students from lower classes and marginalized ethnic groups. Standard Written English is a dialect developed primarily by middle class white folks for communicating with each other, and its conventions are frequently used to exclude people from lower classes and non-white ethnic groups. There is no way around this historical fact.

In the College English piece, Bruce Horner sees Standard Written English as a tool of the dominant groups for keeping other groups marginalized and weak. Their argument is that English teachers need to “legitimize” other dialects in the college classroom by accepting them as legitimate discourses. This would counteract the history of using Standard Written English to marginalize ethnic minorities. I think this is just plain silly.

What Sperling and Appleman argue for is somewhat different and more useful, but I still see the need for Standard Written English to play a dominant role in our composition courses. They point to the work of a number of researchers who have developed alternative ways of developing voice in our students. Fisher and Jacson both find ways to include non-standard discources in the classroom that I think are legitimate. They use poetry in urban classrooms to “legitimize urban youth culture” and give “voice to students who generally are silenced by traditional academic writing assignments.”

I see these types of assignments as interesting to students because they allow students to act as the experts right when they walk in the door. The student research for such assignments is done through many of the activities they already engage in with their computers and iPods. The assignments qualify as academic because they require the students to reflect on elements from their own culture in ways that are more critical and more appropriate for an academic setting.

I would, however, say that these assignments have a limited value for developing a more thoroughly developed voice. I do not use these types of assignments myself, but it is not because I enjoy lording Standard Written English over my mostly marginalized students. Instead of such “high interest” assignments, I stick to more traditional topics because I see that student gain a greater level of confidence from working and writing in Standard Written English than by using a polished version of their own home dialect.

Sperling and Appleman seem to want to hold onto such an approach and cite Smitherman’s 1972 essay where she “mashes” Black English and Standard Written English in an academic essay to argue for the acceptance of non-standard dialects in composition courses.

Smitherman writes:

There are, to be sure, a few brave enlightened souls who are doing an excellent job in the ghetto. To them, I say: Keep on keepin’ on. But to those others, that whole heap of English teachers who be castigating Black students for using a “non-standard” dialect, I got to say: the question in the title is directed at you, and if the shoe fit, put it on.

Smitherman continues:

As a daughter of the Black ghetto myself, don’t seem like it’s no reason the teacher be doing none of that correctin’ mess. I contend that the size of the above mentioned shoe fully exceeds the magnitude of the problem, for language power is a function not of one’s dialect but of larger linguistic structures skillfully and effectively employed.

One wonders what W.E.B. DuBois would say to this.

What troubles me about Smitherman and others is that they take their own position and treat it as if it were the black position. All that “correctin’ mess” is actually something my students, especially my black students, want to learn about and master most often because their own parents and grandparents have told them in no uncertain terms to clean up their speech and stop talking “ghetto.”  The whole notion of a college professor “legitimizing” any dialect strikes me as little more than patronizing.

The core mistake that Smitherman, Horner and others make is that they see dominant ideologies as inherently exploitive and needing to be resisted at every corner. Standard Written English becomes the language of those in power and is good for keeping the marginalized powerless and little else. (Horner actually acknowledges that he is using Standard Written English in his own essay but sheepishly avoids discussing this irony in any detail.) Smitherman, Horner and others are correct in this assessment of the way Standard Written English can be used against marginalized students to a degree. Making people believe Standard Written English is inherently superior to other dialects is often what English teachers do, and that is simply wrong on so many levels.

What they miss is that Standard Written English is the most effective dialect for people to use to communicate about more complicated situations and to do so across cultures and times. Regional dialects simply do not work well when people from different backgrounds are trying to work with each other on more challenging tasks where clarity and accuracy are important. I could imagine how well Smitherman’s writing style would strike a Latino man from East Los Angeles or a poor white woman from West Virginia, let alone someone from Ireland or England.

Regional dialects are not used in professional fields simply because there are so many white professionals but because you cannot write about genetics, engineering, business management, contract law or pre-Columbian history all that effectively in any dialect other than Standard Written English.

When I read of scholars and others criticizing the use of Standard Written English as a tool of alienating and marginalizing certain groups, I fully agree with them, but there is far, far more to it than that. I also see Standard Written English also as a common meeting ground where people from different groups can and do communicate with each other quite well.

So I agree with Sperling and Appleman when they argue for a greater awareness of how dialect and ideology walk hand in glove:

Teaching voice, then, means that we understand with students how and whether one discourse infiltrates or meshes with another, and to what rhetorical, academic, and not least, political ends.

But I would add that Standard Written English, when taught as a living dialect and not enforced as a rigid set of rules, does not squelch the development of voice in students. If it is taught as a dialect that students can learn, use and change, then their voices become all that much stronger and clearer and colorful. When internalized by someone who has been marginalized, Standard Written English becomes a discourse of personal power. And that is nothing less than a good thing.

