Emerging from a 10-week escape into the world of autism software engineering, I’ve been thinking about “however.” In a comment on my last post, Can You Spot the Sentence Fragment, I cited “however” as a word that introduces full sentences:

…something can contain a subject and predicate and still not be a complete sentence if it begins with certain function words. “Which” (and various which-phrases) is one example (see“which).

So is “though” (–unlike “however”.

“However, he won” is a full sentence; “Though he won.” is not. And punctuating  “Though, he won” like “However, he won” only makes things awkward. (As I argue earlier, modifiers of sentence fragments don’t lend themselves to commas).

“However,” however, is actually ambiguous–as we see when we strip it of its comma:

However, he won.

However he won.

Re-read the second sentence, and you’ll see another meaning emerging: an incomplete proposition that could be completed, for example, as follows:

However he won, he did win.

This “however” belongs to a whole family of words ending in “ever,” none of which introduces a complete sentence:

Whoever voted for him…

Whatever he did to win…

Whenever he tweets…

And adding a comma only makes things worse:

Whatever, he did to win.

“Whatever,” though, is also ambiguous. Sometimes, like “though” in the previous sentence, it can be offset from the rest of the sentence with a punctuation mark. In which case it does introduce a full sentence–rather than a fragment like the one you’re reading right now.

Whatever,” you might be thinking at this point. “Language is a mess; we all have different ears for it.”

But if the (somewhat) arbitrary rules for what’s a complete sentence and what isn’t nonetheless intrigue you, stay tuned for a post on “whatever.”

When things changed

I’ve had a running joke, at Kitchen Table Math and inside my own head, that something happened in 1985.

Either we were hit by a meteor and we’re all dead but we don’t know it.

Or we were hit by a meteor and knocked into a parallel universe but we don’t know it.

Or — and apparently this one has many fans — we’re actually living inside a computer simulation and the programmer changed the rules but we don’t know it.

Anyway, preparing for tomorrow’s class on graduate research and writing, I took a look at Robert Connors’ “The Erasure of the Sentence (which Katharine writes about here) and discovered that Connors dates the moment when things changed to just two years before I do: in 1983.

In an astonishing reversal of fortune for sentence rhetorics, the triumphalism, the quarrels, and the debates of the early 1980s-now mostly forgotten-died away after 1983 or so. The articles on sentence issues fell away radically, and those that were written were more and more about applications to learning disabilities, or English as a second language, or special education. Erstwhile syntactic rhetoricians turned to other issues. The devaluation of sentence-based rhetorics is a complex phenomenon, and we need to approach it with circumspection. Let me first try to establish the reality of what I’m calling the “erasure of the sentence” in clearly numerical terms. Table 2 lists raw numbers of books and articles appearing in general-composition journals about the three sentence rhetorics discussed in this essay.

While I can’t claim that this chart, which I derived from a combination of ERIC searching and my own research, is exhaustive or even directly replicable, the numbers themselves are less important than the trends they show. And these numerical trends strongly match our intuitive sense of what has been going on. We see, starting with Christensen’s first articles in the early 1960s, a strong interest in sentence-writing that was mostly taken up with generative rhetoric and imitation during the early period of the New Rhetoric, say, 1963-1975. After 1976, the interest in Christensen begins to peter out as sentence-combining gathers momentum; a truly extraordinary burst of activity occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But after 1984, general articles on sentence-combining died out, and more and more of the essays published had to do with use of sentence-combining in classes in English as a second language or with behaviorally disordered or autistic students; an ERIC search shows only three essays published on general-composition sentence-combining after 1986. The few general articles that were published after 1986 came more and more to be critical, but even the criticisms died away. After the mid- 1980s, the sentence rhetorics of the 1960s and 1970s were gone, at least from books and journals.3 Shirley Rose’s 1983 article on the history of sentence-combining, which probably felt when she wrote it like a historical background to a vital part of the field, now looks more like the ave atque vale of the field to sentence-combining.

Table 2: Books and composition journal articles about sentence rhetorics, 1960-1998

Christensen Imitation Sentence-combining
1960-1965 4 1 1
1966-1970 13 2 2
1971-1975 12 5 3
1976-1980 6 4 31
1981-1985 2 3 23
1986-1990 2 5 3
1991-1998 1 2 2

Let’s resurrect sentence-based rhetorics

Part of what’s distinct about Catherine’s and my curriculum is that we’re zeroing in on the basic building blocks of writing–phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.

