Sunday, November 16, 2008

Back again...

Well, have a few minutes between papers and manuscripts. All day I've been working on writing something to help students understand what a sentence is and what a fragment is, and everything seems confusing and unhelpful. I mean, just about all the characteristics of a sentence can be replicated by a fragment ("A sentence has a clause, subject/verb"-- well, so does "Because I wanted to"... "A sentence states a complete thought"== Oh, yeah? How about "I'm not?" And lots of fragments are complete thoughts plus a word like "which" that diminishes it syntactically)...

The last straw was an otherwise helpful grammar website which defined clause as "A syntactic element that has both a subject and a predicate." Okay, let's move right past that "syntactic element" thing. "Predicate" was hyperlinked to its own definition. Yeah. "Part of a clause." Clause was, of course, hyperlinked to the original definition. Nothing like circularity. Oh, also, apparently a predicate "says something about the subject." (So does an adjective.)

No wonder students have so much trouble recognizing sentences and fragments. (Well, the major reason is, and here's where I get thrown out of the Teachers of English groups, kids don't grow up diagramming sentences. Weird that it's considered useless, when I took advanced grammar in grad school, and what was the main exercise? Sentence diagramming.)

So I decided to make my own schemata for clauses and sentences. And I'll share it with you. :) I'm trying to keep it simple, and trying not to despair ("There's no way to explain this! And they don't care! And anyway, everyone uses fragments all the time now!") and trying not to use complex terms. Just keep in mind, this is for students who don't understand sentences -- that is, not writers who occasionally choose, for effect or emphasis, to use fragments.

If you have suggestions, let me know. I'm going to post this to a couple of my classes later in the week. What has helped you know what a sentence is? How do you deal with all those existential questions? I mean, one of the definitions was that a sentence "states a proposition". Huh? It's like they're only talking about certain types of sentences.

(This had a box around it in Word, but apparently the lines disappeared into the ether. AND there were pretty colors distinguishing the subject and predicate. Sigh.)
A clause is a unit of grammar that has a main subject and a main predicate combination. It is the essential building block of a sentence, expressing something about an object or person (the subject).

The subject is an item in the sentence that either acts:
Paul hit the ball.
Or is acted upon:
• The ball is hit by Paul.
Or just exists in some state of being:
Paul is good at hitting the ball.
The subject is usually a noun (thing-name) or pronoun (he/she/it/they/this/that—replacement for noun), or a combination phrase that centers on a noun or pronoun, but includes modifying words or phrases, like:
The dirty old baseball
The old baseball sailing into right field

The predicate is always a verb or verb phrase which identifies the action of the clause's subject:
• Paul hit the ball.
An important group of predicates identifies a state or condition of the subject. The two most common of these "stative predicates" are is and have.
• Paul has a lot of experience playing baseball.

The predicate phrase can have auxiliary verbs like was and could, which express tense or some other aspect of the action:
• Earlier, Paul was hitting the ball over the fence.

It can also have adverbs which modify the action somewhat.
• Paul hit the ball weakly.

Clauses and sentences:
A clause then combines a subject (the actor or acted-upon, usually earlier in the sentence) and the predicate.

A clause can be either independent (subject-predicate):
Schools should not require the driver's exam.

or dependent (subject-predicate with a diminishment like a dependent conjunction):
Although schools should not require the driver's exam,

Independent clauses can be full sentences on their own, even if they are very short:
• I run.
Dependent clauses, no matter how long, cannot be full sentences on their own.
They must be attached to an independent clause to make a sentence:
• Although schools should not require the driver's exam, students should be encouraged to take the training course.

The best way I've found to learn how sentences work is to diagram sentences. This gives you a graphic and hands-on way to analyze what roles different words and phrases play. Here's a great site with lots of sentence diagramming exercises. Be sure and find the "Enter" button in the middle of the front page to get access to the exercises. Really, this is fun! Trust me!


Ian said...

You forgot the link to the diagramming page. And welcome back - we missed you!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

You've been missed. In fact, I almost dropped you guys an e-mail to make sure you were okay over there.

I loved diagramming sentences when I first learned. But then they got more complex and I was sunk ... I ran out of room!

Anonymous said...

I must be a rare breed—we dabbled in sentence diagramming in middle school (this would be somewhere in 1995-1997).

And then, of course, in Syntax in college we diagrammed sentences, but the IP diagram is a completely different beast!

Edittorrent said...

Let me try that link again....

Anonymous said...

I spent the entire 7th grade diagramming sentences back in the dark ages... okay 1972. I yearned to crack open that hefty Literature book, but no, diagram, diagram, diagram. I don't think I could diagram anything now, but I was awesome at it by the end of that year. Good luck with your students!