Help desk

Here’s a question a friend just asked re: the following–

I live with my father in the summer, when I’m on vacation from school.

Why does that comma make sense?

The handbook rule (speaking of main and subordinate clauses) is that we use commas  when the subordinate clause introduces the main clause, but not when the subordinate clause follows the main clause:

I wake up early because I like to walk the dogs before I go to work.

Because I like to walk the dogs before I go to work, I wake up early.

The “I live with my father” sentence seems to break that rule, but it ‘sounds right,’ so the question is why is that.

Why does the comma after summer sound right?

My guess is that “when I’m on vacation from school” is functioning as a kind of nonrestrictive modifier–a parenthetical–but I’m no linguist … so we will await word from Katharine, who is.

UPDATE: Katharine says it’s nonrestrictive!

It’s a lot of fun having a friend who’s a linguist.

How to score a 790 on SAT verbal…

Re: teaching grammar to raise scores on SAT/ACT language tests, Jean writes:

….I should think there are not many students who can identify a clause. I couldn’t, until I put my two kids through Rod & Staff English, where they tell you all about clauses every year. (I put my kids through R&S because I had never been taught any grammar except nouns, verbs, and adjectives. It seems to have paid off; my 17yo got a 790 on the SAT verbal.)

Jean smoked me out!

I was tempted, in my earlier post, to say that until I started teaching freshman composition a few years ago, I couldn’t identify clauses, either.

But I thought better of it.


Funny thing is, when I returned to teaching I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’d been taught the difference between simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences as a child; I remembered it well. But I had no idea that I’d never actually understood it.

So there I was, staring down students’ mangled sentences, not having much idea what was actually wrong with them, and thinking I knew what a complex sentence was when I didn’t.

That was then.

How to score a 34 on ACT English

A while back, I mentioned my ACT student, the one who was scoring at the 85th percentile on English when we began work and had reached the 98th percentile just one month later.

Not long after she took the June ACT, we had good news: her practice scores held! On English, she scored 34 (out of 36).

From the 85th percentile to the 98th in 1 month.

Her June reading score, on the other hand, wasn’t as high as I think it should be. On practice tests, she was scoring 32; on the real thing, she scored 30 (89th percentile, presumably). I’m hoping she’ll reach 32 in September.

That said, her weakest reading score put her at the 66th percentile, so technically her reading gain was higher than her gain on writing.

Eureka moment

“M” made most of her gains in the second two weeks of our work together.

I’ve become a pretty effective classroom teacher, I think, at least judging by my students’ results on exit exams. But I’ve been teaching the 5-paragraph essay, not ACT/SAT reading and language, and I have a semester to work with my college students, not 4 weeks. So with M., I was feeling my way.

Two weeks in, we were pretty much exactly where we were on Day One–and this with a highly intelligent, focused, and disciplined student. A lot of teens don’t do test-prep homework, and they can be scattered when it comes to keeping appointments. But M. did all her homework and showed up, and still we weren’t getting anywhere.

I was worried.

Then, pretty much from one day to the next, everything turned around.

On the reading front, I figured out Debbie Stier’s approach, which she developed while tutoring her daughter, and began using it religiously with M. (Debbie had actually explained her technique to me going in, but I hadn’t understood the essential feature.)

That was a game changer. M’s scores on practice sections jumped up and stayed up.

On English, I had a eureka moment: sentence slots!

Sentence slots, clauses, phrases!

I needed to stop teaching commas and start teaching grammar.

That was the breakthrough.

As soon as I began filling M. in on subjects and finite verbs, I discovered that she had no idea what a clause was. She didn’t know what phrases were, either, and had once inserted a comma in between a preposition and its object. (That’s another issue–punctuating-by-pause–that I’ll get to in another post.)

She’s a native speaker; her spoken grammar is perfect.

But nobody uses punctuation when they talk, and to use punctuation properly you have to know where clauses begin and end.

You have to know where phrases and sentence slots begin and end, too.

I’ll close with a terrific paragraph from Ed Vavra’s KISS site:

My interest in the teaching of grammar began in the 1970’s, when I was a graduate assistant at Cornell University. I taught Freshman Composition in the context of Russian literature. . . . My students were having problems with the use of semicolons, and time, and time again, I tried to explain that a semicolon is used to separate two main clauses with contrasting ideas — “He went swimming; she did the dishes.” The lessons never took, and it was not until after a semester was over, and I was discussing the problem with a student from one of my classes that I learned what the problem was. “We can’t,” she told me, “identify clauses.”

Help desk

An item on PSAT 1:

They know it as colony collapse disorder (CCD), this phenomenon will have a detrimental impact on global agriculture if its causes and solutions are not determined.

B) Known as colony
C) It is known as colony
D) Colony

Choice A is wrong because it’s a comma splice.

Choice B is correct.

Choice C is wrong because it’s a comma splice, too.

Why is Choice D wrong?

I think it’s wrong because “colony” is a noun that lacks a noun “slot” (or function) in the sentence: it’s not a subject; it’s not an object; it’s not a complement. It’s nothing, really. At least, it’s nothing in terms of the sentence.

Is there a different way to see it?

ACT results

Sorry to have been MIA — I’ve begun tutoring the ACT and have been immersed in the test.

It’s been exciting, fun, and really satisfying.

Results for my first student:

 Timed practice tests 4/29/2017 5/31/2017
English (75 items) Missed 12 (Scaled score: 27)
85th percentile
Missed 4 (Scaled: 34)
98th percentile
Reading (40 items)
(I used Debbie Stier’s method)
Missed 13 (Scaled score: 23)
66th percentile
Missed 3 (Scaled: 32)
95th percentile

That second set of scores was actually a bit of a letdown because by the end of May, A. was routinely turning in perfect scores taking stand-alone timed sections (not the entire test).

No misses at all.

She took the real test yesterday morning, so now we wait–wait, and start work on math. She’s taking the September ACT, too, so the plan is to get her math score up by then.

I also have to make sure she doesn’t get rusty on English and Reading over the summer.

That brings up a question: in fact, I don’t actually know if it’s possible for her to get rusty over the summer. Once your unconscious learning system has learned something, it doesn’t forget.

I’ve got to find time to get back to Make It Stick and to Dan Willingham’s various articles to figure out how much practice she might (or might not) need. I’m just not sure.

But I’m happy!

Update: just realized I should include my email here since we don’t have a tutoring page up yet: