Whenever I teach ENG 105, I always begin with the same lesson, the point of which is to get students thinking about how much they know about the grammar of American English without even realizing they know it. I start by putting the following sentence on the board:
The boy hit the dog with a fish.
Then I ask them to tell me how many different meanings they can find in that sentence. Eventually, usually pretty quickly, someone will raise their hand and explain that either the boy is holding the fish and using it to hit the dog, or the dog has a fish in its mouth when the boy hits it. How, I ask, is that possible? Not just that one string of words can have two different meaning, but that someone who has never formally studied grammar at the college level is able to find those two meanings with relatively little difficulty. Then I make the sentence a little more complicated:
The boy hit the dog with a fish in a box.
We spend some time puzzling out the different ways of reading that one, and then I put some other ambiguous sentences on the board:
- Visiting relatives can be boring.
- I gave her cat food.
- Did you see the girl with the telescope?
- Prostitutes Appeal to Pope.
The last one is an actual headline I copied down from somewhere a very long time ago, but even though it is a slightly different kind of ambiguity because it has to do not with the syntactical structure of the sentence per se, but with the two different meanings of appeal as a verb, it helps to make the point that my students (and remember I am talking in this series about native speakers) all have an unarticulated understanding of the underlying semantic and syntactic structure of English. If they didn’t, they would not be able to find the ambiguities.
Next, to make this point from a slightly different direction, I put on the board some sentences like these:
- The plittle gliffered the lokain.
- The foreign lankert is graffingly tired of too much voomin.
When I ask them what these sentences mean, it takes a little longer, but someone will eventually explain that, in the first instance, something called a plittle performed an action known as to gliffer on something called a lokain and that, in the second sentence, lankert, which comes from another country, has had enough of whatever a voomin is. Again, I ask my students how it is possible that they can know this, despite the fact the words most central to the sentences meaning are clearly not English. This then leads into a discussion of what linguists call the surface structure of a language, which more or less corresponds to the part of the language we see when we read or hear when we listen, and, again, the point is to illustrate for my students their own pre-existing knowledge of the subject they have taken my class to study.
Finally, just for fun, though its actually a serious kind of fun, I ask my students to tell me whether they wait in line or on line, why we (for most of us in New York anyway) get in a car but on a train, plane, or bus. Then I will ask them to tell me whether they are in school or at school, in class or at class, and to see if they can figure out the circumstances under which they would choose one preposition over the other. As they struggle to figure that out—and it doesnt really matter to me whether or not they come to any firm conclusions—I point out, again, that they would not even be able to have the discussion if they did know quite a bit about how to use their native language properly.
In the past, my goal for this lecture has been simply to pique their interest, to get them to see grammar as a subject they can own, and I use that idea to segue into the value of learning to diagram sentences as an intellectual exercise. This semester, though, I need to use this lecture, which I am loathe to change if only because it works so well, to introduce the idea that learning grammar (and we will be doing some diagramming in connection with that) will, as Nora Bacon puts it in her chapter called Clause Structure, help my students gain…control over written language [by enabling them] to read the work of other writers with a discriminating eye, which she defines as the ability to look at sentences analytically, seeing what the parts are and how they fit together (The Well-Crafted Sentence 18).1 Bacon begins with clause structure, which makes eminent sense, not just because it allows her to cover the three kinds of verbs (transitive, intransitive, and linking), but also because it allows her to make the point that good writers are good in large measure because of their skill in manipulating clauses. She offers these two sentences as an example of how important the conscious placement of clauses can be:
- Even though I want a piece of cherry pie, I’m committed to my diet.
- Even though I’m committed to my diet, I want a piece of cherry pie. (30)
One of these sentences represents someone who is planning to stick to her or his diet; the other represents someone who is planning not to. While my students will almost certainly be able to tell intuitively which is which, I am looking forward to finding out whether and to what degree teaching them about adverbial clauses will help them figure out how to translate that intuitive knowledge into a conscious writing practice.
Cross posted on my blog.
- I should say that I am skipping over the fact that, if past experience holds true, I will have to spend a weeks worth of class reviewing the parts of speech. [↩]
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