Tag Archives: style

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.

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.

Developing Memory as You Develop Grammatical Skills

Grammar often seems to be a string of petty rules that are and should be easily forgotten.

Much of memory works by either repetition or structure. We tend to forget just about everything else we encounter in a day, and for good reason, but we tend to hold onto information or strategies that we repeat or that fit with the frameworks we have already developed.

So learning new methods of teaching calculus is easy for someone who already knows how to teach calculus because the new strategies can be related to the strategies that have already been developed through years of teaching. And learning new information about Emperor Justinian easy for someone who already knows quite a bit about the Byzantine Empire. But in both cases, these strategies and this information are difficult to hold onto if the person has not already developed the cognitive apparatus for storing and sorting the new material.

The challenge with teaching grammar is finding a way to make the material stick to memory in a meaningful way. A math teacher is going to have a pretty easy time holding onto any strategies for teaching calculus, even if those strategies are different from the strategies she is currently using. That history teacher would also have little trouble holding onto any information that might just be coming out regarding an archaeological study recently completed on Justinian’s tomb. But a student of English grammar has no pre-existing way to file all these new strategies and information he or she is receiving in a grammar class.

This leaves us with a need to repeat material a good deal, but it also means we need to develop connections to cognitive strategies the students already have but also are developing.