linguistics in high school
At the end of the 19th century, a Xam/San man (we call them “Bushmen”) in South Africa looked at a figure in a prehistoric rock painting and said “That’s a shaman!” (This account taken from The Mind in the Cave, by David Lewis-Williams, published by Thames & Hudson in 2002.) Nobody knows for certain what happened 70,000 years ago in the mountains where the modern Bushmen still live, but scholars had been studying the prehistoric rock paintings they found there, and puzzling over what they meant. The Xam/San have been continuously living in this area since before history began, and until the 20th century took full hold, their lives had not changed much. They have always lived off of the meager takings in the Kalahari Desert. The Xam/San man’s reaction to the painting is a clue to what happened 70,000 years ago, when the painting was created.
The period in which the rock paintings were made is identified as the beginning of human abstraction. A symbolic figure like the shaman represented something that one could not touch, an abstract, godlike figure. There is also evidence from around the same period that ritual burials were conducted, and this suggests also that syntax had developed sufficiently to create verbal rituals which were shared by a large group and used to bury their dead, along with various artifacts. Archaeologists have uncovered many of the artifacts, but the language, of course, is lost, except for its traces among the Xam/San.
There are cave paintings showing women sitting in a circle clapping and singing, with a larger circle of men dancing behind them. What were they saying? There would have been text as well as rhythm. (The modern Xam/San man also recognized the dual circle type of ritual because they still performed it at the end of the 19th century.)
Humans 70,000 (or so) years ago were also experimenting with the mind, performing ritual dances like the dance above, which altered their state of consciousness resulting in trances. This suggests a level of self-awareness not experienced by any other animal, and also a control of language which could trigger, enhance, and then explain these experiences. Trances which alter consciousness are still part of religious experience today. Sometimes they have a linguistic result, Speaking in Tongues.
Without phonographs and television, there is no way to analyze the experiences of prehistoric man, man at the beginning of language. We have only tiny glimpses of the truth through the lives of modern men and women like the Bushmen, paired with rock paintings which portray human behavior, and artifacts which suggest the patterns of prehistoric life. All evidence is circumstantial. There will never be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Archaeology and anthropology have developed as rapidly as astronomy over the last century, and circumstantial patterns are emerging more and more clearly. The assumption at this point in their research is that humans emerged in southern Africa, where the Bushmen still live, and dispersed to Asia and then to Europe. Language probably began as part of burial and religious rituals in those early days, and later became the glue which held communities together and made possible their cooperative efforts as they took the long journeys to Asia and Europe.
In their new book, Linguistics (published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2012), Anne E. Baker and Kees Hengeveld catalogue the differences between human and animal language. Neanderthals and the predecessors of homo sapiens communicated, of course, but language rose to a more complex intellectual endeavor at some point. Bees, for example, will perform their “wiggle dance” pointing to the source of the materials to make honey whether or not any other bees are watching, and will perform the same dance every time. They never “just do a little dance.” The bees cannot say what the weather was like, or that they encountered other bees en route. Human language requires cooperation – the interaction between one speaker and another; creativity – the ability to create unique sentences upon demand; spontaneity – the use of language whether or not there is a prompt; and arbitrariness – the use of vocabulary and syntax which is created without any natural reason. We call a bee bee, Greeks call it melissa, and the French call it abeille, for no particular reason. The important factor is mutual comprehensibility – cooperation — and we could agree on any word we chose to accomplish that.
This reflection on the beginnings of human language is not meant to be comprehensive, and certainly not meant to be right. Not even the greatest archaeologist would claim to be “right.” It’s food for thought as we speak our way through our lives.
In my opinion, language smothers our familiarity with the biological patterns which direct our lives just as powerfully as our minds do, but that blog belongs to somebody else.
Around the year 449, England was invaded by Germanic tribes who introduced their language to the Celts whom they conquered. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, recorded the first account of this catastrophe. Bede claims that the conqueror tribes were the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, from the Danish peninsula and Germany.
