A few years ago I was having coffee with a friend who worked at the time at The New York Times. We agreed that some of the best writing on the newspaper could be found on the sports page. Nothing earthshaking happens in sports –the player hits the baseball “out of the park” or “over the fence” or the fast ball is 97 miles and hour or 90 miles an hour, the player scores a goal or makes a point. It’s the same thing day after day. A writer makes this repetitive information interesting by larding his article or his broadcasts with interesting stories and colorful language.
A woman at the next table reached over and touched my arm. She was smiling, and her companion was laughing. She was the daughter of Yogi Berra, an iconic American baseball player, and her companion was Yogi’s wife, Carmen. We explained that we were both avid sports fans, but realized that our passions might rest in a game for a while, but for most of us, our lives do not rise or fall depending on the daily scores. Sports are not like politics, the weather, or the stock market.
Working writers have many challenges; they sometimes even die covering wars, but for day-to day creativity, none surpass the sports writer. Yogi Berra himself has contributed expressions that Americans use every day, such as “It ain’t over til it’s over,” and my favorite, “It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more.”
Colorful language begins with verbs; they provide the energy in a sentence. I have been impressed by the creative use of verbs by the NBCSN announcer in the hockey playoffs, and have included a list below. All of us, including the announcer himself, would die of boredom if he said the same basic words a thousand times – “he hit the puck,” he passed the puck,” “he aimed the puck.” There has to be some variety. The fragments below come only from his descriptions of what the player does with and to the puck. They don’t include what the player himself is doing (racing, banging, charging, attacking, and so on). That would comprise another long list.
62 verbs for one action, in one hockey game, besides the common ones, such as passed it, or hit it:
angled it, banked it, blasted it, blocked it, bounced it, centered it, chipped it, cleared it, coraled it, cranked it, cut it, deflected it, dragged it, dropped it, elevated it, fanned it, feathered it, filtered it, finessed it, fired it, flipped it, floated it, fought it off, headed it, hooked it, hustled it, jammed it, knifed it, ladled it, laid it up, led it on, lobbed it, lofted it, misfired it, peeled it off, picked it up, played it on, poked it, popped it in, pumped it along, punched it in, reached it, reversed it, rifled it, shook it, shoveled it, shipped it, shuffled it, skipped it, slithered it, slugged it, slung it, snuck it, spiked it, sticked it, stuck it, swatted it, threw it, toedragged it, tucked it, whacked it, worked it, yanked it.
Prepositions expand the list: he knifed it in/out/along; he floated it across/through/over, he headed it in/out/over/across/through/between.
It is the announcer’s job to keep a list of verbs handy, but occasionally they are spontaneously poetic. Baseball is a leisurely, slow-paced game with plenty of room for stories and references. The present set of New York Mets announcers, Keith Hernandez, Gary Cohen, and Ron Darling, often refer to ancient Greek myths, Shakespeare, and poets or authors of various kinds. Sometimes they dip into mathematics or history. I am fascinated by the symbiosis between the most basic of our entertainments, sports, and the most high-fallutin’ classical endeavors. Classical music frequently provides the background to advertisements aired during games, and the announcers often call us to our higher intellectual selves.
Yes, I am a sports fan, and a linguist, and the two go together very well.
Exercise: Ask students who are sports fans to make a list of the verbs used by their favorite announcers. Or ask students to cover a sports event at their school, using as many verbs as possible. They could work in groups to do this.
One of the cardinal virtues of good writing is clarity, and proper use of verb tenses is crucial to clarity. Since most students have never been informed of their purpose, or form, they trudge around in a swamp of verb tenses, using them arbitrarily without controlling them.
The past perfect (the “had + past participle” form of the verb), for example, is disappearing. Going extinct. Dying out. This form is used to show a sequence of events, and without it, the events are not clearly lined up. In my view, it is indispensable to clear writing, and should not be an endangered form.
Textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference and The Everyday Writer have one-sentence explanations and single examples of the past perfect. The paltry online exercises they offer are, in my opinion, useless. I presume (and I might be wrong) that they subscribe to the commonly held philosophy that native speakers pick up these forms without formal instruction. Since my students make a terrible mess of verb tenses, this philosophy has not produced clarity in either the students’ minds or in their work.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has online exercises in tense consistency (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/exercises/2/22/) which include a couple of examples of the past perfect.
Without the past perfect, the timeline often dissolves. Here are two sentences which would have been clearer if the student had used the past perfect.
I was shocked and hurt when my uncle died. Would I have responded better if I was told that he was going to die?
