Category Archives: declarative sentence

Turning around student achievement through structured writing

Several years ago, a high school principal investigated why so many of her students were failing.  After staff-wide research, the reason became clear:  bad writing, an inability to turn thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and essays.  A rigorous program of writing in every subject except math ensued, and within two years, final statewide exam scores rose 10 to 20 points.

Teachers began this new program by teaching a simple skill:  how to turn ideas into simple sentences.  When students could do that, they learned how put ideas into compound and complex sentences.

Students learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph next, and then how to write a paragraph with a main idea.  Once paragraphs were mastered, it was on to essays, learning how to develop an introduction and controlling idea (thesis) and how to write body paragraphs to back up that controlling idea.  Students learned how to incorporate details into their writing, especially examples.

What students were taught was to think critically through structured writing—a point of view with facts to back it up.  To do it well takes planning and organizing ideas.  It is the kind of writing which the Common Core State Standards expects all high school students to master.

To find out more about this amazing success story at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, go to Peg Tyre’s article in The Atlantic.  Though it was published five years ago, the story–and the method to improve thinking through structured writing–is just as relevant today.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/

“Automatic pilot” sentences can reveal character

Do you have “automatic pilot” sentences, the kind you use most of the time when you aren’t thinking about grammar or effect, the kind you use when you are speaking off the cuff or writing to a friend?  Most of us do.

Do you know that these “automatic pilot” sentences reveal how we think?  Take a look at the following sentences and some possible interpretations.

Dogs bark.   Simple sentence, subject followed by verb, no modifiers.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  Black and white thinker?

Some dogs bark, but not all dogs bark.  Compound sentence, simple grammar, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  A thinker who hedges?  A thinker who repeats for emphasis?  A thinker who wants to prevent misunderstanding?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark.  Complex sentence, less important idea stated first, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  A thinker unwilling to impose views on others?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark, and not all barking animals are dogs.  Compound-complex sentence, complex grammar, multiple qualifiers, repetition of idea, convoluted logic.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  Muddled thinker?  An attorney?  A trickster?

When I talk to immigrants for whom English is not a first language, my automatic pilot sentences are short and usually simple or compound.  I use no contractions.  My vocabulary is basic unless I recognize that they are comfortable with English.  My sentences use active, not passive, verbs.  My sentences seem to show I am a simplistic thinker.

But when I speak to native born English speakers and especially to savvy adults, I speak in long and complicated automatic pilot sentences, like this one.  I use contractions and, unless I am talking to a child, an academic vocabulary.  My sentences seem to show that I am a complex, well educated thinker.

Take a look at an email you’ve written.  What do your automatic pilot sentences reveal about your mind?

Lockstep sentences, one after another, bore readers

What is a lockstep sentence?  Usually, it’s a sentence which begins with a subject (a noun or pronoun) and is followed by a predicate (a verb and a direct object, or a verb and a linked noun or adjective).  If there is a prepositional phrase, it comes at the end of the sentence.

Here is such a lockstep sentence pattern.

1  John watched the television news.  2  He saw an interesting discussion.  3  New York’s Congressman Newman debated Delaware’s Congressman Doe.  4  Congressman Newman took the conservative position and Congressman Doe took the liberal position.  5  “That’s a good discussion,” thought John.

Notice the sentence patterns:

1  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

2  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

3  subject, verb, direct object     (eight words)

4  subject, verb, direct object, conjunction, subject, verb, direct object  (13 words)

5  subject, verb, predicate noun, verb, subject (six words)

These five sentences follow a lockstep pattern.  They all begin with a subject.  Two have adjectives before the simple subject, but all start with the complete subject.  Each subject is followed by a verb which is followed by a direct object in four cases and a predicate noun in the other case.  The longer sentence is actually two simple sentences following the same pattern, but connected with a conjunction to form a compound sentence.

In this case, the lockstep sentences contain few words, adding to their tedium.

A lockstep sentence pattern needn’t be this particular pattern, but it is a pattern which repeats over and over, sentence after sentence.

For some writers, the pattern is a single subject and a compound predicate.  “I ate dinner and took a walk.  The night was warm but humid.  I stood under a tree and waited for the rain to stop.  Then I went home and drank hot tea.”

For other writers, the pattern is an adverb to start the sentence followed by a subject and a predicate.  “Playfully, my dog licked my ankle.  Then she walked to her mat.  There she scratched herself.  However, she heard thunder in the distance.  Immediately, she returned to my side.”

For some writers, the pattern is a series of complex sentences with the subordinate clause always coming after the independent clause.  “I stopped the car because a blue light flashed ahead.  Soon cars parted as a fire engine passed.  Then an ambulance wailed while I checked my GPS.”

What can a writer do to avoid lockstep patterns?

