A consistent mistake made by my students is using “everyday” instead of “every day.” “everyday” is an adjective, as in “That is an everyday concern of mine.” The other is a noun with a modifier, as in “Every day I brush my teeth.”
While on an unrelated Internet quest (looking for the website which best lays out the rules for use of prepositions), I landed on www.grammar.net which provided the following advice: “Although ending a sentence with a preposition is considered incorrect, these constructions are used everyday.” This is a GRAMMAR website, and they used “everyday” when they should have used “every day.” How can I object when my students make the same mistake? I can, but it is an uphill fight.
The www.grammar.net posting about prepositions was written by “Victoria,” a mysterious creature about whom no information was available other than her purported first name. (Is the author really a “she?” or could this be Victor or Viktor in female guise?) Being at the top of an Internet search for grammatical guidance, my students might land on this site, and could they not raise the “everyday” usage to contradict my assertion that this is a grammatical error? No. In order to use a website as a source, it must be from a trusted organization, not creatures like “Victoria,” and should have an academic sponsor or some expert backing. Digging a little deeper into the “About Us” section of www.grammar.net reveals that the website is linked to “SpellChecker.net” which sells two products named SCAYT and WSC. www.grammar.net is thus a commercial organization, and not a reliable source. Their minds are on their products, and the related grammar websites are no more than a come-on.
Another consistent mistake concerns using apostrophes to make plurals. In the popular textbook A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, the section on apostrophes states, “Do not use an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation.” According to this textbook, the plural of G.M.O., an abbreviation, should be G.M.O.s. But a recent New York Times (9/16/2012) article by Mark Bittman is entitled G.M.O.’s: Let’s Label ‘Em, defying the rules in my textbook. Shot down again.
So what’s a teacher to do? Neither The New York Times nor grammar.net support her. She is beginning to doubt the reliability of popular textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference, and has long ago despaired of using The Elements of Style because “style” has changed. Article one, page one, of that venerable tome declares that we should write “Burns’s poems” and “Charles’s friend.” The universal book at Montclair State this year was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the university posted announcements about the appearance of “Lacks’ son” at a symposium there. I can’t even get past page one of The Elements of Style before losing support from academic and scholarly sources..
I come back to a point I have made many times before – our language is changing quickly, unreliably, unpredictably, constantly. There. I broke the first rule of Stephen King, stated over and over again in his masterful book On Writing, “Avoid adverbs!”
My French textbook, French Reference Grammar (1993), has an index entry for the “conditional,” and in the section devoted to it, calls it “the mood of verbs tied to a condition.” My Greek grammar, Greek: A Comprehensive Grammar of the Modern Language (1997) also has a section on the conditional mood. My English grammar, Discovering Grammar: An Introduction to English Sentence Structure (2000) does not have a listing for the conditional in the index, including the “conditional” forms in the section on “modals” instead. However it is phrased (and perhaps the re-phrasing adds to the confusion), this form is used to express complex thoughts, and my students do not know how to use it.
Modals express possibility, permission, volition, necessity, and other conditions which express far more than a simple action. There is the old chestnut “can/may I do something?” with “can” implying physical ability, and “may” implying that you have permission to do it. The modals bring into play our imaginations and predictions, and often embody opposites. “Should I leave the room?” suggests that there is a reason why you should not leave the room. Perhaps Mary may arrive while you are absent, or maybe there is a gunman standing in the hall, or maybe the room is on fire. In each case, you are questioning your decision to leave the room because there are reasons for and against.
“Will you come to the party with me?” requires the other person to guess what he or she will be doing at some point in the future. He or she is only expressing an intention. Even if the answer is “Yes,” it still might not happen – there might be a hurricane, or one of you might get sick, or the party might be cancelled. It is quite a different animal from the simple past tense, “You came to the party with me.” That happened, and no further analysis is required.
There are usually two parts in a conditional sentence, and in English the present tense is matched to the future (If he wants to, he will come), the past tense (although the action doesn’t occur in the past) is matched to the would form (If he wanted to, he would come), and the past perfect goes with the would have form (If he had wanted to, he would have come.) There are permutations, of course, but my students don’t know how to use even the easiest ones. They struggle to express complex situations, and usually do not succeed in creating graceful sentences. Here are some examples:
The life cycle moves on so that everyone could enjoy what the earth has to give him or her.
It seemed as though I’ll never write my best seller,
This is when I realized I have gotten myself into this mess.
All I could notice was how red his face is getting.
I couldn’t possibly have both of them as my boyfriend. It will mentally and emotionally harm me and the guys.
These sentences should have been expressed this way:
The life cycle moves on so that everyone can enjoy…
It seemed as though I would never write…
This was when I realized I had gotten myself into this mess.
All I could notice was how red his face was getting.
I couldn’t possibly have both of them as my boyfriend. It would …..
Without the conditional, these sentences depend heavily on the reader’s ingenuity to make sense.
Sports announcers have produced another variation on the conditional. Here is a recent gem from Ron Darling, commenting on a Mets game in May, 2012:
He throws a knuckle ball curve on the third strike, that guy was not there.