I assumed it was all over since a week already passed.
Note how much clearer the sentences are when the past perfect is used:
Would I have responded better if I had been told he was going to die?
I assumed it was all over since a week had already passed.
There is another clue that students have not been properly introduced to the past perfect – they sometimes use it without the context of a previous event. Here are two sentences where the past perfect is inappropriate:
The sweet moment between Helen and her son had put a smile on my face.
I had seen him yesterday.
The simple past should have been used, indicating this this was a one-time event, unconnected to any other event:
The sweet moment between Helen and her son put a smile on my face.
I saw him yesterday.
By the time students are in college, it is very late to establish new verb patterns. The student’s instincts have already become malformed. I find that no matter how many times I mention the function and form of the past perfect, this mistake recurs. They understand the logic of the past perfect, but it takes a while for them to master it.
Exercise: Though verb tense habits are, in my experience, hard to rearrange, you can have the students complete the Purdue exercises, and make up some of your own. They can either be the fill-in-the-blanks or the yes-no type, where the student indicates whether the verb tense is correctly or incorrectly used.
Of particular value are both correct and incorrect sentences culled from your students’ work, which can be presented for evaluation.
In previous posts I wrote about Subject-Verb mismatches when a clause intervenes, and when a prepositional phrase intervenes. There is another, perhaps more pernicious, form of mismatching, the There is malformation. This has become widespread not only in my students’ papers, but on television, in political speeches, and in print articles. Here are some examples from my students’ essays:
Before I die, there is a couple of things I would like to do.
Going away to college was always a goal, which I have now accomplished, but there is now plenty of more things I want to do.
In my lifetime, there has been occurrences when I made the wrong choice and my life seemed to be going wrong
This is the things that are going through their head when they are in assisted living.
There is now plenty of more things I want to do in my lifetime that going to college set me up to do.
Let’s review: Sometimes there is a Subject, a Verb, and an Object (Fred loves ice cream – A loves B). When the entities on either side of the Verb are the same (I am a teacher – A equals A), the Verb simply links these two entities, and is referred to sometimes as a Linking Verb. The word to the left of is (I) is the same entity as the word to the right (a teacher). They are both singular, and the verb between them is therefore singular.
In the A = A construction, there or this serve as empty placeholders to the left of the Linking Verb. They absorb all of the qualities of the word to the right, and the verb agrees with the word to the right. In the first sentence above, things is plural, and the verb should be are. There is no singular element in the first sentence at all, so no place for a singular verb.
As with all matters syntactical, this it not always that simple. Consider the caption to a photo on page A6 of The New York Times on May 16, 2012: Valérie Trierweiler and France’s new president, François Hollande, are the first unwed couple to occupy the Élysée Palace. There is a plural, compound subject (Trierweiler and Hollande) to the left of the Linking Verb (are), and a singular noun (couple) to the right. The writer has chosen to make the verb agree with the entity to the left, which is plural. [Trierweiler and Hollande] is the first unwed couple… doesn’t sound right.
When the entity to the left of the Linking Verb is empty, like there, the Verb should agree with the only entity which has number; the noun to the right. That does not happen in the examples above.
The only explanation I can come up with to explain this phenomenon is phonetic. It is much easier to say “there’s” than “there are” or some shortened form like “there’er.”
Since there is no unifying explanation for the various Subject-Verb mismatches discussed in earlier posts, I would choose this possibly phonetic explanation for the dissolution of agreement between Subject and Verb in all cases. If one can slip phonetically into, “There is many reasons,” then one can also say, “The reasons my mother gave me is the best ones.” That is also easier to pronounce than “there are.” If one can use a singular verb with a plural noun in that case, why stick to the rules of agreement in other settings? It is for this reason that I call this form pernicious – it has leaked into the foundations of the grammatical structure and upset all manner of sentences which are built on this structure.
When I told my husband that President Obama frequently says such things as “There’s many reasons for this,” he said that was impossible. Listen for yourself. Listen to news announcers and pundits, to former President Bush. Our language role models are using this grammatical form, and it is being picked up by my students. As if to illustrate this point, in a PBS program about Johnny Carson, one commentator said, “When he went on the air there was tremendous expectations.”