First, analyze your own writing.  See if you consistently use a pattern.

Next, as your write, be aware of your tendency to use that pattern.  Look over your work, and if you notice that pattern, change the sentences.  If you usually begin with a subject followed by a verb, start some sentences with prepositional phrases, adverbs or gerund phrases.  If you usually begin with an adverb, cross out half of them, and then cross out half the rest.  If you write mostly short sentences, turn some of them into complicated simple sentences or complex sentences with double the words.

Lockstep sentence patterns are like familiar car routes.  We become so comfortable using them that we don’t explore new ways of expressing ourselves.  But we should to keep our writing fresh and our readers engaged.

To comma, or not to comma? That is the question.

Which way would you write this phrase:  “red, white, and blue” or “red, white and blue”?

In Maine, a court case involving around $10 million in back overtime pay came down to just this:  Is the comma before the word “and” needed in a series?

If you are thinking, “You gotta be kidding,” no I’m not.  The case of O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, settled this month in a US Appeals Court in Maine, focused on whether some drivers deserved overtime.  That decision—yes, they do deserve overtime– came down to the lack of a comma in one of Maine’s overtime laws.

Here is the Maine law stating which workers don’t deserve overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

The problem is the lack of a comma after the word shipment.  Is the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of” to be taken as a whole?  Or are the shipment and distribution two separate categories, neither of which deserves overtime?  If the law had a comma after the word shipment, distribution would not require overtime pay.

The court ruled that the lack of a comma after “shipment” made the law ambiguous even though it follows the written guidelines in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual.  The court sided with the drivers distributing milk, saying they were entitled to overtime.

The AP Stylebook, which most reporters consult for grammar issues, says the final comma before “and” is not needed in most cases any more than is a comma needed for a two item series (bread and butter; not bread, and butter).  However, the style manuals used in colleges and universities do require the comma, and public schools where I live, in Georgia, teach that the comma is required.

There is a name for the comma before the word “and.”  It is called the Oxford comma.  I haven’t heard of a word for the lack of a comma, but for this discussion we might call it the AP comma rule.

Which practice do you use?  The Oxford comma?  The AP comma rule?  Usually I use the AP comma rule unless doing so leads to confusion.  Sometimes the AP comma rule can lead to what seems like an appositive rather than a continuation of a series, such as in “I want to thank my two political science teachers, President Obama and Hillary Clinton.”  If omitting the comma could lead to confusion, I include the comma.

The tendency in US writing is to leave out commas when the sentence is clear without punctuation.  For example, years ago I was taught that introductory adverbs like “now,” “later” and “then” need to be followed by a comma.  Yet the comma in “Then, I went home” seems silly.  I was also taught that compound sentences should use a comma after the first clause, but in the short sentence, “I fell and I hurt my leg,” a comma after “fell” seems ridiculous.

The first rule in writing anything is “Be clear.”  If leaving out a comma leads to ambiguity, use a comma. Otherwise, unless you are following a particular style book, the choice is yours.

By the way, when Shakespeare wrote “To be, or not to be,” in Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet, he used the Oxford comma.

When should I use a comma?

“When should I use a comma?” is the question about writing I am asked  more than any other.

student thinking about what to write

Below are the rules.  But experts disagree on many of them, and good writers ignore some of the rules.  If you are a student, ask your teacher what she expects.  Language is always changing, and that includes rules for writing language.  In general, as American English has become more informal, fewer commas are used today than in the past.

