Commitment is tough—especially when it comes to grammar

I’ve been distracted away from blog posting by a number of things: most recently, a heap of student papers. But these papers, as it turns out, aren’t just time-consuming items to read and grade; they’re also rich material for a blog about writing instruction. With great regularity, they illuminate blog-worthy patterns in the prose writing styles of the latest crop of college graduates (my students are typically master’s students). One of these patterns appears in the three sentences below, which I’ve altered slightly for anonymity:

  1. In Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures, it discusses how autistic people can be very visual in their thought processes.
  2. From talking with the student’s mother, it seems as though she is very satisfied with the accommodations he receives at school.
  3. For those individuals that are included with their regular education peers, they struggle more with accessing classroom reading materials because they are reading below grade level.

What do all these sentences have in common? I’m not sure how obvious the pattern is: I’ve perhaps become, over the years, as hyper-sensitive to it as I am hyper-irritated by it. But what we see here, generally, is a looseness of syntactic structure. More particularly, all three sentences have topical material that really belongs in subject position, right before the verb, but is “factored out” into an introductory modifier. Ditch the modifier and move the content into subject position, and you get:

  1. Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures discusses how autistic people can be very visual in their thought processes.
  2. My talk with the student’s mother gave me the impression that she is very satisfied with the accommodations he receives at school.
  3. Those individuals that are included with their regular education peers struggle more with accessing classroom reading materials because they are reading below grade level.

The sentence structure is tighter, and there are fewer content-poor words like “it” and “for.” The original sentences, in other words, have undergone the kind of pruning and tightening that should be one of the priorities of revision. And I’m guessing is that part of what’s going on here is that fewer and fewer students are bothering to revise their sentences.

First drafts of sentences are naturally loose and wordy. When we start formulating a sentence, we’re often unsure of where it’s going—which is why spontaneously spoken sentences often look garbled in written transcripts. If you’re not sure where you’re going, it’s safest not to commit yourself to a particular subject. Prematurely committing yourself to a particular subject may prematurely commit you to a particular predicate: a predicate that may be at odds with what you actually end up wanting to say. So why not procrastinate by placing the topical material in some sort of introductory modifier–“In such and such a book,” “When talking to so and so…,” “For those people who…..” Then, when you get to the main clause, you can use some sort of pronoun or placeholder (like “it” or “there”) as the subject as you start thinking your way through the rest of the sentence.

That, at least, is my explanation for these loose, modifier-heavy, subject-light sentences that predominate in the absence of revisions. As for the other phenomenon–why are students no longer revising their sentences?–this brings us back to one of the reasons why Catherine and I are writing this blog in the first place: the demise of sentence-level instruction.

4 thoughts on “Commitment is tough—especially when it comes to grammar

  1. 0) I read this post twice before I realized it was written by Katharine and not Catherine. I assumed the latter because of the Temple Grandin reference.
    1) Perhaps students aren’t aware that they need to revise, that they should be revising, or indeed that there exists such a concept as revision.
    2) Or perhaps students are merely omitting revision because they’re waiting until the last minute to write their papers. However, this is not a new phenomenon; we were kings of procrastination in my day, 35 years ago.

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    1. Either* of those is possible. Given that the writers are grad students, though, it would surprise me if they had not been told repeatedly that writers first write, then revise.

      What would not surprise me at all, though, is that they don’t actually understand what “revision” actually means. The only way I know of to inculcate that information is by ruthless and repeated line edits. Even then, and even among professional writers, my experience is that about half are incapable of generalizing from making specified corrections to an internal process.

      * I omit comment #0 … even though it’s also possible. 😎

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  2. Definitely in favour of sentence level revision — it’s tough and can be discouraging especially if you seemingly revise something three, four times and then a day later you realise you repeated a key word twice (once as a noun, once as a verb, say) and made two typos to boot. And that was just one sentence. Having a second pair of eyes helps, but only so much … and only when available.

    Am curious to read further posts.

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  3. When a sentence comes off as clunky, I find the verb and see if it is correct. In sentence 1, I would look at who or what is doing the discussing. Can a book discuss? or is Grandin discussing? I think I would revise it like:

    Temple Grandin, in her book Thinking in Pictures, discusses how autistic people can be very visual in their thought processes.

    That puts the human being in the position of discussing, not an inanimate object.

    I also like a good hyphen, and I think sentence 3 would be improved with one: “regular-education peers”. They are not regular peers. They are not education peers. They are regular-education peers.

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