Paying the Piper – the failure of American high schools

A second semester college student included this language in the third, and final, draft of her essay on “love and marriage.”  I like many other people are surprised by the amount of time couples stay together.  Not to mention adopting a child.

After the final drafts had been turned in, I culled 22 similarly flawed sentences from 20 of the 35 writers in my two classes, and passed out a paper listing them to the class.  The sentence above was the first example.

Everyone was uneasy with the language – something was wrong, but they couldn’t identify the problem(s).

My advice is always to begin by identifying the subject and verb (and object(s), if applicable), so that one gets a feeling of how the sentence is anchored. The first student was flustered and nervous when I asked her what the verb was.  She could not produce an answer, so I gave her a hint.  “It’s the most common verb in the English language.” When people was not correct, she offered surprised and then like. Then she gave up.

The rest of the class was equally perplexed. They studied the sentence, but were unable to come up with the verb.

I asked one of the students to read the sentence aloud, and after doing so, he suggested that there should be commas around like many people. This was progress. It sequestered superfluous words and made the subject and verb more easy to see, so he suggested that  are was the verb, which was obviously an incorrect form, and then moved to am. The core of the sentence is I am surprised.

That was a good beginning, but there were other problems. The next “sentence” remained, a hulk pulling the energy of the first sentence into a dark hole.  Not to mention adopting a child, wasn’t clear, they decided.

“What’s missing?”

No answers.

We fiddled with it. Was it supposed to be …number of times couples stay together, not to mention adopt a child?  (This would raise the issue of parallelism, as stay and adopt should appear in the same form, since they would be a compound verb.)  Was it supposed to be …amount of time couples stay together, and also the frequency with which they adopt children?

Only the author could have clarified the meaning, but I insisted on keeping all sentences anonymous.

I made it clear to the class that, in my opinion, it was not their fault that they had not been taught in high school even the most basic rules about constructing a sentence. They have been left to depend only on what the language sounds like, and the glut of awkward, ungrammatical, or unexpressive sentences produced suggests that this method is not effective.

In the single sentence above, a student has evidenced lack of knowledge about 1) the difference between a noun, a verb, and an adjective, 2) the subject-verb agreement which binds sentences together, 3) the use of parallel forms, and 3) the purpose of commas.

The next series of blog posts will present more of their sentences.

Exercise:  Cull incorrect, unclear, or awkward sentences from student work, keeping the writers anonymous.  It is important that these sentences be from the students’ own work, because they remember their mental processes in dealing with the assignment. Even if they don’t know who wrote the sentence, they know it was one of their own, and that makes a difference.

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