Before 449, the central and southeastern parts of England were a Roman province (the Romans never penetrated Scotland and Wales), and the Romans spoke Latin. Given the advanced technology and comforts introduced by the Romans, like central heating, baths, and advanced plumbing, it is no surprise that at least the mercantile and ruling classes in Britain adopted Latin as their language, while the rest of the populace spoke Celtic languages. Gaelic, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Irish, and Manx are among the original Celtic languages, and some are making a comeback today.
As Rome weakened, its legions left Britain, leaving it unprotected against the invasions of the Germanic tribes who brought along the original forms of English.
Under different circumstances, our language might be called Jutish, or Saxonish, but the Angles became ascendant among the invading tribes. Over the succeeding centuries, the place came to be called “Englalande” (Land of the Angles), and the coalescing languages of the invading tribes were called Englisc.
Olde English, with its Germanic declensions of nouns and adjectives and complicated verb conjugations, lasted from about 450 to 1150. Olde English is dead in that nobody but specialists could either speak or comprehend it today. It differs from modern English more than, say, old French from modern French, or old German from modern German. Consider this example (taken from The Unfolding of Language, by Guy Deutscher):
Me ofthingth sothlice thæt ic hi worhte (I regret having made them).
This is incomprehensible, right?
Language turned topsy turvy again in 1066, when the French-speaking Normans invaded. The Norman king and his Court spoke French, and as reward for their victory, Norman lords took over British land and businesses. The servants and townspeople continued speaking English. Gradually, the Latin-based French vocabulary and syntax changed the surrounding English dialects, and by 1600 the above quote became:
For it repenteth me that I haue made them
which is fairly comprehensible.
Nouns dropped their gender in this period, though for some reason we still call ships “she.” Over the centuries, the familiar forms thou/thee were replaced by you in both the singular and the plural. The modern pronoun forms he/him/his, she/her/hers, our/ours/ours, and so on, give us a sense of how to decline nouns, but even these forms are fading. My students regularly use me instead of I in sentences such as, “Me and Mary went to the mall,” thus regularizing the pronoun forms. Without the declensions, speakers identify the function of nouns by their place in the sentence. Me is the subject (nominative case) because it comes first in the sentence. English has become a more linear language.
When some English people ended up in America, all hell broke loose. The native tribes contributed succotash, chipmunk, moccasin, powwow, and teepee. African slaves gave us the Blues and boogie, mumbo jumbo and banjo. The Irish added hooligan, galore, and whiskey. The Jews brought us oy vey, blintz, chutzpah, glitch, and putz. We recently added quesadilla, hola, and macho to our vocabulary.
The invention of recording devices made it possible at last for us to listen to the accents of peoples’ speech. We cannot hear a 10th century British farmer speaking, but we can hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt and many early movie actors, whose speech sounds almost British. Changes in accent occur gradually, as do changes in syntax. We seem to be eliminating the nominative case and saying, “Me and Mary went to the mall” without the blink of an eye.
English is morphing in Jamaica, India, and Singapore. Perhaps some day these offshoots will be so deeply changed by influences of their own that a native English speaker will not understand them. That’s how modern English moved away from its own Germanic roots.
It all started in 449. Thanks goodness that today our changes occur through immigration, not bloody invasion. The language changes faster that way, and change is more or less voluntary, though many grandparents today mumble, “Over my dead body,” when they hear their grandchildren say “Me and Mary went to the mall.” But I like it better this way.
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.
As I head off for a few weeks in California (during which I will post from time to time, as I find interesting things to write about), I leave you with a smile on your face.
Let’s begin with an homage to Yogi Berra, a Hall of Fame baseball player (and founder of a baseball museum on the campus of the university where I teach, Montclair State), who has contributed as many smiles to American faces as anyone alive. Here are some of his aphorisms:
This is like deja vu all over again.
Baseball is 90% mental — the other half is physical.
It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.
The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase.
You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.
I didn’t really say everything I said.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
You can observe a lot just by watching.
You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.
Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.
I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early.
I can barely stop quoting him – these tickle my funny bone, no matter how many times I hear them.
The New Yorker used to feature snippets of headlines and other reportage, my favorite of which was (I write from memory – it was a long time ago. See how funny stuff sticks in your brain): Correction: Page 46 should read ‘pull your rip cord,’ not ‘state your zip code.’ The editors have discontinued the practice. I still subscribe, but miss my favorite part of the magazine, such a welcome antidote to their sober, well-researched articles.
