July 12, 2007

The grass is always greener on the other side of the predicate

Sarah Churchwell, writing in the independent ("Why can't British students write like Americans?", 7/12/2007), tells us that

The combined result of Thatcher's decision that teaching English was supererogatory and the dim memories of people for whom parsing was punishment is written mayhem; my students use punctuation marks interchangeably, as ornamentation, and their malapropisms are worthy of a Restoration comedy (as are their proliferating capital letters). This spring I read about a character who wore "promiscuous clothes", and a novel that was "mellow-dramatic". One essay announced: "I will now offer a few examples to undermine my position". Another wrote of a character who has been misled by the promises of the American Dream: "This concept of her being an aspirant is shown through her excessive longing to be Ben Franklin." Their sentences aren't always this funny, but they're often this garbled, because students are guessing at grammar.

I'm an enthusiast for the idea of teaching linguistic analysis in what used to be called "grammar school". But Dr. Churchwell's examples demonstrate faults of vocabulary, not syntax -- except for the sentence about Ben Franklin, which has no obvious linguistic flaws, except perhaps for a stylistically questionable use of "this".

No amount of parsing practice will teach students that undermine doesn't mean "underline", or persuade them to reject the plausible hypothesis that the word melodrama includes the morpheme mellow. The only effective medicine for symptoms like that, I'm afraid, is to do more reading -- though some systematic vocabulary exercises probably wouldn't hurt.

In fact, if Dr. Churchwell hadn't brought up parsing, I'd have classified this as an example of the practice of using "grammar" to mean "language standards and conventions", and ignored it. But the first paragraph of her essay makes it clear that she's serious about this having something to do with syntax -- and even more surprisingly, that she believes that American youth write better because they are still taught to analyze sentences:

Every spring, I have Rex Harrison's voice in my head, singing: "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak? Norwegians learn Norwegian; the Greeks are taught their Greek." For eight years I've been teaching extremely bright, overwhelmingly middle-class university students studying American and English literature, who achieved minimum A-level scores of three Bs. They are intelligent, skilled at passing exams, and most of them don't know what defines a complete sentence. This is not sarcasm: every year I ask my students to name the three parts of a complete sentence. Usually they mumble, "subject, verb, object" or "subject, verb, predicate". I have never had an English student who knew the answer. The Norwegians and the Greeks do. So do the Americans, because they were taught grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. The majority of middle-class Americans who went to a state school, like me, have known the definition of a complete sentence since age seven. (In case anyone is wondering, the answer is: subject, predicate - which essentially means verb - and complete thought.)  [emphasis added]

Although I mostly paid attention during first grade, in the Buchanan elementary school in Mansfield Center, Connecticut, I'm afraid that this tripartite division of the sentence is news to me. But I was often tardy, due to stopping off at the creek or the cow pasture or other attractions on the way to school, and I might have missed that lesson.

Of course, experienced linguists know that "complete thoughts" can be hard to find, and even locating the predicate can be a challenge for novices, as Dave Barry famously explained:

Q. Please explain how to diagram a sentence.
A. First spread the sentence out on a clean, flat surface, such as an ironing board. Then, using a sharp pencil or X-Acto knife, locate the "predicate," which indicates where the action has taken place and is usually located directly behind the gills. For example, in the sentence: "LaMont never would of bit a forest ranger," the action probably took place in a forest. Thus your diagram would be shaped like a little tree with branches sticking out of it to indicate the locations of the various particles of speech, such as your gerunds, proverbs, adjutants, etc.

More seriously, I'm sure that I was told more than once in school about the standard old-fashioned definition of a sentence as "a group of words containing a subject and a predicate and expressing a complete thought". (Who first coined this definition, I wonder, and when?) But as the Cliffs Notes summary of grammar explains, "for this definition to be helpful, you must be able to recognize a subject and a predicate and understand what is meant by 'a complete thought.'" That's where practice with the X-Acto knife comes in.

Even more seriously, it's been a long time since most American students learned any useful grammatical analysis in school. For example, though nearly all college freshmen know that they're supposed to avoid using the passive, fewer than 10% of them (at least among those that I've tested) can accurately locate the passive verbs in a passage of text.

On the other hand, inoculation with the variety of grammar that used to be taught in American schools hasn't prevented Dr. Churchwell from writing in a way that sincerely confused Edward Wilford, who wrote to me from England:

I thought you might be interested in this column, run in the Independent on 11 July. The title asks 'Why can't British Students Write Like Americans? My favourite claim is that all American students know that a sentence consists of three parts: a subject, a predicate, and a 'complete thought'. I've asked many people in the department and no one has given that definition, or confessed to ever having heard it in their schooling. Is this something taught in American schools?

But no doubt a stiff dose of modern linguistics would have immunized her against the compositional choices leading to that semantic miscommunication :-).

[Update -- Simon Overall writes from Australia:

I was interested to see that Dr. Churchwell's page at the University of East Anglia lists her "principle interests"...

This demonstrates that the Hartman/McKean/Skitt Law of Prescriptive Retaliation is in good working order, if only indirectly. Except to make this point, though, I would never tease anyone about a spelling error, since I'm a rather careless speller and a terrible proofreader. I already had to correct "innoculate" in this post, and it wouldn't surprise me to find another mistake or two.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 12, 2007 08:57 AM