Posts tagged ‘grammar’

July 10, 2014

The rise and fall of sentence diagramming

by Grace

The sentence diagramming method once popular in American public schools was developed in the 1870s.


For a long time, sentence diagramming flourished throughout the American school system, and, despite being condemned as a useless waste of time in the 1970s, it still persists in many schools. Indeed, it spread well beyond the USA, and so a very similar system is taught in many European countries (though not, alas, in the United Kingdom). For example, schools in the Czech Republic teach sentence diagramming so successfully that researchers are investigating the possibility of including school children’s analyses in a working tree-bank of analyzed sentences.

I learned sentence diagramming when I attended Catholic elementary school, but I doubt any local schools are using it today.

Besides teaching grammar in a fun way (at least for some), diagramming sentences may offer the benefit of teaching how to pull clarity from the chaos”.

What Diagramming Teaches Us

When Joseph R. Mallon Jr. bumps up against a complex problem, he thinks back to a lesson he learned in high school from the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

The Philadelphia-area school’s Catholic nuns taught him the art of diagramming a sentence. Once all the parts of speech lined up, Mallon pulled clarity from the chaos. It’s a process he uses today to tackle tough issues as chief executive and chairman of Measurement Specialties Inc.

“Sit down quietly. Take (the issue) apart into its component parts. Make sure all the components fit together well. They’ve got to be well chosen, fit together and make sense. There are few (business) problems that can’t be solved that way, as dire as it might seem,” Mallon said. “Sentence diagramming is one of the best analytical techniques I ever learned.”

Investor’s Business Daily
17 October 2000

An online parser applied to one of my sentences generated this diagram:


Even with my foggy understanding, I can see how diagramming helps in learning parts of speech and syntax.  The online tool is interactive, and provides parts of speech terminology for every word in the sentence.  It makes some mistakes, but it looks like a neat tool to use for reviewing sentence structure.  Unfortunately it does not accept pasted text.


Richard Hudson, “A Brief History of Diagramming Sentences”, Slate, January 2, 2014.

December 31, 2012

Take a grammar quiz to see if you should be concerned about ‘grammar gaffes’

by Grace

Grammar problems are plaguing business communication.

Managers are fighting an epidemic of grammar gaffes in the workplace. Many of them attribute slipping skills to the informality of email, texting and Twitter where slang and shortcuts are common. Such looseness with language can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing materials and cause communications errors, many managers say.

Employers are teaching the writing skills that should have been learned in school.

There’s no easy fix. Some bosses and co-workers step in to correct mistakes, while others consult business-grammar guides for help. In a survey conducted earlier this year, about 45% of 430 employers said they were increasing employee-training programs to improve employees’ grammar and other skills, according to the Society for Human Resource Management and AARP.

Some employers believe the old rules of grammar are irrelevant in today’s business environment.

… Sincerity and clarity expressed in “140 characters and sound bytes” are seen as hallmarks of good communication—not “the king’s grammar,” says Jason Grimes, 38, vice president of product marketing. “Those who can be sincere, and still text and Twitter and communicate on Facebook—those are the ones who are going to succeed.”

Two of my grammar pet peeves are using “I” instead of “me” and the overuse of “myself”.

To Melissa Wilde of Brooklyn, hearing people say, “’Come to the movies with John and I’ sounds like fingernails scraping a chalkboard,” she writes in an email. While Stephen VanderBloemen, Waukesha, Wis., objects to business letters that close with the sentence, “If you have any questions, please call myself.”

How is your grammar?  Take the WSJ GRAMMAR QUIZ.

I’m feeling proud after getting 20 out of 22 correct, even though the test was not very hard.  I hope writing this blog has helped improve my writing skills.

After you take the quiz, you can celebrate your high score or bemoan your poor grammar with a drink.

Here’s an appropriately named whiskey that I’ve been enjoying recently.


Unfortunately, as far as I know you cannot buy Writers Tears in the United States yet.  I was fortunate to receive a bottle from a relative who just returned from Ireland.

“Ireland has been blessed with great poets, and playwrights down through the centuries. However, most, if not all of our great writers suffered from writer’s block. Many sought comfort and inspiration from “the water of Life”… whiskey. It was said that when an Irish writer cried, he cried tears of whiskey.

Writers Tears is a salute to these great writers with a style of whiskey that was popular in Joyce’s Dublin…”

Shouldn’t there be an apostrophe in “Writers”?

This grammar issue is mentioned in some reviews of the whiskey, and there seems general agreement that an apostrophe is needed.  Here’s one discussion on the relevant grammar rule.

Possessives versus Adjectival Labels

Don’t confuse an adjectival label (sometimes called an “attributive noun“) ending in s with the need for a possessive. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell which is which. Do you attend a writers’ conference or a writers conference? If it’s a group of writers attending a conference, you want the plural ending, writers. If the conference actually belongs to the writers, then you’d want the possessive form, writers’. If you can insert another modifer between the -s word and whatever it modifies, you’re probably dealing with a possessive. Additional modifiers will also help determine which form to use.

  • Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw three touchdown passes. (plural as modifier)
  • The Patriots’ [new] quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, threw three touchdown passes. (possessive as modifier]

I run into this “possessive versus adjectival” issue whenever I write about teachers’ pensions.  Or is it “teacher pensions”?


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November 16, 2012

Grammar, whole language method, experimenting on students, Mad Libs, improving SAT scores

by Grace

Jessica Nevitt is a middle school English teacher who found her own whole-language education left her with a shaky understanding of grammar, a problem that became apparent when she took her SAT test.  Now she is trying to make grammar instruction more engaging for her students by using Mad Libs.

… Grammar is a subject that I have struggled mightily with, as a student and a teacher.

My elementary school experience made me a product of the “whole language” movement. My teachers emphasized the importance of reading and daily journal writing, which in turn, translated into a grasping of the English language, which was organic and boundless.

The rote memorization of grammar rules through charts and workbooks, a hallmark of more traditional forms of grammar education, was seen as archaic and even inhumane.

Because I was both an avid reader and writer, the whole-language approach allowed me to understand grammar in context, without forcing me to spend countless hours memorizing charts and squelching my creativity. Although this approach seemed successful, it was not until years later that I realized something was missing.

During my first attempt at the SAT exam, I nearly passed out when I encountered the then-recently developed “writing” section. The questions asked me to select, in multiple-choice style, the grammatically correct version of a given sentence.

I used my intuition, based on years of whole-language reading and writing experience, to guess at the correct answer, and managed to squeak by. But it became clear at that moment just how clueless I was about grammar.

When she found her own students struggling with “dangling modifiers, participial phrases, subjects and predicates”, she decided to supplement traditional grammar instruction with Mad Libs.

Mad Libs — the popular children’s word game that requires players to fill in verbs, adjectives or other words to tell a story — is perhaps the single greatest grammar tool I have used to engage my students.

With the first few Mad Libs that we completed, the students had fun coming up with “silly” words that fit the part of speech required. However, as they gained a greater mastery of the parts of speech, we began to discuss the nuances of word choice and the incorporation of more sophisticated adjectives and verbs. Thus, grammar became a gateway for the teaching of writing.

Ultimately, the end goal of this exercise is to have students create their own Mad Libs. Students will have to form their own sentences with blanks, leaving out a particular part of speech. By doing this, students will not only gain a better understanding of the different roles that words can play, but also gain an understanding of the relationship between the parts of speech and the structure of a sentence.

Apparently Mad Libs is quite popular as a teaching method, as I learned when I Googled mad libs grammar worksheets. I’m sure that teachers find it engaging, but I have a lingering doubt about its effectiveness.  While I realize that students must be engaged to learn, too often I hear educators stress the importance of “engaging” students over the importance of actual learning.  My sense of uneasiness is amplified when teachers like Nevitt write about how our school children are used as guinea pigs in the classroom.

I am lucky to work at a school that allows me to experiment with different methods of grammar education …

This reminds me.

