Fun with grammar

Erin O’Connor, who’s gone from teaching at Penn to teaching at a boarding school, has fun with grammar, a subject her students don’t know because they’ve never been taught.

The parts of speech are largely mysterious to them; the rules of punctuation and agreement are likewise unfamiliar. Semi-colons, colons, and dashes do not come into play in their writing because they do not know what they are for. Sentence fragments abound because many do not know that a sentence requires a subject and a verb, nor can they tell reliably when something is a subject and when something is a verb. Forget about objects and indirect objects, simple and compound sentences, subordinate clauses and participial phrases: such terminology is Greek to the vast majority of them.

Don’t get me wrong. Kids today are as smart, creative, and sharp as ever. Their grammar deficit is not their fault. They can’t be blamed for what they were never taught. It’s increasingly unfashionable to emphasize grammar and the rules of syntax in school, the reasons ranging from the hang-loose notion that the rules of usage are confining and binding and irrelevant anyway since language is a living, breathing thing, to the feel-good notion that grammar is boring and mind-numbing and kids will be turned off to reading and writing forever if they have to learn it.

Students don’t like not being able to write correctly, O’Connor says. They’re eager to learn.

I’m still puzzling over one of the dubious sentences she gave students: “Driving along the road, the scenery was beautiful.” I know there’s some rule about gerunds involved, but it just seems like a miscast sentence to me.

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Comments

  1. The participle dangles, or rather doesn’t match up with its subject. It implies that it is the scenery which is driving along the road, an absurd situation. In English grammar it’s generally preferred for verb phrases to be adjacent their agents.

    “Driving along the road, I saw that the scenery was beautiful,” or “The scenery along the road was beautiful,” are better.

    It is perfectly permissible and customary in Japanese grammar, though.

  2. That’s not exactly true, John. In Japanese, what we call the “present participle” can’t function as an adjective, so the rule that a participial modifier at the head of the sentence has to modify the subject wouldn’t be workable, anyway. If you translated the given sentence word-for-word into Japanese, I think it would be understood by most people as “I was driving along the road, and the scenery was beautiful.”

  3. These discussions at O’Connor and here use the term “grammar” imprecisely. The dangling participle problem exists in written English, not spoken English because in speaking there’s no ambiguity about who is “driving.” I’ve developed this point about the various meanings of “grammar” at my own blog at http://faculty.deanza.fhda.edu/jocalo/2004/09/24

  4. Mad Scientist says:

    The whole thing reminds me of a fortune cookie I got last year:

    Your fastidious nature has much more fun this year

    I’m still trying to figure that one out.

  5. ‘In Japanese, what we call the “present participle” can’t function as an adjective, so the rule that a participial modifier at the head of the sentence has to modify the subject wouldn’t be workable, anyway. If you translated the given sentence word-for-word into Japanese, I think it would be understood by most people as “I was driving along the road, and the scenery was beautiful.”‘

    Is that really correct? Wouldn’t it come out as “道を運転しながら、景色は綺麗だった?” Which carries the implication that the scenery is in fact the thing driving down the road? Admittedly, Japanese has other constructions which don’t link subjects in the way that the English participle links the subjects, but a rule demanding that the subjects be identical is in no way unworkable.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure exactly what is meant by participle, in this case, since Japanese grammar is not directly analogous to the Latinate system we’ve imposed on English. The adjectival function of the participle (e.g. the Laughing Man, the Barking Dog, etc.) is fulfilled by the plain-form of the verb. Using that, we get 道を運転している景色は綺麗だった。 Which implies even more strongly that the scenery is the one doing the driving.

  6. Well, right, which is why you wouldn’t say that. “While I was driving along the road, the scenery was beautiful” sounds a bit wonky to me, too, but it does have the structural advantage of being closer to an English subordinate clause than the example I was thinking of (the also-wonky “道を運転していって、景色が綺麗だった”). The reason I put “present participle” in scare quotes is that ~て form is usually described that way in Japanese textbooks aimed at native speakers of English; but my point, like yours, was that the equivalence is imperfect. Be that as it may, I do think that most people would translate driving in isolation as 運転して, only making it 運転すること if someone gave them reason to think it was, in context, a gerund. It strikes me that, using the zero-pronoun principle, it would probably be clear that the speaker was the overarching actor that was doing the driving and perceiving the beauty of the scenery.