Many of today’s writing classes instead zoom out to the big picture–communication, argumentation, and audience. Get students thinking what their ideas are and who they’re addressing them to. Have them do lots of open-ended writing. Perhaps toss some peer-editing into the mix. Surely, then, students’ phrasing and paragraphing skills will develop organically, without explicit instruction by teachers or textbooks. And surely, compared with scores of exercises in sentence construction and paragraphing, the holistic, naturalistic approach is more effective and appealing to all concerned.

It certainly appeals to many of classroom writing instructors–as it has for a long time. But, it turns out, sentence-based instruction goes back even further. A while ago, Catherine sent me an article by Robert J Connors (“The Erasure of the Sentence“), and I was surprised to learn that explicit instruction in sentence syntax had been a staple of composition classes (dating back to classical antiquity) until just a few decades ago.

What happened? Here, in a nutshell, is Connors’ thesis:

The usefulness of sentence-based rhetorics was never disproved, but a growing wave of anti-formalism, anti-behaviorism, and anti-empiricism within English-based composition studies after 1980 doomed them to a marginality under which they still exist today. The result of this erasure of sentence pedagogies is a culture of writing instruction that has very little to do with or say about the sentence outside of a purely grammatical discourse.

What are these sentence-based rhetorics that have fallen out of favor? One recent example is Francis Christensen’s “sentence combining.”  In Connors’ words, “Sentence-combining in its simplest form is the process of joining two or more short, simple sentences to make one longer sentence, using embedding, deletion, subordination, and coordination.”

According to Christensen, you could be a good writer if you could learn to write a good sentence. His pedagogy consisted of short base-level sentences to which students were asked to attach increasingly sophisticated systems of initial and final modifying clauses and phrases-what he called “free modifiers.” Effective use of free modifiers would result in effective “cumulative sentences,” and Christensen’s most famous observation about teaching the cumulative sentence was that he wanted to push his students “to level after level, not just two or there, but four, five, or six, even more, as far as the students’ powers of observation will take them. I want them to become sentence acrobats, to dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.”

Another “sentence-based rhetoric” was Edward Corbett’s “imitation exercises.” This involved the “the emulation of the syntax of good prose models.” Students would begin by copying a model sentence word for word. Then came “pattern practice,” in which students construct new sentences that parallel the grammatical type, number, and order of phrases and clauses of the model sentence, perhaps with the help of a syntactic description of the model sentence’s structure. Students might also perform syntactic transformations (informed by Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar) on the model sentence. In Corbett’s words, the aim of such imitation exercises was to “achieve an awareness of the variety of sentence structure of which the English language is capable.” Other advocates of imitation exercises noted that student writing “is often stylistically barren because of lack of familiarity with good models of prose style;” the remedy was explicit emulation of good models.

Both Corbett’s and  Christensen’s methods were subject to empirical scrutiny, and studies showed that both methods not only increased the grammatical complexity of student writing, but also improved the overall writing quality (as compared with control groups and as rated by blind raters). In particular, internalizing syntactic structures, even by slavishly copying them, ultimately increased originality and creativity–presumably by giving students a wide repertoire of syntactic tools to choose from and handy ways to play around with them.

But as Connors notes, almost as soon as this sentence-syntax teaching methodology starting showing empirical success, it was shouted down into oblivion by critics who found it philosophically distasteful.  After all, these methods involved:
  1. Textbooks
  2. Mere exercises, devoid of content and real-world application, with (worse yet!) correct and incorrect answers
  3. Rote imitation
  4. An inorganic, narrow, analytical, reductionist approach that stifles creativity
  5. A procedural focus at odds with the authentic writing process in which motivation and communicative intent and self-expression come first and everything else comes along for the ride (including, apparently, grammatically well-formed sentences).

The result of this backlash was that most writing instructors came to believe that “research has shown that sentence combining doesn’t work.”

Communication, argumentation, and audience–these seem like great things for writing instruction to prioritize. But as Catherine and I discuss on our book and will continue to explore here, effective communication and argumentation depend largely on effective phrasing and paragraphing. And, as those studies of Corbett’s and Christensen’s methods suggest, explicit practice with sentence and paragraph construction yields skills that typically don’t emerge from today’s more naturalistic, holistic approaches to writing.