This convention has become so common in baseball that fans understand it. They have just seen the action on the field on their television screens, so they can scramble together Darling’s meaning. I also remember sentences like, “That ball goes one inch higher, it’s a home run.” It’s almost as if baseball grammar were different from the rest of the world’s, but from my students’ sentences, I conclude that the rules for the conditional are collapsing everywhere.
Darling’s sentence would have been a lot clearer if he had said, “If he had thrown a knuckle curve ball on the third strike, that guy would not be there.” That is a sentence of 18 words, versus the confusing sentence, which only has 15. Perhaps this is a case of the language trying to simplify, economize, be more efficient. Languages do that all the time. Some of the efforts work, and some don’t.
These changes in the conditional are not adding anything to the language – they are confusing us, breaking up timelines and removing the “possibility, permission, volition, necessity,” elements of the sentence. Since there is no replacement for these forms, omitting them causes only confusion.
There are several ways to approach this, but perhaps the most efficient first attack should be aimed at improving fluency with the basic forms. Choose sentences from student papers which use the conditional correctly, ask all the students to express the sentences in the two other tenses.
If he wants to, he will come
If he wanted to, he would come
If he had wanted to, he would have come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From another blog I got a class exercise which proved useful in an unexpected way. A third party gave it to me, so I don’t know whom to credit.
Exercise: The Unknown Blogger first chose a brilliant description by John Steinbeck, from Cannery Row:
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and shorehouses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”
The Unknown Blogger then created a template from this description, see below. I asked my students to create a description of the university campus, but it could be any place well known by all the students, using the template.
(Place) in (City) in (State/Country) is a (noun,) a (noun), a (adjective + noun), a (2-word noun), a (noun), a (noun), a (noun), a (noun). (Place) is the (past tense verb, used as an adjectiv) and (past tense verb), (noun) and (noun) and (noun) and (2-word noun), (adjective + noun)_ and (adjective + noun) and (2-word noun), (noun) of (noun expressing materials the previous noun is made of), (noun,) (noun) and (noun), and (2 adjectives + noun), and (noun) and (noun.)
They must use the past tense of verbs as adjectives, two-word nouns, and so on, and in so doing, they are actively accessing their knowledge of what a noun is and how it behaves, instead of doing a passive identification or comprehension exercise. I could see the lightbulbs going on all over the two classes I did this exercise in. One student lamented, “I’m running out of nouns!”
It’s a brilliant exercise, and I thank the Unknown Blogger profusely. If I find out who he or she is, I will give credit on this blog.
What do you do when a college freshman, who has passed the required classes and tests to get into college, says the Subject of the sentence, After being forced to look into a deeper meaning I realized how that one little factor could alter your mood, is “mood?” (Please ignore the other problems with word choice, pronoun selection, etc.)
My question followed a review of the placement of commas and other punctuation. (We had reviewed Chomsky’s Colorless green ideas sleep furiously sentence in which the grammar is perfect, but there is no meaning, and Eats shoots and leaves which is unclear until the punctuation is added. The class was intrigued.) I went on to indicate that the required comma after the word, meaning, separated an introductory phrase from the heart of the sentence, which included the Subject and Verb (and an Object too).
As the student struggled to find the Subject, I could fall back on my mention a few days before that English was an S-V-O language, and ask her, “If you are looking for the ‘S’ in S-V-O, why would you look for it at the end of the sentence?”
She got the point and had the look of minor epiphany on her face, and I was pleased. Asking students to repair sentences which are not quite right without their knowing how the sentence is constructed is asking a lot. It would be like asking an electrician to fix a non-responsive outlet if she didn’t know how the wires in the room were connected.
The confession part of this is that while one student experienced epiphany, one or two of the other students were either sleeping or wishing they were.
Sometimes you have to teach what needs to be taught and accept the fact that there are a certain number of students who do not want to learn it. Or maybe it will lodge in their brains for a while and they will have their own epiphany at a later date.
I am convinced that teaching students how sentences are constructed is necessary to good writing. It has been my observation that students who pay attention to this instruction more quickly become adequate-to-good writers than the sleeping students. They probably wake up in chemistry lab or their math class.
My conviction has something to do with faith, and something to do with practicality, but I must confess that I may be torturing the sleeping students to no good end at all. I wonder. I often view myself as teacher-as-entertainer, but sometimes have to ditch that role to do some scales, some basic mental calisthenics, some just plain drudgery.
Language probably began when people gave names to things, people, and actions. It has developed into a sophisticated, flexible instrument since then. The language in the exercise below is akin to a primitive pidgin, but was probably the way our earliest ancestors spoke when language was first developing.
Exercise: Take the skeletal sentence elements below and ask your students to flesh them out into a full story.
girl fruit pick look bear see
girl run tree reach climb bear tree shake
girl yell yell yell father come scare bear
bear run girl father hug
Review their versions of the story, and note how prepositional phrases, conjunctions, “which/when/where/who” phrases and other tools can make (or have made, in their versions of the story) the story clearer, with a better flow.
* The story above is adapted from the book The Unfolding of Language, an evolutionary tour of man’s greatest invention (2005), p. 210, by Guy Deutscher.