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News You Don't Say

Show the children how sentences work

In school in eastern Kentucky in the early 1960s, I got the benefit of traditional teaching of grammar: These are the rules; follow them. Mathematics was taught the same way: These are the functions; do them this way. In neither case was the underlying logic explained.

I did well in English, not because of the instruction, but because I intuitively grasped the underlying logic. Think about diagramming sentences. I loved doing that, because I already had a grasp about the way the components operated together, and diagramming was an amusing way to illustrate the relationships graphically. (For students lacking that understanding, sentence diagramming was just one more meaningless chore.)

I had no such intuition in math, which is why I remain baffled by anything beyond simple arithmetic.

When I teach editing to undergraduates, I keep emphasizing that syntax implies logic. When you put two elements into a sentence, you are indicating that there is a logical relationship between them. And now, thanks to "Grammar to the Rescue," an article by Geoffrey Pullum in Lingua Franca, I see how that insight can be productively applied.

Professor Pullum writes about a school in New York in which teaching the students how to use subordinating conjunctions, although, because, despite, if, since, unless, and others, helped them understand the logical relationships between the syntactical elements. And also helped to improve their writing overall. You will want to read Professor Pullum's post and the Atlantic article to which it links. 

The traditional teaching of grammar that I experienced never worked very well for most people, and abandoning it has hardly led to widespread competence in writing. (Let me remind you that I have to spend two or three weeks every semester trying to help university students grasp of basic grammar and usage.) Perhaps someone has begun to figure out a method that works.

 

A NOTE TO MY READERS: Today is an anniversary. On 20 December 2005 (yes, that's not AP style on dates; sue me), I published the first You Don't Say post. Posts from December 2005 through May 2009 and May 2010 through February 2012, when this site was inaugurated, are still available at that site for your inspection. The posts from the [cough] hiatus [cough] remain available at the private site.

A few of you have been with me these whole seven years, and your patience and indulgence continues to astound. Those of you who have come aboard more recently are no less appreciated. Keep coming back.

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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