Not as much rules about grammar now

A couple of excerpts from an essay J recently submitted for English 101:

At that time, people didn’t think that smoking was as bad, and therefore a lot of people have smoked and there weren’t as much rules about smoking in the building or restaurants or bar, and even hospitals.

Speaking of people drinking alcohol, there was some prohibition from 1920 to 1933, but it seemed like picture was taken after the prohibition ended, but before the prohibition ended, there were some organized crimes, like going to a secret bar and drink alcohol.

The professor loved it, particularly appreciating its “informal tone.” I loved it: J wrote it all by himself, without any help or edits from us. J’s grandparents loved it, too. None of us can stop marveling at how far he’s come, from barely putting two-three words together at age 6, to, after years of computerized grammar training, writing college-level English essays.

Right—college-level English essays. And there’s the rub.

“I trust the teacher will give him some feedback on grammar and punctuation,” my mother wondered.

Well, no.

In fact, at this point in my experience with the education world, I would have been surprised if there had been any such feedback. In the ed world, after all, it’s all about false choices and fake freedoms: open-ended communication as opposed to the confines of grammar; encouraging students to express themselves as opposed to stifling their creativity. No matter that, once in the real world, well-formed sentences suddenly matter: whether you’re writing a cover letter, a memo, or even a routine, job-related email message. Outside of English class, clumsy, error-filled sentences not only make you look careless and stupid, but also close off opportunities.

In fairness to the professor, I should note that (1) many of J’s sentences contained no errors; (2) the course is an online Blackboard course. (Normally online classes aren’t open to full-time undergrads: permission to take English online is the one accommodation that the disability office has made regarding J’s difficulty working in groups in English class—group work, naturally, having long been the norm in the brick-and-mortar versions of English 101).

This online English, as a Blackboard class, lacks functionality for marking up papers. Blackboard makes it convenient to submit papers, grades, and general comments, but (at least in the versions I’ve used) not to insert comments within student work. The best you can do is cut and paste entire passages into the “comments” window and then make edits (or cut and paste somewhere else, make edits, and then re-paste into comments). This procedure (though I’ve often resorted to it) is unwieldy. And it’s unwieldy not just for the person making the edits, but also for the student—who may or may not bother to do all the scrolling up and down that it takes to process all that’s been cut, pasted, and edited.

It wouldn’t be that hard for Blackboard developers to make inline edits as convenient as everything else is. But for this to happen, a lot more people would have to care.

Blogging out some thoughts around preposition agreement

Just as subjects and verbs can agree (“he walks”) or disagree (“he walk”), so, too, with verbs and prepositions. For example, we “bring up” a topic; we don’t “bring of” a topic; we “speak of” someone”; not “up” someone. Arbitrary though preposition agreement is, it matters. As with verb agreement, errors be hard on the ears.

How hard depends on what your ears have gotten used to. For decades now, “different than” has been edging out “different from”, and “based off of,” “based on.” Then there’s the gradual displacement of “about” by “around”—as in “issues around.”

The latter, I believe, is part of a larger, older trend that begin with the spatial meanings of certain prepositions. People used to look about the room; now they only look around the room. They also used to see things before them: now they only see things in front of them. For decades, the meanings of “about” and “before” have been shifting away from the concrete and spatial, narrowing towards the more abstract and temporal.

But now even the abstract meaning of “about” is in jeopardy, what with issues around identity and discussions around immigration. Meanwhile, “around” is broadening into some sort of all-purpose preposition, with people doing work around special education and the like.

Other recent examples of preposition displacement—or is it examples around preposition displacement?–include jargon: ”follow-on” for “follow-up” (“follow-on questions”), and the superfluous “out” of “share out” and “tweet out.” When I hear these, I also hear the faint echoes of consultants and commentators coining new phrases for old concepts.

Beyond the trendy, there the sloppy—the stuff that abounds, for example, in student papers:

  • There are different elements to the question.
  • She was the subject to an investigation.
  • He felt shame towards what he did.
  • It was made in bronze.

These seem like the byproducts of mental interference from (or is it mental interference around?) similar phrases in which the verbs and prepositions do agree:

  • There are different sides to the story.
  • She was subjected to an investigation.
  • He had feelings towards someone.
  • It was cast in bronze.