Perhaps this change will be permanent, or it will pass. In the meantime, how do we approach our students’ papers? I am deeming There has been occurrences, and There is many reasons incorrect, but I do so without hysteria. It must have been upsetting when people stopped using the familiar thou form a couple of centuries ago, and when the subjunctive started going out of style (If I were going to the concert in the park, I would buy an umbrella). Before John Lennon, I didn’t know what a yellow submarine was, and found the change from Mrs. or Miss to a ubiquitous Ms. unsettling. Language is the harbinger of the future, and thus of change. It tests our flexibility of mind, and challenges our assumptions.
Exercise: Since the There’s many reasons epidemic is upon us, it would be helpful to do some class exercises in which the students filled in the correct verb form in there or this sentences. Make up sentences using these words, with nouns of varying forms on the right side of varying forms of the verb to be. Even if the language changes, your students will at least be able to control the sentences they write. The standard written form will undoubtedly remain There are many reasons for some time to come. They must master standard forms for their own future good.
Several previous posts have discussed grammatical problems occurring in my classes this past semester. In the previous post, I discussed mismatched Subjects and Verbs when a clause intervened. This post addresses a similar error pattern, only this time the intervening language consists of prepositional phrases. Here are some examples from my students’ papers:
The effects [of this argument] sustains through time without any apologies.
Since the reality [of living life] [without any regrets] are extremely slim, some regrets are inevitable.
In Robert Frost’s poem, Away, illuminates this fact by saying “I leave behind/Good friends in town, /Let them get well-wined/And go lie down” (Frost).
With playing soccer and also studying at school sets me up for either path I would like to take in my life.
In the first two examples, there is a prepositional phrase (in brackets) between the Subject and the Verb. If the students had been aware that of and in were prepositions, and if they had known how to identify a Prepositional Phrase, they might have caught the errors.
In the previous post, I speculated that perhaps English verb forms were simplifying, as has happened in the past. These two sentences suggest something else — it seems to me that my students have been betrayed by their instincts. English speakers instinctively form sentences using an S-V-O pattern. The verbs (sustains and are) agree with the misleading nouns (argument and regrets) which immediately precede them – the S-V pattern. The actual Subjects are both singular and plural (reality and effects), and seem irrelevant to the writer, as neither one agrees with its Verb.
The last two sentences seem an anomaly, but since there are two sentences using the same pattern, from two different students, I wonder. In the first, the Subject (poem) agrees with the Verb (illuminates), but the preposition in has been added at the beginning of the sentence, making poem the Object in a Prepositional Phrase, and thus ineligible as the Subject, as a noun cannot have dual roles in a sentence. In the last sentence, the compound Subject (playing and studying) does not agree with the Verb (sets up). In this sentence the student makes the Subject the Object of a Preposition, and thus ineligible to be the Subject, and also has the Verb agree with the noun immediately preceding it.
Mistakes like these lead me to believe that students see sentences as masses of undifferentiated words. They do not realize that though in is a “small word,” it has leverage and weight, and influences the words around it.
I am an amateur singer, and my teachers and choir directors often say that we should not sing note by note, but phrase by phrase. Language is the same. Sentences are not constructed word by word, but unit by unit. If students can see the units, sentences are less complex. The first sentence, for example, doesn’t consist of 11 words, but of 5 units; the Subject (the effects), the Verb (sustains), and three Prepositional Phrases (of this argument, through time, without any apologies). If they could see this construction, perhaps they would not be so daunted.
There will be one more post on Subject-Verb agreement.
Exercise: As with the previous post — have students identify and bring to class examples of faulty sentences which they hear in person or on television, or read in magazines or newspapers.
As discussed in a previous post, students have not been prepared in high school to identify the Subject and Verb of a sentence. The argument against teaching grammar is that we need no tutoring to create comprehensible sentences, unless there is some mental dysfunction. Volumes could be written about that contention, and I will not start here. As a teacher of writing, however, it is informative to note that there has been a breakdown in certain basic grammar usage.
Without some instruction in grammar/syntax, it seems to me that my students see sentences as an undifferentiated mass of words. When it comes time to repair unclear or awkward sentences, it is helpful to be able to discern the underlying sentence structure so the sentence can be fixed.
When the Subject-Verb agreement rules break down, there is a profound instability in the language. There are three ways this can happen: 1) the person loses track of the connection between the Subject and Verb, 2) the person has a unique but stable writing or speaking style which might be affected by a second language or a dialect, and 3) the language is changing.
A Virginia Delegate, Charniele Herring, is quoted in The New York Times: “The only conclusions I can come to is that he was not supported because he was gay.” In this case, there is a clause (I can come to) between the Subject and Verb (conclusions and is), and perhaps the speaker has lost the connection. I would normally assume that the Delegate was tired or distracted and has simply made an error of inattention; however, my students have created sentences with the identical problem. The Subjects and Verbs are in bold; the intervening clauses are in brackets.
The sports [that I would be choosing] is going to be mainly soccer.
The initial feelings [that brought you and your partner together] starts to become crowded out by outside factors such as children, finances, and other responsibilities.
The times in life [that seems to be the worst] always turns out for the best.
Whether someone leaves a legacy behind after they pass or not, most can agree that one thing [no one wants to leave behind] are regrets.
When sentences such as these are lifted from the context of the essay and presented to the whole class, all students, including the author, feel that something is wrong. Sometimes they can put their finger on the error, and sometimes they cannot.
The starting point of my interest is that this pattern does not seem to be the result of inattention or typographical error; there are too many of them, and the error pattern is identical. When students in New Jersey and a Delegate in the Virginia government use an error pattern which even a few years ago would have been deemed an egregious error suggests that something else is going on.
Perhaps the verb forms are simplifying. Since English is a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) language, complicated conjugations may not be necessary – the noun occurring in front of the Verb is the Subject. In the examples above, including the Virginia example, a plural noun (conclusions, sports, feelings, times) is matched with a singular verb form (is). So far, I have not found examples where a singular noun is matched with a plural verb form; such as The conclusion…are.
Perhaps if students could identify the clauses, the Subject-Verb connection would be more clear. The error pattern might be the result of a lack of instruction. It might help to make them aware of the missing that in two of the above clauses ([that] I can come to, and [that] nobody wants to leave behind.)
Much more research would have to be done to ascertain the present day workings of the language, but this development seems to represent a change in linguistic habits.
More examples will be discussed in subsequent blog posts.
I am a curious linguist rather than a grammatical purist, but I identify these patterns as errors when reviewing drafts. Keep in mind, though, that these sentences occurred in the third drafts, so the errors have already been pointed out. These are either new sentences, created after the second draft, or the patterns have once again gone unrecognized as students revised their papers. They stand out starkly to me, but the students don’t notice them.
Exercise: Ask students to keep an eye out for spoken or written sentences in which the Subject and Verb are not properly matched. The lack of agreement between Subject and Verb is occurring more and more frequently, even among our linguistic role models.
This series of posts is about the error patterns in my students’ sentences. The errors interfere with clarity, flow, and aesthetics. There are so many occurrences of basic errors that my conclusion is not that the students are inattentive or sloppy, but that they have never been taught how to construct a solid English sentence. The illustrations come from a mere 32 essays.
The first set is a long one, and contains error patterns with prepositions. Prepositions are sometimes called our “small words.” They are words such as in/out, over/under, since/until, at, and to that express time, space, direction, possession, and causal relationships. They are used in prepositional phrases (The book is on the table; it has been there since Tuesday, and it belongs to the professor). They also exist as particles linked to verbs: look up, look at, leave out, turn in, and so on.
Though nothing is simple in syntax, there is a test which can usually identify if a preposition is a particle (linked to a verb) or stands at the head of a prepositional phrase.
Modern grammar texts, such as Discovering Grammar: An Introduction to English Sentence Structure, by Anne Lobeck, published in 2000 by Oxford University Press, ignore the creaky, ancient rule that sentences should not end with a preposition, and state that the position of particles is variable:
I left out the comma is no more or less grammatical than I left the comma out.
In a prepositional phrase, however, the preposition cannot be moved:
I saw him on the train is grammatical, but I saw him the train on is not grammatical.
Below are some sentences, taken from my students’ essays, with confusing or incorrect prepositions.
My grandpa continued to keep up the property that he lived at with my grandma.
If it wasn’t for my family history, I don’t know what I would base my ethnic roots toward.
They are going to enjoy every lavish thing that one could imagine of.
My parents are so happy of me that I’m playing soccer in college.
She regrets that what her patients face are lessons to be learned into living life.
The sudden death of Mary is symbolic to how it feels to have someone we know die.
This salon still serves the same customers who have aged after the years.
I would embrace an adopted family’s roots but I would not be able to accept them towards myself.
People need to get through each step on their own pace.
These goals would not be there without the legacy that my Uncle instilled to me.
I have never experienced death to a close family member.
It may seem natural to fall in depression when you know life is near done.
