Category Archives: grammar

“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.

When to use parentheses

Parentheses are marks of punctuation used to separate a word, phrase, or sentence from the rest of a sentence.  Here are some suggestions on how to use them.

parenthesesIf the parentheses contain words which are part of a sentence but not a complete sentence themselves, don’t use a period or a comma within the  parentheses.  The exception is when the words within the parentheses are a question or an exclamation.  Then use a question mark or an exclamation point as appropriate.

  • My mother (but not my father) has blue eyes.
  • Both of my mother’s parents had blue eyes (no surprise there!).

If the words in parentheses are a complete sentence, use punctuation at the end of the sentence, within the parentheses. 

  • My father and his mother had brown eyes. (But they each had at least one parent with blue eyes.)
  • My father’s father had blue eyes. (So why didn’t my father have one brown eye and one blue eye?)

Parentheses within parentheses can be grammatically correct, but they can be confusing to the reader.  It’s a good idea to rewrite those ideas using one or no parentheses.

  • I have brown eyes (the brown from my father (who probably had a recessive blue gene, like me)).
  • I have brown eyes.  The brown gene came from my father, who probably had a recessive blue gene, as I do.

When a name can be reduced to its initials, say the complete name first, and immediately after the name put the initials in parentheses.  Later, when you use the initials in place of the name, you need to use an article in front of the initials.

  • Both my mother’s parents were born in the United States (US), but neither of my father’s parents were born in the US.

When writing a research paper, you will be directed by your teacher to to use a particular style book.  That style book will have  information on how to use parentheses for citations and specific Latin abbreviations.  If you are not told to use a particular style book, you can use the Associated Press (A.P.) style book, or you can use a dictionary.  Name that book in the references part of your paper.

In general, it is better not to use parentheses if you can separate information with commas, or if you can rewrite idea to obviate the need for parentheses.  Too many parentheses can muddy the meaning, and the first rule in good writing is to be clear.

Teaching children when to write “and” and “but”

Learning new vocabulary words in elementary school is important for reading comprehension.  But vocabulary instruction needs to include a deeper understanding of words students write and speak all the time, words they haven’t paid much attention to, such as the conjunctions “and” and “but.”

boy reading

Children know what “and” and “but” mean.  But do they realize they use “and” to connect two words or ideas which are both positive or both negative?  And do they realize they use “but” to join one word or idea they favor and another word or idea they don’t favor?

Helping students learn to write means pointing out the relationships which conjunctions create.  Here’s how.

  • Start with the word “and.” Write a sentence such as “I like ice cream and cookies.”  Point out to the student that you used “and” to join two ideas you feel the same way about.  Ask her if there are any other ways she could say “I like ice cream and cookies” without using “and.”  If she is stumped, suggest, “I like ice cream.  Additionally, I like cookies.”  Or, “I like ice cream as well as cookies.”  Or, “I like ice cream.  Also, I like cookies.”  Point out that “and,” “additionally,” “as well as” and “also” all are used to connect ideas which we feel the same way about, either positively or negatively.

Other words which mean the same as “and” include consequently, because,  moreover, and furthermore.  A semicolon between two sentences usually indicates that the idea in the first sentence continues in the second sentence.

  • Now write a sentence such as “I like ice cream but not anchovies.”    Ask her if there is any other way to say that idea.  She might say, “I like ice cream.  However, I don’t like anchovies.”  Or, “I like ice cream although I don’t like anchovies.”  Or, “I like ice cream even though I don’t like anchovies.”  Point out that “but,” “however,” “although” and “even though” all are used to connect ideas we don’t feel the same way about.  One idea we like and one idea we don’t like.  One idea usually uses a form of “not” or a prefix that means “not” such as un, im, ir, or dis.

Words which mean the same as “but” show contrast.  Some other words are though, despite and yet.

  • To reinforce the difference between “and” and “but” and their synonyms, suggest two ideas, such as summer and winter. Ask the student to say or write a sentence saying how they feel about those two times of year.  Now ask the student to change the word or words they used to connect summer and winter to a word or phrase which means the same thing.  Now do it again to another phrase or word which means the same thing.  Try another relationship, such as snakes and dogs.  Again, ask for synonyms for the connecting words.

Being aware how “and” and “but” and their synonyms create different relationships between ideas is important in writing.  If a child is reading and comes to the word “however,” she knows the thought has just changed to an opposite kind of thought.  If she comes to the word “moreover,” she knows more of the same kind of thought is coming.

Another way of teaching these ideas is to suggest that “and” is something like a plus sign, but “but” is something like a subtraction sign.  Or “and” is something like walking straight ahead while “but” is something like taking a U-turn.

Copying sentence patterns can lead to good writing

For the most part, sentence structure should be invisible, like the skeleton of a person.  It’s the message that the sentences tell, not the structure of the sentences, that we should focus on when reading.

girl writing and thinkingMost children write sentences in predictable similar patterns:  a subject followed by a predicate connected by a coordinating conjunction to another subject and predicate.  If there are prepositional phrases, they go at the end.  My dog ran, so I chased him up the street.

How to shake up the monotony of children’s sentences is challenging.  One way to do this is to have students copy sentence patterns while using their own words.

For example, see how the sentences below, taken from an article on Neptune*, can be used to write a paragraph about Disney World.

Dark, cold and whipped by supersonic winds, Neptune is the last of the hydrogen and helium gas giants in our solar system.

Bright, crowded and filled with happy children, Disney World is my favorite place in the warm and sunny southern state of Florida.

It is invisible to the naked eye because of its extreme distance from Earth.

It is visited by millions because of its big airport in Orlando.

Neptune’s atmosphere extends to great depths, gradually merging into water and other melted ices.

Disney World’s crowds come from far away, even traveling from Brazil and other South American countries.

In 1989, Voyager 2 tracked a large, oval-shaped, dark storm in Neptune’s southern hemisphere, a “Great Dark Spot” that was large enough to contain the entire Earth.

In 2016 I visited the tall, white-painted building in the Magic Kingdom’s heart, “Cinderella’s Castle” that was big enough to contain my whole fourth grade.

Triton is extremely cold.

Disney World is really wonderful.

With first or second graders, I choose sentence patterns that are short and easy to duplicate.  If I am teaching parts of speech, I might combine a writing lesson with a grammar lesson.  I model how to write sentences using other sentences as patterns before I ask students to try writing on their own.

With older students, we might discuss the various ways the sentences begin (in the examples above, with adjectives, a pronoun, a possessive noun, a prepositional phrase and a noun).  We might count words and discuss how differing lengths add variety (22, 14, 14, 28 and 4 above).  We analyze whether sentences are simple, compound or complex.  (Four of the examples above are simple and one is complex.)

If students keep a writing notebook, one section could be a collection of sentences they have patterned.  Later, when they are writing, I encourage them to use their notebook fo sentence structure ideas.

Modeling new sentences on given sentence patterns can be a useful writing homework assignment.

* NASA.gov, adapted by Newsela staff, https://newsela.com/articles/lib-nasa-neptune-overview/id/22033/

Use a diagram to “see” the structure of the new SAT essay

When working with students learning how to write an essay for the new SAT exam, I draw diagrams of an essay pattern they can follow. The diagram acts as a prewriting organizer.  It shows students an overall perspective of what they must write.  Here is a diagram that is easy to follow yet leads to an effective SAT essay.

diagram-of-sat-essayThis diagram separates the persuasive techniques from the summary.  In the SAT workbooks, the best essay samples entwine the summary and the persuasive techniques, a more sophisticated pattern to follow.

What is important is to cover all three of the criteria which will be judged:  1) clearly showing that you understand what the essay prompt is all about (the summary), 2) recognizing and analyzing persuasive techniques, and 3) doing all this using excellent English (perfect  grammar, a variety of sentence patterns, advanced vocabulary and–most difficult of all–your own voice).

Can sentences start with “because”? My son’s teacher says no.

“Because” is a word that is often misused in writing.  “Because” is a connecting word, connecting an independent clause with a dependent clause in a sentence.  If you use it, you must connect two ideas.  For example,

child writing in sleeping bag

I went to bed because I was tired.

“I went to bed” is the independent clause.  “Because I was tired” is the dependent clause.  “Because” is the connecting word.

Teachers tell students that they cannot start a sentence with “because.”  Actually, they can, if they connect the “because” clause to an independent clause.  For example,

Because I was tired, I went to bed.   (This is a perfectly good sentence.)

The problem is that many kids forget to add the independent clause.  Let’s look at three problems and how to solve them.

1.  Suppose a reading question asks you to tell why the dinosaurs died. You write, “Because a meteor hit the earth.”  This is a good fact but bad grammar.  “Because a meteor hit the earth” is not a sentence.  It is part of a sentence.  You need to add an independent clause to make it a complete sentence.  If you write, “Because a meteor hit the earth, the dinosaurs died,” now you have a sentence.

2.  If you find yourself starting what you think are sentences with the word “because,” there is an easy way to fix those mistakes. Just cross out the word “Because” and put a capital letter on the next word.

Why did Harry Potter go to Hogwarts School?

Because he wanted to be a wizard.  (Cross out Because and capitalize He.)

3.  Cause and Because are not the same thing. In writing, you cannot use “cause” if you mean “because.”  Cause is a verb or a noun.  Because is a subordinate conjunction (a connecting word.)

I went home cause I felt sick.  Wrong.  I went home because I felt sick.  Correct.

If you are writing dialog, write the way people speak even if their grammar is wrong.  Write ’cause when the speaker says “cause” meaning because.  The apostrophe indicates some letters are missing.