Of white bears (and black ones)

As Catherine has quoted J.S. Mill as saying,

The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.

And, I would add, much of the logic of a sentence comes from its grammar.

But grammar brings us more than logic; it opens up worlds of possibility. Were it not for the various tense-marking and mood-marking verb endings and auxiliary verbs, for example, we’d mostly–whether we’re conversing, reading, writing, or even thinking–be stuck in the here and now.

Mr. Shandy (senior), in a disquisition on auxiliary verbs that concludes the 5th volume of Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, puts it nicely:

Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at
once to set the soul a going by herself
upon the materials as they are brought
her; and by the versability of this great
engine, round which they are twisted,
to open new tracks of enquiry, and make
every idea engender millions.

The verbs auxiliary we are concerned
in here, continued my father, are, am;
was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suf-
fer; shall; should; will; would; can; could;
owe; ought; used  or is wont. — And these
varied with tenses, present, past, future, and
conjugated with the verb see, — or with
these questions added to them, — Is it?
Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May
it be? Might it be? And these again
put negatively, Is it not? Was it not?
Ought it not? — Or affirmatively, — It is;
It was; It ought to be. Or chronologi-
cally, — Has it been always? Lately?
How long ago? — Or hypothetically, — If
it was; If it was not? What would
follow? —- If the French should beat
the English? If the Sun go out of the

Now, by the right use and application
of these, continued my father, in which a
child’s memory should be exercised,
there is no one idea can enter his brain
how barren soever, but a magazine of
conceptions and conclusions may be
drawn forth from it.

— Didst thou ever see a white bear?
cried my father, turning his head round to
Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:

— No, an’ please your honour, replied the

— But thou could’st discourse
about one, Trim, said my father, in
case of need?

— How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle
Toby, if the corporal never saw one?

— ‘Tis the fact I want; replied my father,
and the possibility of it, is as follows.

A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen
one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever
to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one?
Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear? (for
how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what
should I say? If I should never see a
white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall
see a white bear alive ; have I ever seen
the skin of one? Did Iever see one
painted? — described? Have I never
dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt,
brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear?

What would they give? How would
they behave? How would the white
bear have behaved? Is he wild?
Tame? Terrible Rough? Smooth?

— Is the white bear worth seeing? —

— Is there no sin in it? —

Is it better than a BLACK ONE?


When students don’t look up…

…at what they’ve just written, and at the squiggly lines that word processors generate under questionable word choices and grammatical errors, this is an example of what you get:


(From a recent student paper.)

Actually, most of my recent students have been good about proofreading. Examples like this one stand out to me partly because they aren’t that common, but partly, also, because I don’t understand why they happen at all.  That is, I can’t imagine what it takes to turn something in without (a) noticing these markings, and/or (b) caring to address them.

We’re still a long way from routine, sentence-level revisions!

Painters use paint–what do writers use?

Until recently–more recently than I care to admit–I would have said: “Words.”

Writers use words.

Writers do use words, but that’s not the right answer.

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ”Do you think I could be a writer?”

”Well,” the writer said, ”I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”

The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ”I liked the smell of the paint.”

“Write Till You Drop” by Annie Dillard | New York Times 5/28/1989


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 had been 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.”