The students have sensed the need for a preposition, even if they don’t know what a preposition is, and have reached into the grab bag of “small words” and pulled one out indiscriminately. When these sentences were reviewed in class, most students agreed not only that the choices were incorrect, but also that they would not say, for example, “My parents are so happy of me.” We speak more than we write, and we learned to speak before we learned to write, so the interference of spoken language (slang, sentence fragments, overly casual forms) is common. These sentences are not instances of such interference, since the students indicated that in conversation, they would not use the same prepositions. The errors might be the result of a strained effort to raise the formality level of the student’s writing. Neither my students nor I had any definite answers as to why these errors occurred.
Being able to identify prepositional phrases will not guaranty better sentences, but it is something a teacher might track. I can’t for the life of me, however, conjure up any reason why teachers should not give this information to their students. My students seem to view sentences as a mass of undifferentiated words. They don’t see the anchors, the skeleton of the sentence.
Exercise: First, be sure your students know what a preposition is. Here is a partial list: about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, as, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, besides, between, beyond, by, despite, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, opposite, outside, over, past, since, through, toward(s), under, underneath, unlike, until, up, upon, with, within, without.
You might discuss the multiple roles these prepositions play in expressing time, space, direction, possession, and causal or instrumental relationships. A book can be by the flowerpot, or by Ernest Hemingway. You may meet your friend at the bookstore, or at one o’clock, and a mother might tell her son, “Look out behind you!” or she might say, “Whatever you do, always know that I am behind you.”
Second, you might give them a text and ask them to find all the prepositions, then ask them to categorize them as particles or heads of prepositional phrases.
I love my cell phone and would not like to go back to a world without them. But like Hal, the bossy computer in Stanley Kubric’s great film, 2001: a Space Oddysey, these little machines are messing with our heads.
I teach first-year university students, and have noticed two new developments this year: 1) cell phones have turned malignant, and 2) the English language seems to be falling apart. Each observation deserves its own column, and this is the first of two.
Remember the embarrassing old days, when ringtone snatches of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, or a creepy science fiction riff, or clanging church bells would interrupt the class, symphony performance, family dinner, or prayerful moment in church whenever a call came in? Those moments don’t happen so often now. Cell phone etiquette has finally settled in, and we have gotten used to silencing our bossy machines.
It is the very silence in which messages now seep through that is malignant. Students in my classroom can place their cell phones on a nearby surface and check for messages without any auditory interruption. They don’t even need an earbud any more because they communicate through text messages. There is no sign of activity other than the flicker of their eyes as they glance at their cell phones. Without moving their heads, they glance down to check messages. I tell them, “We need all of your minds engaged here,” but the messages are irresistible. They remind me of Ullyses in The Oddysey. In order to get home, he had to navigate the channel between the Sirens, and his crew lashed him to the mast to prevent him from being seduced by them. Where cell phones are concerned, the seduction is not physical but mental, and there is no way to lash my students to a mast.
It isn’t that simple. They are distracted by specific messages, but also by the POSSIBILITY that at any moment, a message might arrive. Their minds are sutured to the cell phone at all times, even if nothing is going on. Something soon might happen!
In this eternally distracted state, it was not uncommon for a student to lose track of our class activities and thus not be able to answer a question. They sometimes do not clearly draw the line between Siren and Class.
I needed to find a solution, or the class would fall apart. So at the beginning of every session I checked that there were no pending emergencies that would require them to monitor their cell phones, and with their affirmation that there was not, they were able to resist. Usually.
The problem is even more confounding. They use their cell phones to take notes, read assignments, and access the Internet for class-related activities. Not every person glued to a cell phone can be assumed to be on personal business. At the recent meeting at my university, the presenter asked the audience to turn off their cell phones before the speaker took over. When I saw a student typing furiously on his phone, I asked him to put it away. “I’m taking notes,” he said.
In one class, I asked students to read each others’ papers, and one student handed over his cell phone to his fellow student. It is difficult to read large amounts of text on a cell phone, but they are getting used to it. It would be impossible to make notes or corrections on the essay, but the cellphone manufacturers will soon integrate better editing functions.
The ubiquitous text messages are being written in a new, special language which features frequent lol’s, omg’s, btw’s, yolo’s, and wtf’s. Each person gets to make up his or her own style of punctuation and abbreviation, and there are usually no capital letters, and no more than a scaffold of a thought. Just enough to get the thought across.
Since students so often write in this playful, personalized style, they lose sight of the rules of language which we call “grammar” or “syntax.” Standard English lies buried under a pile of bits and pieces.
My second column will feature sentences taken from the last essay written by my class. You will be surprised.
Exercise: Have a discussion in class, maybe listing pros and cons on the board, of the usefulness and influence of cell phones in the classroom.