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.
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.