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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.


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.


A Couple Reasons for Rules

Most English teachers have heard about how poorly students apply the grammar “rules” we teach them to their own writing. It seems we can explain what nouns and adjectives are and show them what a prepositional phrase is or what a subordinating conjunction does, but struggling students rarely show much mastery of these concepts in their own writing.

Much of the problem comes from the complexity of the language itself. Many students run into confusion with some of the core grammatical concepts, such as the difference between a noun and a subject, which, in many students’ minds, are the same thing. Or they have a hard time understanding how helping verbs or linking verbs work. All verbs, in their minds, are actions.

The funny thing is that good writers do not worry too much about making grammatical errors and are usually only somewhat fluent in the language of grammar themselves. Good writers seem to write more fluidly than struggling writers do and provide greater detail in their writing, but I do not think this ease with words comes from a dexterity with grammatical rules. If it did, linguists would be the finest writers around.

Instead I think good writers have a basic understanding of grammatical principles that keeps their anxiety down, but they also have a mastery of phrases and clauses. You do not need to be a grammarian or a linguist in training to write well, but you do need to be able to avoid common mistakes and know that certain “rules” are nothing more than silliness (i.e. put a comma wherever there is a pause).

Many struggling writers become frustrated with their own writing because they worry about things they should not be worried about and cannot focus on more important matters. They also tend to focus on the words they are using rather than the phrases and clauses they are constructing. This might explain why struggling writers often think a comma is always needed before the word “and.”

We have all seen struggling writers use short sentences. They often tell me that they do this only because they tend to make fewer errors that way, but I also see that they are not aware of the many ways their writing can be revised and rewritten by reworking the phrases and clauses. In fact, they usually cannot even see the phrases and clauses that make up their own writing. It is all word after word after word to them.

When teaching grammar and writing, I do not think our goal should be simple mastery of the “rules.” Most teachers know that drilling grammar rules into the heads of students is not a good use of class time. But we should also not think that grammar instruction is a waste of time. Good grammar instruction gives students more confidence in their own writing but it also allows them to avoid falling victim to misleading or useless “rules.” They need to see that having some understanding of grammar allows them to develop their skills as writers in ways that move them beyond writing word by word.


Defending the Grammar Snots, Once Again

The NY Times had another review of another grammar book written by another professional writer who is, of course, a man of the people and would not snicker if you wrote the word “grammer.”

The book is The Glamour of Grammar, and it is written by Roy Peter Clark, who teaches at Poynter Institute somewhere in Florida. I am sure he is a kind and thoughtful man, and I am even more certain that he knows a good deal more about English and writing than I do. But he does not seem to know much about the people who teach grammar or the people who need to learn more about it.

Clark has plenty of good advice in the book that the reviewer mentions, but he also takes the time to put the obligatory stick in the eye of all those other grammarians who enforce their personal preferences for what are inevitably arbitrary rules. He writes:

“Prescriptive critics may condemn my recommendation that writers politely ignore the ‘crotchets’ of purists who insist on . . . rules that have little influence on the making of meaning.”

I am well aware that a prescriptivist approach to anything grammatical is going to run into problems, especially when the claims do not account for the evolution of the language or the dialects that exist today. The problem is that those who diss the grammarians usually write with perfect grammar and commune with people who are quite fluent in Standard Written English.

Clark and other well-educated egalitarians can afford to show scorn for the fussy and small-minded who have nothing better to do than correct other people’s misplaced commas. But a professional writer who smears ink on pretentious grammarians always strikes me as the literary equivalent of a Donald Trump telling everyone that money cannot buy happiness.

I certainly agree that many grammarians can miss the point when teaching the importance of grammar to beginning writers. Holden Caulfield was close enough to being right when he said that there was more to writing than knowing where to put the commas. But those who point to historical examples of split infinitives and non-standard spellings have little or no experience with students who cannot recognize an infinitive phrase or a dependent clause.

I do not want to go into yet another rant about the decline of writing skills and western civilization. All of us have read Edward Gibbon and know all about this. The problem is that many of the teachers who have taken a linguistics course in college or read books such as The Glamour of Grammar can explain how it is acceptable to split an infinitive or begin sentences with conjunctions, but they often have little understanding of the rules of Standard Written English themselves. We would not have the “commas go wherever there is a pause” rule if they did.

The problem I am seeing is not an excessive correcting of minor errors by misguided grammarians but a lack of any disciplined instruction in the grammar of Standard Written English. Clark writes that those “who profess that these are violations must face the counterevidence produced in the classic works of some of our most distinguished writers.” And that is the problem.

The British architects who designed St. Peter’s Cathedral did not understand calculus, and the Roman engineers who built the Forum in Rome could not factor a polynomial, but these historical achievements do not mean we need to treat the rules of mathematics as capricious and frivolous. Most of our colleagues in the sciences know this, thank God.

The most useful rules of grammar happen to be arbitrary and ahistorical but fairly logical and usually consistent. That is the way I like them and teach them.


Histories–Words Only, No Phrases or Clauses Allowed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Grammar Cops Have a Point, at Times

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

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

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

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


Style and Prepositional Phrases

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

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

One of my cousins threw a great party on Friday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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