  7. I am pleased to see that someone recognizes the need for teaching elements of grammar. I’m an English teacher, and when I go to workshops and meetings, all I hear is that grammar instruction “stifles” creativity and stops kids from wanting to write. I don’t think that is entirely true. Yes, some kids may be put off by having fragments and misused punctuation pointed out to them, but if they want their writing to be taken seriously, they have to know what conventions are used and how to use them correctly. My job is to teach them about English, even the parts that are considered boring and/or trivial.

  8. “I am pleased to see that someone recognizes the need for teaching elements of grammar. I’m an English teacher, and when I go to workshops and meetings, all I hear is that grammar instruction “stifles” creativity and stops kids from wanting to write. ”

    That’s insane. Any “creativity” that’s “stifled” by attempts to properly express the result is not really worth much. The point of creativity is to produce new coherent thoughts (images, devices, applications, etc.), not to spew words whose meaning is muddled through bad syntax.

    Programmers, for instance, are definitely doing creative work, but by damn they’d better use perfect grammer in the process, or they won’t get very far.

    Renaissance artists were extraordinarily creative, and they followed definite rules about perspective, lighting, and so forth while they were doing their creative work.

    And every good book is a work of creative effort, and they’re all using practically perfect grammar as well.

    Next thing you know, they’ll be telling us that two-year-olds have their creativity stifled by being taught to pronounce words correctly…

  9. Ken writes: “Next thing you know, they’ll be telling us that two-year-olds have their creativity stifled by being taught to pronounce words correctly…”

    Well, hate to tell you this, but you can’t teach 2-year olds to pronounce words correctly. They learn the sound system from the input they get, but not from modeling. And they proceed systematically and creatively, even if they have anal parents who keep correcting them, to no avail.

    This has nothing to do with stifling creativity and everything to do with the amazing language learning process every child goes through, even those with various physical limitations. These are matters for empirical investigation, not assertions of folk beliefs.

  10. About this whole stifling creativity thing, I think it’s absolute bull. I’m a composer, and my mastery of music theory has made me MORE creative, not less.

    Before I learned theory, I would be working on a piece, and I would do something that didn’t sound right. I would know that it didn’t sound right, but I wouldn’t have had a clue about why it didn’t. If something like that happens now, I can put my finger on it in about a minute flat, and I’m on my way.

    In addition to that, know how the language works gives the writer ownership of it. The more you know about the language, the more you can use it, or misuse it, to good effect.

    Those are just a couple of ways that those who avoid teaching grammar for fear of stifling creativity do just that.

  11. I spent one year going into a grade school classroom as part of the Jaycee program. One day the students showed me pages of a “book” they’d written. Each student had contributed a page. One little girl displayed her page but it was impossible to decipher what she’d written. I felt bad because I couldn’t make any sense of it, and the teacher had to tell me what all the lettering meant. The student pages were all displayed on the wall outside the classroom and were considered finished. I have to say as a parent it bothered me that the sentence hadn’t been corrected. As a writer it agitated me even more. I understand all the self-esteem issues that run rampant today, but I can’t say I understand how this type of thing will enhance the student’s self-esteem, let along education, in the long run.

  12. I understand all the self-esteem issues that run rampant today, but I can’t say I understand how this type of thing will enhance the student’s self-esteem, let along education, in the long run.

    It’s probably going to be very damaging to their self-esteem, because, as much as progressive educators hate to admit it, success creates self-esteem, not the other way around.

    If a child does something wrong early on, and is corrected, it’s usually not a big deal. However, if said child continues to do something wrong, all the way through until college, and only then finds out that he was denied a big part of his education, then it’s a huge deal. It’s also incredibly damaging to his self-esteem in the long run.

  13. This is a very interesting discussion.

    I checked out John L.’s link and it is excellent. Thanks, John!

    Even though I’ve been teaching writing and grammar to 7th graders for 30 years, and I’m open for suggestions.

    The “Step Up To Writing” program they gave us is not very good. And the Warriner’s grammar book under the new Holt name does very little other than frustrate my students.

    If anybody has any more good links to share on this topic, please pass them along.

  14. Neglecting instruction in the structure of our language has consequences beyond the enhancement of the self-esteem of those too lazy to learn it. How we speak and write is intimately connected to how we think.

    We would like our students to learn metaphysical fundamentals such as causation and sequence, and ethical concepts, such as personal responsibility. Fine. Ways of thinking about syntax: person, number, tense, voice and even mood are vital to understanding these things. One whose “mutha'” tongue conjugates the verb to be as, “I be, you be, he/she/it be’s” is crippled in his or her thought patterns, and needs to be led to clarity of language and of mind. It’s not easy, but that’s what we’re here for.

  15. Richard Brandshaft says:

    And then again, today’s blatant error is tomorrow’s pedantic quibble. Nero Wolfe (whose creator, Rex Stout, was born in the 1880s) objected to using “contact” as a verb.

  16. Lou Gots: “One whose ‘mutha’ tongue conjugates the verb to be as, “I be, you be, he/she/it be’s” is crippled in his or her thought patterns, and needs to be led to clarity of language and of mind.”

    This is a dangerous argument, as it can be understood to mean that speakers of languages without person and number conjugation (e.g., Chinese in which one says “I/you/he/she/it/we/they be”) are “crippled in [their] thought patterns.” If this kind of grammatical complexity is associated with clarity of thinking, then English speakers’ thiknking must be muddled compared to that of ancient Indians, since the latter distinguished between dual and plural: e.g., Sanskrit asi (thou art), sthas (the two of you are), stha (threeor moreof you are). English “you are” could refer to one listener, two, or three or more.

    Moreover, one could argue that English speakers have been “crippled in [their] thought patterns” for centuries since they don’t care about genders or declensions anymore. Even Old English was muddled compared to its ancestor Proto-Indo-European; the latter had more cases than OE did.

  17. “threeor moreof you are” should be “three or more of you are.” My keyboard’s space bar is dying. Of course, that doesn’t excuse “thiknking” (sic).

    Lou Gots: “Ways of thinking about syntax: person, number, tense, voice and even mood are vital to understanding these things.”

    Does one need a subjunctive to understand the difference between a hypothetical and non-hypothetical situation? Google “If I was” (indicative) and “If I were” (subjunctive). The latter is not much more common. Do people who say “If I was” *not* understand that they’re talking about a hypothetical situation? For them, the use of the word “if” is sufficient; marking the verb would be nice but redundant.

  18. Amritas–thanks for those helpful clarifications. Lou Gots needs to do some study of African-American Vernacular English where “be” functions quite nicely and does not impair anyone’s thought.

    Language has always been in flux. It’s never stable, even in its written forms. Look what email and instant messaging has done to writing conventions. One of the most common fallacies in discussing language comes when variation and change are regarded as signs of corruption, decay, or poor thinking.

    Variation and change are constants in all languages, both spoken and written. That’s why we adopt conventions: let’s all pretend together that there’s no change and no variation and we’ll all follow the same style sheet. Yeah, like AP or New York Times, or Chicago Manual of Style, or the Columbia Manual, or, well, y’know–one of those.

  19. With regards to Lou Gots point, I think it has some validity, though the way it was expressed probably wasn’t the best. Language does shape the way we think, and a more powerful sense of language can help refine one’s thought processes.
    I offer the following as food for thought: Tribe has best excuse for poor math skills

  20. Mad Scientist says:

    Language does shape the way we think, and a more powerful sense of language can help refine one’s thought processes.

    True, but a bigger picture is that it shows the listener how educated you are. When someone uses “I be goin’ to da store”, I shudder because the person is showing he is not the brightedt bulb on the tree. If he takes offense when asked to use proper grammar, he is actually proud of his lack of education. I would not hire such an individual.

    Where I work, one of the favorite pharses is “needs replaced”, to indicate that something is broken. Note: this is not: :needs to be replaced” or “needs replacing“; simply “needs replaced”. This is written as well as spoken. These are white guys in their 40’s and 50’s spouting that crap. I know where it comes from: a dialect of Penssylvania Dutch; these guys are NOT Pennsylvania Dutch.

    Still, one of the most effective methods of learning grammar is by taking a foreign language.

  21. As a writer myself, I have to say that creativity is enhanced by an order of magnitude by a firm grasp of language mechanics. It allows the writer to be much more sublime and lyrical, and permits a much greater precision when discussing complex subjects. Without the structure, the meaning is uncertain. That leads to misunderstanding and miscommunication, which is the bane of knowledge and reason.

  22. John Thacker says:

    Well, Sean, if you would like me to express it another way, there is no explicit subject stated for the participle, which is okay in English when the subject of the participle (or other dependent clause) is the same as the subject of the main clause. However, it’s frowned upon when the intended subject of the dependent clause does not match the subject of the main clause.

    In Japanese, the subject is never necessary to explicitly state when it’s understood, so rather than an omitted subject to a dependent clause being assumed to be the same as that of the main clause, the correct subject (“I”) would be understood. One exception, as excellently pointed out by Taeyoung, is in the use of “~nagara”, where the subject of the phrase ending in “~nagara” and that of the main phrase are assumed to be the same.

    It was really just an offhand comment that it reminded me of an overly-literal translation of a Japanese sentence that failed to insert a subject where English requires one.

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