kitchen table math, the sequel: teach clauses first

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

teach clauses first

A lot of my students have been told never to start a sentence with the word "because."

I assume they've been told this because they write so many sentence fragments that start with subordinating conjunctions.

Because the sky is blue.
Because money doesn't grow on trees.
Because I said so.

If you tell students never to begin a sentence with because, you don't get sentence fragments that start with because. That's good.

Unfortunately, if you tell students never to begin a sentence with because, you also don't get any real sentences that start with because, and that's bad:

Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry.
Because money doesn't grow on trees, I am canceling your data plan.
Because I said so is why.

These are all excellent sentences, perfectly legal, and English teachers oughtn't to be ruling them out of bounds. But they have, and it falls to me to enlighten my students as to the acceptability of the word 'because' at the beginning of sentences.

However, trying to explain to a class-full of college freshman that, yes, it is OK to begin a sentence with the word "because," just so long as the because-clause is connected to an independent clause, is hopeless.* They've never heard of clauses, and they've certainly never heard of coordination or subordination. (pdf file) Neither had I when I started teaching the class. Not really.

As far as I can tell, the best way to teach the grammar of writing, which is to say the best way to teach the grammar of the sentence, is to forget about sentences and teach clauses instead. Or, rather, teach the clause first and the sentence second.**

Sentences are made of clauses, so start with clauses!

Starting with clauses works because all clauses have subjects and predicates, which is the essential point you're trying to get across about sentences anyway -- but when you start with clauses you can talk about dependent marker words from the get-go, giving everyone a shot at writing complete sentences that start with because, instead of incomplete sentences that start with because.

P.S. I think the Grumpy Grammarian was Philip Keller's father-in-law. (Unless...I've mixed up Grumpy Grammarian with The Underground Grammarian. Will have to ask Phillip.)

P.P.S. I like Richard Nordquist's way of putting it.

*I'm avoiding the possibility that, in the third example, Because I said so is a dependent clause acting as a noun well as the possibility that Because the sky is blue is also a noun phrase....
Math is much easier than grammar, I think.

**Actually, I think the best approach is probably to start with words-and-phrases. Nouns and noun phrases specifically, I'm thinking.


SATVerbalTutor. said...

Yes, there's no way to teach this without getting into a discussion of dependent and independent clauses. I find that the easiest way to teach this is to start with independent clauses, then 1) simply tack on the subordinating conjunction to make a dependent clause and 2) combine the dependent clause with an independent clause to make a sentence. Most kids don't actually have too much trouble with this -- they can hear the difference between a dependent clause on its own and a dependent clause combined with an independent clause.

The one thing to watch out for if you ask them to write them on their own is that some kids will try to way overcomplicate them and start tacking on all sorts of additional clauses (that's how you get jumbled sentences). You have to force them to be really strict and simple.

Anonymous said...

This page does a good job of explaining the subordinate clause:

Catherine Johnson said...

I love chompchomp!

Catherine Johnson said...

At this point, I don't really understand the distinction between coordination and subordination -- not in the way linguists, grammarians, and literary scholars understand it.

I use coordination & subordination correctly in my own writing, BUT I don't understand why the distinction looms so large in studies of language. I'm working on that.

I also need to understand 'reduced clauses' -- and whether I need to be starting not just with the idea of coordination & subordination but also with the idea of reduced clauses.

How important are reduced clauses to writing per se?

I'm thinking **very** important, but I'm not sure.

Catherine Johnson said...

Stanley Fish's book on sentences & Francis Christensen's book on sentences are both almost entirely about subordination vs. coordination.

Now, I must say, part of me thinks they may be wrong in that focus ..... (I'll post Bill Robinsons's article on rhetoric and grammatical dependency as soon s I get to it).

In any event, the distinction between coordination & subordination is critical to proper punctuation, and proper punctuation (in the sense of knowing where the capital letter and the period go) is key.