This post is not specifically linguistic, but an aid to teaching writing. This short list remains open, maybe you, or I, will think of another principle:
Principles of Good Writing:
1. Read the assignment, and adhere to the given format.
2. Tell the reader what you’re going to tell her, tell it to her, then tell her what you told her.
3. Get straight down to business in the introduction.
4. Develop your points one paragraph at a time. One idea per paragraph, one paragraph per idea (occasionally two).
5. Make friends with commas, and fluff them up with the occasional semicolon or colon. Use exclamation points and question marks for rhythm and fun.
6. Pay attention to description – use colorful adjectives, carefully chosen nouns, and active, lively verbs.
7. Don’t depend on your reader to do the analysis. Hand it to her on a silver platter.
8. Read your paper aloud to catch awkward sentences, or sentences that don’t say what you want them to say.
9. Avoid the obvious. Say something meaningful.
10. Tell the reader something she doesn’t already know.
11. Bring other minds to bear on the subject – use your sources carefully and richly.
12. Writing begins at revision.
13. Establish and maintain your relationship with your reader: don’t preach to her and don’t underestimate her.
14. Leave the reader with a conclusion that will sink so deep that it appears in her dreams.
Ways to prepare for a good essay: Freewrite, cluster, journal, outline, meditate.
One of the controversial claims that Noam Chomsky presented in his original research was that language is universal and innate. In David Crystal’s A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics” (4th ed. 1990), this concept is defined this way: ”…universals provide a theory of the human language faculty — those properties of language which are biologically necessary — which is thought to be an important step in the task of understanding human intellectual capacities.”
New research suggests that languages are so idiosyncratic in their development that their nature could not be universal. Here is the link to a synopsis of the full research report published in April 2011 in Nature:
and here is the link to a synopsis of the article, published in the April 14, 2011 issue of Wired:
Make two kinds of basic English sentences. This exercise is deceptively simple. There are inevitably many stumbles, but students gain a bit of mastery. There is much more to be said about the form of English sentences, but the exercise should be kept simple. Elaboration on sentence forms comes another day.
Subject-Verb-Object is the basic English sentence; “The dog saw its master,” “The man hit the baseball,” ad infinitum. The nouns on either side of the verb are different entities.
Noun-Linking Verb (to be)-Noun is another basic form; ”The woman is a nurse,” “Apples are a fruit.” The entities on either side of the verb are the same.
The students were asked to make their very simple sentences as interesting as possible. The maximum length for a such a sentence would be five words. The winners:
Subject-Verb-Object: ”The elephant ate an olive.”
Noun-Linking Verb-Noun: ”The mobster was a pussycat.”
Noun-Linking Verb-Adjective: ”Her dress was fluffy.”
(The class might begin with the students looking through poetry texts for a poem to read aloud to the rest of the class. This loosens them up for a unique and daring choice of words in their sentences.)
Linguistic principles come into play most effectively in the space between drafts. The sentence in bold below is part of an essay in which the student discusses school funding.
“What else would this money be used for? New textbooks for classes, having new and better school utilities, and making school buildings look better. These all may be good things to have a new and good look for things, but it is still taking away the creativity that students may carry.”
The problems in the bold sentence are grammatical, logical, and semantic.
The grammatical ones relate mostly to pronouns. The subject of the first sentence is these, and so the reader looks to the last occurring nouns before the pronoun (new textbooks, school utilities, and making school buildings look better) to endow this pronoun with meaning. What are school utilities? Is she referring to electricity, heating and cooling, or to some sort of convenience or maintenance? making school buildings look better is also vague. Does she mean painting, cleaning, redesigning, or something else?
The subject of the first sentence, these, is already vague and confusing. The subject of the second sentence, it seems to hark back to the vague these of the first sentence, but these holds only the confusing meaning of its own antecedents. The reader is left to make her own sense out of the sentence.
The logical development in this sentence is also flawed. The sentence says that students’ creativity is taken away by it or these which seem to refer to new textbooks, better school utilities, and making school buildings look better. This surely does not make sense.
The semantics add to the confusion:
The word things is too general in the sentence a new look for things. What things? There are two undefined things in one sentence.
School utilities does not refer to anything easily identifiable — one has to impose a definition.
Students do not “carry” creativity.
This is one of the longer posts on this blog, which illustrates just how complicated it becomes when statements are ungrammatical (using pronouns without clearly identifiable antecedents), illogical (the statement that students’ creativity is endangered by new textbooks, better school utilities, and making things look better), and vague (things, misleading or incorrectly applied verb, carry.)
When these lapses are addressed between drafts, the writer now has a chance to say it well in a second or third draft. She may not be all that sure what these and it mean herself, and she now has a chance to clarify her thoughts.
Research by Quentin D. Atkinson, a New Zealand biologist, has concluded that human language began in Southern Africa, and all existing languages have developed from it. His theory is based on analysis of the phonemes of languages along the route of emigration from Africa. Phonemes are the sounds of a language, from the guttural French “r” to the single tap of the Hindi “t.” The distinctive phoneme of American English is perhaps the softly garbled “r” which so many speakers of other languages find it to hard to replicate. Here is the gist of the Africa, and the link is below:
“Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes [sounds], whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has 45 phonemes.”
The important point to take from this research seems to be that all languages are related in an organized fashion. Let the studies begin!
We use different language forms when speaking with different people, or in different groups. You don’t usually ask Grandma, “Yo, whassup?” Over the Thanksgiving holiday, various family members might watch a football game, get together over dinner, and go to church. While watching the football game, the decibel level is likely to spike at times, profanity will be thrown around, and words like “interference,” and “defense” will have unique meanings. Many words, like “quarterback,” “touchdown,” and “tight end” will only be used in that setting. At dinner, the decibel level is likely to be more steady, with limited profanity, and another set of specialized words, like “table setting,” “gravy,” and “serving” will be used. Church is likely to be quiet, with no profanity, and yet another set of specialized words.
Ask your students to monitor the linguistic groups they are a part of over a weekend. They should list each group, the specialized words they used in each setting, and the words they used in one group which they would never use in another.
Looked at one way, there are two kinds of language, concrete and grammatical. Concrete language consists of words that represent real objects or concepts — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Grammatical language is definable by its function, not by its meaning; it links words, marks tense, and performs other supporting functions.
In the sentence “The leaf has fallen off the green tree,” the concrete words are leaf, fallen, green, and tree. The grammatical words are the, has, off, and the. The indicates that this is a specific leaf, and a specific tree, off indicates that the leaf has fallen from a higher place to a lower place, and has indicates that the act of falling is complete. Tree and leaf could have several meanings, while the always performs the same function.
1. Take a random sentence and list the concrete and the grammatical words in it.
2. In a random paragraph, count the number of concrete and grammatical words. In The leaf has fallen off the green tree the ratio is 4 (concrete) to 4 (grammatical). Is this the typical ratio?
When faced with the word unapologetically, one student asked, “Why do they have to use such big words? I suggested that it was not such a big word, and we took it apart.
- un = not
- the root = “apology”
- etical = a suffix which changes a noun to an adjective, a variation would be -itical, -atical, or -al (political, heretical, mathematical, critical, etc.)
- ly = a suffix which changes a word to an adverb
Once the student realizes the function of the prefix and suffixes, the word becomes more manageable. He or she may still have to look up the definition, but the word no longer seems quite so big.
Exercise: Choose several root words (change, recognize, avoid might be possibilities) and add suffixes and prefixes to change their meaning: for example, changeable, unchangeable, interchangeable, interchaneably, unrecognizable, unrecognizably, avoidable, avoidably, unavoidably, avoidance.
Grammatical correctness and meaning are two separate functions, which don’t always coexist. Here is a sentence, devised by Noam Chomsky, which illustrates a perfectly grammatical sentence, but has no meaning:
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
Here is a sentence which has meaning (though the reader has to construct it), but is grammatically incorrect:
Another reason why he dislikes lots of motorcycles in one area are large motorcycle rallies where a lot of people get their bikes there on pickup trucks, and just rides them around the town for show.
Exercise: Ask your students to construct a sentence which is grammatically correct, but meaningless; then ask them to construct a sentence which has some kind of meaning, but is grammatically incorrect.
If they are like my students, and like me, the second task is a much greater challenge.