Then there’s plain old weird:

  • Another key criterion that distinguishes Asperger’s Syndrome to autism is…

Or the weirdly inverted:

  • She attributes the child’s multiple supports to his academic success.

I’m guessing that many of these errors would be evident to their authors, and readily corrected by them, if only they would carefully re-read and revise. But might today’s preposition disagreement also reflect a more general decline in attention to the details of sentences—not just in writing, but in reading?

More examples of modifier-heavy, subject-light sentences

I forgot that the most egregious ones in my collection were hiding in my iPhone notes!

  1. During this field experience, it was the first time I saw an autistic support classroom in action.
  2. In Ms. X’s classroom, she teaches math and reading.
  3. When observing the speech therapist and teacher, they would show just how dedicated they are to their jobs.

Sentence 3 illustrates another hazard of not revising such sentences (a hazard far worse than loose structure and wordiness): some of these  modifiers, however innocently they start out, can end up as danglers.

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.

What computer programming can tell us about writing

I’ve been doing a fair amount of coding lately—I’m working on an upgrade to GrammarTrainer to make it more user friendly and more informative about student progress.

And as I code my way through javascript and ajax and PHP, I can’t help noticing some similarities between expository writing and computer programming.

Good writing requires logical organization; computer programming, even more so. Even though a disorganized program can, in principle, run properly, it’s awfully hard to debug or upgrade—let alone for a new coder to make sense of.

Good writing requires clarity and precision; computer programming, even more so. The slightest lapse yields code that runs poorly, weirdly, or not at all.

For clarity in writing, it’s often a good idea to break long, complex sentences and paragraphs down into shorter ones; so, too, with programming. You start coding a routine, and, a dozen lines in, you realize that the various if-thens, for-loops, and string manipulations actually comprise several distinct subroutines.

Good writing also involves labeling new concepts with evocative words and phrases; so, too, with those subroutines in programming. It’s a lot easier to keep track of what you’ve done if the subroutines—and the variables—have perspicuous names like “setCursorPosition” and “wordStartPosition,” as opposed to “functionA” and “X”.

Good writing requires an economy of words; even more so with programming, where repetitions can slow down run times.

Finally, computer programming involves a kind of creativity that isn’t so different from the creativity we associate with writing. All writing can (or should) involve some creativity, but here I’m thinking of story writing in particular—and of its distinguishing features of plots and characters. After all, plot-like and character-like entities also figure in computer programs. And, much like the story writer staring at his blank page or screen, the computer programmer, staring at hers, has to figure out what events the program should execute, and in what order—as well as who the various actors are, what they’re going to be called, and how they’re all going to conspire to make everything unfold in just the right way.

Get me rewrite

The other night, trying to revise the dyslexia passage, I convinced myself it couldn’t be done without adding new content.

I’m sure that’s wrong, but I’m finding it much easier to fix the start-stop quality (technical term: choppiness) of the original by changing the content, not just the syntax.

So here are two copy edits, one relying on syntax alone, the other relying mostly on added details.

I want to stress that in I don’t mean to be critical, or to embarrass the author. Her essay works as is– the reason I know about it is that a friend of mine liked it so much she emailed it to her friends.

ORIGINAL

Aidan had started the project in a moment of despair right after getting back his spring grades in ninth grade. They were disappointing. They didn’t reflect how hard he had worked. We were standing in his room at the time. I had pointed to a poster he had tacked up over his desk of successful adults who have dyslexia. “I wonder how they made it?” I had said.

Jay Leno’s Advice for My Dyslexic Son

(Aidan’s project is a series of interviews with successful people who have dyslexia.)

POSSIBLE REVISION USING CHANGES IN SYNTAX

During 9th grade, in a moment of despair, Aidan had started the project after getting back his spring grades. They were disappointing. Certainly, they didn’t reflect how hard he had worked. I pointed to a poster he had tacked up over his desk of successful adults who have dyslexia. “I wonder how they made it?” I said.