Schools are not required to obtain permission from parents or undergo IRB review in order to conduct research using their students as human subjects.

All that being said, based on years of research the National Council of Teachers of English recommends against teaching grammar in isolation.

… ample evidence from 50 years of research has shown the teaching of grammar in isolation does not lead to improvement in students’ speaking and writing, and that in fact, it hinders development of students’ oral and written language….

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction.

I think the optimal situation would be for schools to use lots of grade-level reading and writing along with explicit grammar instruction.  For most students, that combination would probably be the best.


Well, this was a rambling post covering several topics.  The main point I’d like to emphasize:

Learn grammar.  It will help your SAT score.

August 8, 2012

Quick Takes — grammar mistakes, the folly of college for all, curbing impulsivity with drugs

by Grace

 11 Most Common Grammar Gaffes On Social Media (The Brainyard)

Top 5 are:

1. It’s and Its
2. Your and You’re
3. To, Two, and Too
4. There, Their, and They’re
5. Sentence Starters and Endings

—  Another reason the college-for-all mindset should be reconsidered:  There is a ‘very poor correlation between the percent of college-degree attainment in a nation and the nation’s overall prosperity’.

 As I have pointed out several times in my Chronicle postings (see, for example, “Supersizing,” February 15, 2012), there is a very poor correlation between the percent of college-degree attainment in a nation and the nation’s overall prosperity.  Russia leads the world in college-degree attainment among 25- to 64-year-olds and among 25- to 34-year-olds, both at 54 percent. No one thinks Russia has the world’s leading economy.  Switzerland (34 percent) and Germany (25 percent) have robust economies but smaller percentages of degree holders than the U.S. (We have 41 percent among 25- to 64-year-olds, according to a 2010 OECD; 38 percent according to the older OECD study Dr. Rosenberg apparently replied on.)

Too Many College Students? Yes, Unfortunately (Chronicle of Higher Ed)

—  Drug Boosts Frontal Cortex Dopamine, Cuts Impulsiveness (FuturePundit)

This new development has many implications for shaping human behavior, but the first one that came to mind was treating adolescent children, boys in particular, whose immature frontal lobes impede optimum academic achievement.  The possibilities are both intriguing and frightening.

Raising levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the frontal cortex of the brain significantly decreased impulsivity in healthy adults, in a study conducted by researchers at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Impulsivity is a risk factor for addiction to many substances, and it has been suggested that people with lower dopamine levels in the frontal cortex tend to be more impulsive,” said lead author Andrew Kayser, PhD, an investigator at Gallo and an assistant professor of neurology at UCSF. “We wanted to see if we could decrease impulsivity by raising dopamine, and it seems as if we can.”

The study was published on July 4 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

In a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study, 23 adult research participants were given either tolcapone, a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that inhibits a dopamine-degrading enzyme, or a placebo. The researchers then gave the participants a task that measured impulsivity, asking them to make a hypothetical choice between receiving a smaller amount of money immediately (“smaller sooner”) or a larger amount at a later time (“larger later”). Each participant was tested twice, once with tolcapone and once with placebo.

December 15, 2011

‘Writing, writing, writing’ – a skill lacking among too many college graduates

by Grace

Jeff Selingo wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about what he learned from employers who are having a difficult time finding qualified employees to hire among recent college graduates.  This was just one problem he found.

Writing, writing, writing. We keep throwing around the word “skills,” but it seems the one skill that almost every job requires is the ability to write well, and too many graduates are lacking in that area. That’s where many of the recruiters were quick to let colleges off the hook, for the most part. Students are supposed to learn to write in elementary and secondary school. They’re not forgetting how to write in college. It’s clear they’re not learning basic grammar, usage, and style in K-12.

Why are students not learning to write before they get to college?  Maybe a different type of writing instruction is needed?

Related:  The Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point’

(Cross-posted at Kitchen Table Math)

August 21, 2011

Art imitates life on these Old Navy college team t-shirts

by Grace

Old Navy left out the grammatically correct apostrophe in its college team t-shirts for sale online.


I suspect many kids won’t notice the error.

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