  • The rule: In a series of three (red, white, and blue), use two commas.  The practice:  Many people skip the comma before the word “and.”  They think, if I don’t need a comma between “white and blue,” why do I need one for “red, white and blue”?
  • The rule: In a compound sentence, a comma goes after the first clause.  (I like snow, so I like winter sports.)  In practice:  If the clauses are short, most good writers skip the comma if the meaning is clear.  If the clauses are long, they use the comma.
  • The rule: Use a comma after a stand-alone adverb which starts the sentence.  (First, let me eat.  Then, we can talk.)  The practice:  Sometimes the comma is used, but many times it is not if the meaning is clear.
  • The rule: When a dependent clause starts a sentence, end that clause with a comma before writing the independent clause.  (The previous sentence is an example of that.)  The practice:  Good writers follow this rule.  What if the first clause is the independent clause?  No comma is needed.  Students make lots of mistakes with this rule, especially when using the word “because.”
  • The rule: When you start a sentence with “because,” you cannot put a period at the end of that clause.  Instead, you must end that clause with a comma and continue the sentence with an independent clause.  The practice:  Teachers tell students they can’t start sentences with “because” to avoid students’ writing fragments.   Of course, you can start a sentence with almost any word, including “because,” if you use correct sentence structure and punctuation.
  • The rule: Appositives require commas before and after.  (My teacher, Mrs. Smith, gives lots of homework.)  If an appositive ends the sentence, then the “after” comma becomes a period.  The practice:  Commas are often not used with appositives.
  • The rule: The identity of the person speaking a direct quote needs to be set off with a comma.  (Mom said, “Eat your dinner.”  “Eat your dinner,” Mom said.)  If the spoken words end with a question mark or exclamation point, then the comma is not used.  (“Look!” said Mom.  “Where?” I asked.)  The practice:  Most good writers use this rule.  If the quote is indirect, commas might or might not be needed.  (Eat your dinner, my mother said.  I said I would.)
  • The rule: Between cities, states and countries commas are needed, but not between states and zip codes.  The practice:  This rule is used.
  • The rule: Between days of the week, dates, and years, commas are needed.  (My vacation stopped on Saturday, August 13, 2016, when I returned home.)  Notice that if the date does not end the sentence, a comma is required after the date or year.   The practice:  This rule is followed by good writers.
  • The rule:  If just a month and year are used, no comma is required.  (He graduated in May 2016.)  The practice:  This rule is generally used, but some grammar books require a comma in the last sentence.  (He graduated in May, 2016).
  • The rule: If “yes” or “no” begin a sentence, those words are followed by a comma.  (Yes, I can hear you.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: When speaking directly to someone, a comma is used before or after the person’s name.  (Lou, come here.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: To offset a negative phrase, commas are used before and after.  (I saw Annushka, not Sei, at the movies.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: For house numbers, no comma is needed.  But for other numbers of a thousand or more, commas are needed to separate every three numerals beginning from the right or decimal point.  The practice:  This rule is followed.

If you are using a grammar book as a reference, check the date.  Older versions require more commas.  If you are using a source from outside the US (English booklets prepared by a foreign company, for example), more commas will be required.  If you are a high school or college student, ask your teacher which style book he or she will use to grade your work and follow that style book’s rules.

“Then” is not a conjunction. And usually “then” is not needed.

“Then” is an adverb and cannot be used as a conjunction, even though many of my students think it can.

Wrong:  I went swimming, then I took a shower.

Right:  I went swimming, and then I took a shower.

One way to show that “then” is not a conjunction is to move it around in the sentence.  “I went swimming, I took a shower then.”  “I went swimming, I then took a shower.”  You can see that these would-be compound sentences are actually run-ons even with the word “then” in the sentence.  They need a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or a subordinate conjunction such as “before.”

Many students use “then” as the first word of a sentence to show a time sequence or a transition from one idea to the next.  Students might need to do this as they write down events in chronological order.  But often they overuse the word “then,” with some students starting almost every sentence with that word.  An easy way to deal with this problem is to let the student write “then” all she wants in her first draft.  During revision, have her circle every “then” and cross out all but one. Let her choose which one stays.

Some grammar books indicate that “then” should be followed by a comma when it starts a sentence, or when it interrupts a thought.  A comma indicates a pause in thinking or in speaking, and since we Americans don’t usually pause after the word “then,” it is rarely necessary.

“Then” is one of many overused words by students, along with “so,” “just,” “like” and “and.”  Usually when students are made aware that they are overusing a word, they self-edit, but sometimes it takes several revisions to prove that they overuse certain words.

Also, “then” and “than” are not synonyms.  “Then,” like “when,” indicated time.  “Than” indicated comparisons.

 

How to be better understood on the web

Readers from the US, Pakistan, India, Australia, Georgia and Norway have visited this blog today.  I assume many of them are not native speakers of English.

How do I (and you) write for an international audience so that our writing is clear?

  • Eliminate idioms. Idioms don’t easily shift from one culture to another.  They might be taken as literal by people who have learned English as a second or third language.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word

  • Use a simplified vocabulary. Even if you know many synonyms, stick to common words, not rare ones.
  • Stick to standard English. Eliminate dialects or colloquiums.
  • Eliminate texting shortcuts. GTG is far from universal.
  • Keep your grammar simple. If you use complex sentences, limit yourself to one dependent clause per sentence.  Make sure pronoun antecedents are easy to figure out.  If they aren’t, repeat the nouns.
  • Use short sentences. Give yourself an upper word limit per sentence of 15 to 20 words.
  • Use American spelling.  It is the most common spelling of English words used on the web.
  • Assume your readers might not be fluent in English. Assume they might be ignorant of nuances of language that you take for granted.  Their English vocabularies might be rudimentary or restricted to one field of study.  Write accordingly.
  • Eliminate cultural bias. Pay attention to the connotations or double meanings of words.
  • Eliminate allusions.  So many references which well educated Americans use in writing are to the Bible, to Shakespeare or to pop songs.  Many readers will not understand them.
  • Use emojis.  Emojis can say in one picture what takes many words.