Paying the piper 2: The failure of American high schools

A couple of blog posts ago, I presented some cockamamie sentences from my students. The sentences suggested to me that the students did not have a handle on the rules for constructing sentences. They confused spoken English with written English, but the sentences cited would not be used in spoken English.  This baffled, and still baffles, me. If they do not know the rules, then they should be depending upon their ears to produce correct language, right? Yet I receive so many muddled sentences that they would never use in conversation that it seems they don’t have confidence in their ears either. They are flailing around, tacking together sentences out of available material without any feeling of mastery. Is the language changing so fast that we are not sure what is correct any more? Or is it a question of poor pedagogy? (Some of it is due to lazy proofreading, but if that were the only problem, then it would be easy to fix, and they have great difficulty rewriting these sentences so they are clear.)

Here are some examples of out-of-control prepositions. The questionable prepositions are in italics.

1.         Even with my grandpa’s life was on the line, he refused to give up what he loved, and continued to eat greasy foods, continued to play golf, and continued to keep up the large property that he lived at with my grandma.

2.         I kept in contact with some of the individuals with whom I had a strong attraction to. 

3.         I felt bad in which she does also have a job she attends every morning.

The last sentence is not a single preposition, but an ungainly and incorrectly used prepositional phrase. The student could not explain this odd usage, which the class felt was incorrect, and I imagine he sensed something was needed, pulled a preposition out of the grab bag, and completed the prepositional phrase with a randomly chosen which.

Exercise: Choose awkward, ungainly, or incorrect sentences from student work, and ask the class to rewrite them.  This is drudgery and should be done in small doses.  It seems to me that the groups of sentences presented in a single day should be examples of a single syntactical problem.  This way, the guiding linguistic principle can be introduced and applied.


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