kitchen table math, the sequel: cleft sentences

Friday, November 16, 2012

cleft sentences

I was talking to Katharine today about teaching writing. I've been focusing on sentence combining, specifically on teaching students to write the kinds of embedded and heavily "noun-modified" sentences you see in academic writing.

Katharine said she thinks students need to learn not just how to 'combine' and 'embed' but also how to manipulate word order via cleft sentences, "anticipatory its," passive voice and the like.

So tonight I've been tracking cleft sentence handouts....

This one looks good.

English teachers need to study linguistics. I'm playing catch-up, and I hadn't made a conscious distinction, inside my own mind, between "embedding" versus "word order" as different ways of persuading sentences to do what you want them to do.

If you haven't made a distinction consciously, you can't use it to decide what to teach.


ChemProf said...

I'm teaching the capstone seminar for my students this semester, and I think I'm seeing a weird result of their discomfort with clauses -- massive use of parentheses. As in every third sentence includes a parenthetical which should actually be a clause.

I'm curious if this is a trend or just a blip this year. Have you seen this with your students?

Anonymous said...

Oh man. I learned how this feature of language works without having to learn a new name (cleft sentences) or go through this list of different types. If you arrive at college without having mastered this, Freshman writing must be very toilsome.

TerriW said...

Oh I love that cleft sentence handout, I am totally swiping that.

My oldest is 3rd and we've been working on sentence diagramming this year, talking particularly yesterday about how you put the adverb under the verb regardless of where you put the adverb in the sentence. We then took the example sentences and started figuring out all of the different places you could place the adverb and how the sentences "felt" different in each of those places.

This would be a nice segue from that. Nice!

allison said...

"What she was was furious!"

That's acceptable British grammar?????

I despise that construction in oral English. When I read a paper containing constructions of double "forms of be" --"what the problem is is ..." or "what he was was" I immediately consider someone illiterate. Writing the way one speaks sounds uneducated to me; proper writing edits to make ideas clearer; "what she was was" sounds to me as if you've started a sentence before you knew what you were going to say.

Are you claiming those constructions are grammatically correct in American English?

Glen said...

What they are is grammatically correct. What they aren't is elegant.

"What she was was furious," is just a noun phrase + be + predicate adjective. It has the same structure as, "What she said was outrageous," or, "What she did was unforgivable." The grammar is fine, but the doubling of the verb creates visual noise and the lack of spoken prosody--in this case, an emphasis on the first was and a pause before the second--makes things worse. The result is stylistically awkward in writing and should be cleaned up unless the style serves a purpose such as contrastive parallelism: "What she wanted to be was edgy; what she was was just creepy."

Katharine Beals said...

What isn't grammatically correct is the oft-heard:

The thing is is that ....

What the thing here is is that people seem to be overgeneralizing the wh-cleft structure and/or omitting the wh-word at the beginning.

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