Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Enough about math, already! Let's look at writing instead...

I'm a big fan of sentences. When I edit my work, I'm constantly combining and recombining them, altering the order of phrases, or their depth of embedding, to maximize clarity, flow, and efficiency.  Following this, almost in lockstep, is clarifying my message. This works in both directions: the more I play around with sentence syntax, the clearer my thoughts become; when I know exactly what I want to say, the ideal sentence structure comes along for the ride. 

None of my writing instructors ever focused on sentence-level syntax--except to tell us to "vary our sentence structures." But varying structure for the sake of variation alone does not enhance writing; when you structure each sentence for clarity, flow, and efficiency, you will, willy nilly, vary your sentence structures. My focus on syntax comes not from my English teachers, but from my own personal interest in sentence structure (one that ultimately culminated in a doctorate in linguistics).  From a young age, I'd constantly scrutinize the variety of structures that undergird effective prose and try to internalize them so they'd become part of my own syntactic repertoire.

So when Catherine Johnson recently sent me an article by Robert J Connors on The Erasure of the Sentence, I was astounded to realize 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.
But first, what are these sentence-based rhetorics that have fallen out of favor?

Recent champions of sentence-based rhetorics include Francis Christensen, whose specialty was "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," which 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."

Sound familiar? 

If not, try substituting "sentence combining" with "traditional math," syntactic transformations with "mere calculation," "imitation exercises" with "drill and kill," and "communicative competence" with "conceptual understanding."

Woops! I thought that by writing about writing I'd be taking a break from math.


Happy Elf Mom said...

Well. I have an autistic child who can tell you about nominative pronouns and how they necessitate one saying, "It is I" rather than "It is me" when at the door.

Who is it?

He still says "it's me." He still writes that way as well. "The teachers are they" who use incorrect grammar in everyday speaking as well; let's be real about it. :)

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Having just had to read several college senior essays that suffered enormously from ungrammatical sentences and lack of flow, I have to say that the current educational strategy, whatever it is, is not working.

I recommend to my students that they read Huckin and Olsen's "Technical Writing and Professional Communication for Non-Native Speakers" as it has some of the best heuristics for creating sentence and paragraph flow that I have seen.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure that any of the college seniors who need this instruction are capable of reading anything as long as a book chapter.

Laura said...

Yet another reason I've chosen to homeschool. We are using traditional English books from the 1950s *gasp* (Voyages in English). Terribly old-fashioned, I know, but I'm having to learn grammar right along with my DD.

Geniferous said...

In seventh grade, my English teacher taught me how to diagram sentences. This was one of the most useful things that I was ever taught, and I also enjoyed doing it. I cannot believe that this is no longer taught in most schools. I absolutely believe that diagramming sentences should be part of the English class curriculum. For someone like me, who does not learn holistically, it was incredibly helpful for me to learn the seven parts of speech and exactly how they fit together to form a standard English sentence.

Don Stewart said...

One correction. Francis Christensen was not into sentence combining. He would give a student a portion of a sentence, generally the main clause, then have them place their own free modifiers before, within, and/or after that main clause. That way the students themselves were "generating" the content. His essay "The Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence" explains all this.

I am Don Stewart, and I am the holder of Christensen's copyrights. Amazon has my reissues of his essays and methods. Also, I have put his lessons online as writing whatever.com. Worth a look.