Learning to Love the Sentence – Prepping ENG 105 (1)

This image is from the Capital Community College website. Source: A Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. Longman Group: London. 1978. p. 753.

For the first time in a long time, I am scheduled to teach ENG 105, Grammar: Structure and Strategy. In the past, I have taught it successfully as a class in parsing sentences, a skill that I first learned in third grade and then again, though in an entirely different form, when I was studying transformational grammar in graduate school. When I say I taught the course successfully, I mean that I was able to see concrete evidence that my students, most of them at least, had actually learned something. One woman, for example, told me how she was able to use sentence parsing to save her boss from sending out a letter that had some truly embarrassing grammatical errors in it; another, a seventh grade English teacher, was elated that she now had a vocabulary for teaching her own students about why certain kinds of sentences had to be the way they were. Granted these two women were particularly motivated, but I saw signs of real learning in other students as well, in every semester that I taught the class, even some of those who were the most skeptical and apathetic at the beginning.

Despite this success, if I had to identify one way in which I think my teaching of this course could be better, I’d have to say it would be in making an explicit and constructive connection between the course content and my students’ practice as writers. I have come to this position only gradually, since my original thinking about the teaching of grammar, especially as sentence parsing, pretty much ruled out that kind of connection. For me, ENG 105 was more about showing students a way to think about language, not a way to use it. In part, this bias comes from the training in linguistics I received when I got my degree in TESOL, but the bias also came from my own English education, most of which took place in the era when educators decided that the way to teach writing was to have students write and write and write (and read and read and read), the idea being that good, strong input would eventually result in good, strong output, and that worrying about the rules of grammar would interfere with that process.

For me, obviously, that approach worked, in part, no doubt, because it was continuous with the attitudes towards reading and writing that permeated my home. For all too many of the students who sit in my classes, however, no approach seems to have worked. In saying that, I am not complaining about how poorly they write, though many of them write astonishingly poorly; and I cannot help but wonder how they managed to graduate from high school. Rather, I am talking about the almost fatalistic sense of helplessness they seem to have in the face of the language they use to communicate every day (and I should add that, for the purposes of this post, I am thinking specifically about native speakers of English). Or perhaps helplessness is the wrong word. What I am talking about is the resistance so many of my students have to seeing language as something they can manipulate, something they are (or can, or should want to be) competent enough to use precisely. As, in other words, a tool of expression, rather than merely the artifact of having expressed oneself.

This resistance expresses itself in any number of ways, though I encounter it most commonly in students’ unwillingness to engage the process of revision in anything more than a superficial way. In part, of course, this unwillingness is very much about their being students and wanting to get by doing as little work as possible; but I believe there is more to it than that. In my writing classes–whether its freshman composition, technical writing, creative writing, or some other class–I make sure to spend some time every couple of weeks putting anonymous student sentences on the board so that we can revise them as a class. My students are always hesitant at first, but not only because they are uncomfortable critiquing a classmate’s writing, even anonymously, while that person is in the room; they are hesitant because they don’t know how to do it. They don’t know how to look at the language of a sentence and figure out how to make sure the interior mechanisms of form and content (grammar, in other words) are working properly. They can, generally speaking–they are native speakers, after all–point out what is not working properly, but they have no real sense of how to put the gears back in smooth working order.

It is true that teaching students grammar is not a guaranteed way of giving them that sense, but I am struck every time I do that exercise by the dawning sense of wonder in at least some of the pairs of eyes watching me as I stand at the blackboard recording the class’ attempts at revision. A sentence, they are beginning to realize–and I see evidence of this realization in at least some of their subsequent work–is not a fact of nature, but a thing they can learn to use, and that is where the teaching of grammar, at least potentially, comes in. I have discovered a book called The Well-Crafted Sentence (A Writer’s Guide to Style)by Nora Bacon, that I am very intrigued to try out. (I also want to say that I am pleased by the cost; the net price to students is $28, far more reasonable than most other college textbooks I know of.) It is the first writing textbook that I have seen which asks students to read as writers, not as critics, by which I mean that it asks students to attend at the level of the sentence, at the level of grammatical constructs, to the details of how published writers assemble their prose, not simply to whether or not those writers have said well what they wanted to say.