Richard Lederer has compiled some gems from his years as a teacher at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in the book Anguished English, An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language.
A passive verb is when the subject is the sufferer, as in ‘I am loved.’
The Gorgons had long snakes in their hair. They looked like women, only more horrible.
The difference between a king and a president is that the king is the son of his father, but a president isn’t.
His students write of the River Stynx and Mount Montezuma where Abraham was set to sacrifice Isaac. King David was known for fighting the Finkelsteins, and Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.
The malapropisms are legion:
She has unmedicated gall.
In many states, murderers are put to death by electrolysis.
The marriage was consummated at the altar.
Mr. Lederer goes on for 117 pages – much too long to read in one sitting:
Man arrested for possession of heroine.
Panel agree to much sex on television.
Reagan goes for juggler in Midwest.
– but enough already.
Another classic of humor is The Devil’s Dictionaries, by Ambrose Bierce and Chaz Bufe. It begins with:
Abnormal, adj. Not conforming to standard. In matters of thought and conduct, to be independent is to be abnormal, to be abnormal is to be detested…
sails through Mafia, n. An uncommonly straight shooting group of businessmen.
Ending with Yes, Dear, excl. For women, an indication that the speaker is not listening to them. Synonyms: “Yes, honey,” “Of course, honey,” “Anything you say, dear,” and a self-deprecating definition of Zeus, under “Z.”
So don’t take your language for granite, as Mr. Lederer’s students might say. It could be one of your favorite toys.
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.
Years ago, a friend said he thought that young people today were blurring the distinction between real and virtual relationships. I said that was ridiculous, that human beings would always need the sights, smells, and touch of other human beings. A relationship based on language alone would never prove gratifying.
Now I wonder. My students recently had to write an essay on “love and marriage,” using a set of poems and stories, and the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. They were also allowed to use outside sources, personal anecdotes, the results of small polls they devised, etc.
Three essays used news reports about professional celebrity Kim Kardashian’s recent marriage to Kris Humphries as a source, informing me why she got married in the first place, and why they divorced after a couple of months.
There are, of course, several reasons why these are inadequate sources for any academic work. Pygmalion (as opposed to news reports about Kim Kardashian) follows a relationship through many ups and downs, and in different social environments, involving family members, friends, professional concerns, etc. One can develop an opinion as to why things turned out as they did. Poems, too, condense profound issues through intense use of language and symbols, etc.
I pointed out to my classes that the Kim Kardashian they had met in the magazines in the supermarket was no more a real person than Eliza Doolittle. The students have allowed the daily drip drip drip of Kim Kardashian to invade their systems, giving the illusion of reality. They confused literary art with commercial endeavors – selling magazines, that is.
I asked my classes if an online relationship, in which one person has never met the other, could ever be defined as a romantic relationship. This is not as simple a question as one might think. When I was single, about five years ago, I had a long and frequent email correspondence with a married man. He wrote to me of his marital and professional problems, his plans for the future, his deepest thoughts and feelings. At 2:00 am one morning he was writing me a long email when his wife passed silently behind him, barefoot, going to the bathroom; he had not heard her coming. The thought that his wife might see his email to me frightened him out of writing for several weeks. Was our relationship adultery, or betrayal of his marriage? He was quite sure that, whatever it was, his wife would have been upset.
So the line between real and virtual is not so clear sometimes, but academia is one place where a bright line can be drawn. The uncheckable, semi-fantastical world of celebrity publicity and cannot be used as an academic source. If the world of online relationships is included in an essay, it should be approached with care, as we have not yet gotten our moral arms around the online world. We do our students a favor if we draw the line clearly between virtual and real, and may be doing the world a favor if we draw them into a substantive discussion of the new set of morals and behavioral norms which the online world has drawn us into.
Exercise: There are daily examples of online experiences and celebrity publicity which can be discussed. Perhaps students could be enticed into providing a moral parsing for the close but virtual relationship I had with a total stranger online. Was he betraying his marriage vows? If you are brave enough, you might venture into the influential world of online pornography — according to news reports, online pornography has changed the expectations and sexual practices of especially men.
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.