 

Lots of sentence combining, plus I changed two instances of  the past perfect to simple past tense

POSSIBLE REVISION USING CHANGES IN CONTENT AS WELL AS SYNTAX

Aidan had started the project in a moment of despair after his spring grades arrived freshman year. They were a disappointment. He had worked hard, and the unrelieved column of Cs and one D didn’t show it. Discouraged, I looked at the poster he’d tacked up over his desk, the one listing “Successful and Famous People with Dyslexia.” There were 80 of them, all told, beginning with Robert Blake—Robert Blake—and ending with Ernest Hemingway.

“I wonder how they did it,” I said.

Adding details (I found the Robert Blake dyslexia poster on Pinterest) made it much easier to fix the problem of a string of sentences starting with “I,” “they,” and “we.”

AND SEE:
How to turn a list of sentences into a paragraph – 9/20/2016
Get me rewrite – 9/24/2016
Why it’s hard for a memoirist to write non-choppy prose and sound like a normal human being – 9/27/2016

Revising history (example 1): how and why

fred_i

In my last post, I revised a passage from a high school history book using techniques that Catherine and I teach in our exercises for Europe in the Modern World. I also promised to discuss the specific techniques I used and why I used them.

One of my goals was to get things flowing more smoothly and clearly by improving the passage’s cohesion. Cohesion can be improved through a variety of devices, including what Catherine and I call “anaphoric devices.” Anaphoric devices are words or phrases whose meanings derive from preceding words or phrases–as with the word “there” in “the German princes who ruled there.” In this particular linguistic context, “there” refers back to three phrases in the preceding sentences: “his land,” “this region,” and “patchwork of feudal territories.” So adding “there” helps connect the third sentence with the two previous sentences. But this “there” doesn’t just connect sentences; it also connects content, clarifying Frederick’s political relationships with the German princes. They aren’t just random German princes; they’re princes who rule within Frederick’s territory.

Another cohesive device I’m using is something we’re often told to avoid, namely repetition. Sometimes repetition is tedious, but sometimes it adds clarity. To this end, I’ve replaced the “His” that opens the third sentence (“His forceful personality”) with a repetition of “Frederick” (“Frederick’s…”); I’ve repeated the word “territories” (more on that below), and I’ve repeated the phrase “left” (“whenever he left…”) by adding “Frederick left the country frequently.” This last repetition also bridges a  paragraph break I’ve added: that first paragraph, which opens as an introduction to the Holy Roman Empire and closes as an account of Frederick’s exploits outside this territory, is begging to be split in two.

Yet another cohesive device is combining sentences, as I’ve done with the last two sentences of the original first paragraph.

Improving cohesion–and, therefore, flow–improves readability. The reader’s mind is less likely to wander away, as mine did when I first read the original, and she is more likely to appreciate the underlying connections.

Besides highlighting connections, however, I also wanted to highlight what’s most interesting–in particular, the dramatic contrasts. I had two contrasts in mind. First, there’s the contrast between how much control Frederik had over his empire when he was around vs. when he was away. Later on there’s the contrast between mounted knights and foot soldiers.

One way to bring out these contrasts is make them more explicit. That’s why I spelled out a conditional circumstance that in the original is merely implied: “So long as Frederick remained in these territories…”  Spelling this out heightens the contrasting condition: “whenever he left…” To further heighten that contrasting condition, I moved it out of what’s now a rather long sentence into a shorter, punchier one: “whenever he left, disorder returned.” Another way to bring out contrasts is to rearrange a sentence so that the contrasts are closer together and expressed with similar phrasing, as I’ve done with “Frederick’s army of mounted knights faced the Lombard League’s foot soldiers” and “crossbow-wielding foot soldiers defeated knights on horseback.”

Yet another way to highlight what’s exciting is to move what’s not exciting into the shadows. To that end, I’ve bracketed it off with parentheses the not-so-titilliating fact that the alliance against Frederick was called the Lombard League.

But what about Frederick’s death by drowning? Why have I also demoted that to a parenthetical? Yes, drowning an usual way for an emperor to die, but bringing it up potentially distracts from the final–and more historically significant–point, which is that the emperor’s death (whatever its cause) contributed to the disintegration of his empire.