Bacon has no illusions, and neither do I, that students will come away from her text saying, for example, “‘In this piece, I’m going to use at least five verbal phrases.’” (Nor, frankly, would I want them to.) Rather, as Bacon points out, “Most of the time, as we write, our attention is fixed on what we want to say. We think about the meaning that we’re pushing into existence, and the words arrange themselves accordingly. But then we pause to look back…and that’s when we see that no, it’s not quite right…. At those points in the writing process, it is useful to be able to draw upon a rich store of linguistic resources,” an understanding of how grammatical structures work being among them. This is something I always tell my students–though usually without a specific reference to grammar–and I am intrigued by the possibility that this book will help me teach that way of thinking more thoroughly and systematically. I have just started prepping the course, and I plan to blog about my progress as I work my way through the text.

Cross-posted on my blog.

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9 Responses to Learning to Love the Sentence – Prepping ENG 105 (1)

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    One of the most valuable courses I took at MIT was not Physics or Calculus or Thermodynamics. It was a course called “Fantasy and Science Fiction”, taught by one Janet Anderson.

    A simple premise – read a book or two a week, write up 2 or 3 pages on it and then have a couple of class discussions/week. We were all inveterate science fiction readers anyway, so this looked like as close to a gut course as MIT offered.

    Janet had other ideas. The 2nd or 3rd meeting was the first one after we had turned in our first set of papers. We were all in class, waiting for her. She made a grand entrance. She held up a sheaf of paper in her hand. “I have your papers here,” – and threw them into the room, scattering paper everywhere.
    “They’re horrible! You all go to one of the finest schools in the planet and you all think that the way to write well is to use the biggest words and the longest sentences you can. For the next 6 weeks we are going to turn this class into a writing class. You are all going to learn how to write a simple declarative sentence!”

    We were graded on grammar and structure, and the in-class critiques were based on writing style and structure as well as what we had to say about the particular book we had read. She did exactly what she told us what she would do, and unlike 8.01 or 18.01 or 5.60 or any of those courses, I use the skill I learned in 21.015 just about every day – a skill that a lot of people I work with don’t have.

    Go get ‘em! It will serve them well in both the short run and the long run.

  2. 2
    nm says:

    In the beautiful diagram of the Preamble to the Constitution, why is “the” treated as an integral part of “United States” and “United States of America” and not as an adjective?

    My “I will teach you idiots to write” class came in 9th grade English. I have been utterly grateful to that teacher ever since, especially because I now know that if I’m having trouble putting an idea into words it’s because the idea isn’t really clearly thought out and I need to go muse on it some more.

  3. NM:

    In the beautiful diagram of the Preamble to the Constitution, why is “the” treated as an integral part of “United States” and “United States of America” and not as an adjective?< \blockquote>

    That’s a good question. I am wondering if it’s because “the” is part of the proper name. So, for example, “united” isn’t treated as an adjective either, but that would mean “the” should have been capitalized. So maybe I am wrong.

  4. 4
    nm says:

    Yeah, that lack of capitalization is throwing me, too.

  5. 5
    Robert says:

    I’m a professional editor, though I’ll confess my formal grammar is not up to the highest level of industry standard. At some point in my education, my ability to quasi-intuitively know what was right or wrong surpassed the teachers’ ability to articulate formal rules to explain why, so I stopped paying attention.

    Nonetheless, I loved diagramming, and the instant diagram is correct in its placement of ‘the’. Capitalization is not at issue; capitalization of formal nouns is akin to the inclusion of diacritical marks for vowels in Hebrew for the benefit of students unable to always correctly infer them: it is a helpful convention but not an actual grammatical rule.

    e.e. cummings blows no grammarian’s minds; he was a violator of polite conventions, not of structural rules.

    The name of our country is The United States of America, not United States of America. The capitalization of “The” looks awkward, and is accordingly often dispensed with.

    While I’m ruling ex cathedra from my navel, it is also perfectly acceptable to split infinitives in English, and if someone tells you differently, tell them to learn their history of language and know the reason for their rules or you will boldly go all up in their business.

  6. 6
    Robert says:

    Gaah. Proper nouns, not formal nouns.

  7. 7
    KellyK says:

    While we’re discussing the diagram, I noticed that the “and” only joins the last 2 elements of the compound (promote and secure). The way I was taught was that that line would extend all the way up to “form.”

  8. 8
    RonF says:

    My “I will teach you idiots to write” class …

    Love it!

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