Standard Written English–The Universities’ New Whipping Boy

I just finished an Opinion piece in College English delineating the many ways that Standard Written English is oppressive and demeaning to minorities and others outside the existing power structure. Sadly, this has become a standard practice among university types.

Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu and a couple others spend ten pages or so in the essay “Language Differences in Writing: Towards a Translingual Approach” making Standard Written English into a tool for oppression and the people who teach it into cultural tyrants with naive notions about the English language.

I know it might sound as if I am exaggerating, so allow me to turn the floor over to them:

[Instructors] take as the norm a linguistically homogeneous situation: one where writers, speakers, and readers are expected to use Standard English or Edited American English–imagined ideally as uniform–to the exclusion of other languages and language variations. These approaches assume that heterogeneity in language impedes communication and meaning. Hence, the long standing aim of traditional writing instruction has been to reduce “interference,” excising what appears to show difference.

Horner et alia resort to simplifying the many English teachers out there who see value in Standard Written English as a uniform type bind to the flexibility within Standard Written English. Apparently, we hold onto some ideal that Standard Written English is “uniform,” and then we exclude other languages and language variations thusly.

This is, of course, a rhetorical stance designed to portray people such as me both ignorant about the nature of the English language and prone to punishing linguistic elements of which we do not approve. I know there are people who are pedants first and teachers third or fourth, but most of the people I know who teach this language know something about the arbitrary nature of the conventions we teach and use their red pens judiciously.

No matter. Horner et alia get worse:

For, in fact, notions of the “standard English speaker” and “Standard Written English” are bankrupt concepts. All speakers of English speak many variations of English, every one of them accented, and all of them subject to change as they intermingle with other varieties of English and other languages. Likewise, standards of written English are neither uniform nor fixed.

Notions of Standard Written English are “bankrupt”? Horner et alia are getting a little over-dramatic with the rhetoric here, but they are using an approach that is quite common among composition and linguistics faculty at universities.

Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, pillories such an English “peeve” named Richard Grant White in an blog entry concerning White’s criticism of the use of what is known as the progressive passive. White is just the kind of person that Horner et alia see as the problem. They are nit-picking and pompous and go around making people feel all bad about their writing, and Liberman does a wonderful job of poking holes in everything he writes. The problem is White wrote his critique of the progressive passive back in 1869 when peevishness was in vogue. White is dead and so are many of the most egregious pedants.

In fact, Horner et alia‘s piece is not so much a scholarly work as much as it is a manifesto signed by 50 faculty members from a few dozen universities with little experience of student writing outside of the universities where they teach. (Only one of the 50 is from a community college.) These people are not all that likely to encounter the kinds of oppressed masses they seem so willing to go to the ramparts to defend.

Horner et alia are not about to let their lack of experience teaching slightly more marginalized people hold them back, however:

While it is both accurate and useful to identify the language strategies by which specific collectivities have tried to resist domination, the aim should be to honor their linguistic ingenuity and to encourage other innovative strategies–not to reify a set of forms that supposedly have intrinsic power.

Horner et alia know their rhetoric of oppression, but they seem to have little to no familiarity with the students who come to a community college and sign up for a grammar class. They have this image of marginalized students from lower classes and minority groups coming to the universities and fighting the good fight and resisting the power structures of people such as myself who teach Standard Written English to people who speak and write in non-standard forms. But I am here to tell you that I am really not such a bad guy.

Horner et alia are correct in recognizing that Standard Written English is the language of the powerful today, but they are naive in thinking that marginalized students are looking to “resist domination.” The students I see aim to learn Standard Written English for school and work and become part of the powerful classes not for the sake of oppressing their fellow comrades but for the sake of having a life with little less drudgery. Nor do the students I see want us to “honor their linguistic ingenuity” any more than they want us to share their lunch with them or compliment them on the t-shirt selection for the day. They just do not need us to legitimize their language. Urging English instructors to do so strikes me as patronizing and little else.

What strikes me about this piece is that it is endorsed by so many big names in the field of composition studies from so many big name universities where the first order of business is to exclude so many common people from their classes and from their campuses. These professors from Dartmouth College, University of Louisville, The Ohio State University and many other universities seem to think “marginalized” people occupy a great number of places in their classrooms. They do not. Marginalized people cannot make it past the entrance exams at these universities in large part because they are nowhere near fluent in Standard Written English. Trust me.

Instead these composition scholars are spending most of their time working with high achieving students who happen to have some markers of non-standard English on their tongues and pens. Allowing them to get away with these in their writing is not all that egalitarian.

What would be truly innovative and egalitarian would be to accept anyone and everyone who applies to their universities and then allow them into their English classes. When the first batch of essays comes rolling in, most of these scholars might not endorse the peevishness of a Richard Grant White, but they would probably be a little more tolerant of the pedantries of Strunk and White and others of their ilk. Such as me.

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.