kitchen table math, the sequel: Magister Green on students & relative pronouns

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Magister Green on students & relative pronouns

Apart from the standard difficulties my students exhibit when I'm working with them on relative clauses in Latin (such as the idea that the relative pronoun has an entire existence within its own clause that is independent of its antecedent), I've noticed something similar with my upper level students in regard to abstract pronouns. We're reading Caesar this year in AP and he uses abstract pronouns "These things", "These men", etc... constantly and I have to stop and ensure that everyone is keeping up with all the "these" and "those" and "them" as we read. Frequently they want to treat these pronouns as true relatives; referring back to a specific word in a preceding clause. The notion that a single pronoun can refer collectively to an entire paragraph, or a single idea encapsulated in a phrase, can stop them at times. It's an interesting problem I'd not given much thought to before now.

fyi: The relative pronouns are that, those, who, whom, whose, which, what, whatever, whoever, whomever, and whichever.

Composition textbooks tell you not to use a relative pronoun to refer to an entire paragraph or thought -- not unless you say "This paragraph" or "That thought" --  but writers do it all the time as far as I can tell. I certainly do.

I was gobsmacked when I learned, just two years ago, that using a naked "this" to refer to an entire idea was forbidden. After Katharine told me that a prohibition on using a naked "this" to refer to an idea or a paragraph was ridiculous, I decided to unforbid the practice and carry on as before.

Don't go by me, though. Until 2 years ago, I had never heard of relative pronouns.

Or relative clauses.


Anonymous said...

I still forbid naked "this" and "that" to my students, as most of them use them only when they are vague about the antecedent. There is nothing wrong with naked "this" in ordinary writing, but in scientific writing that has to be read by non-native speakers (that is, almost all scientific writing), having clearer antecedents is very, very helpful.

ChemProf said...

Ugh. One of my thesis committee members was an engineer who had taken a writing course, and was opposed to any use of this or similar relative pronouns (as in no "this laser", I had to restate "The Nd:YAG laser" every darn time, in every sentence.) Drove me nuts.

Catherine Johnson said...

chemprof - that is funny! (and, yes, I would have found it infuriating---)

Catherine Johnson said...

chemprof, if you're around, we're camped out at Debbie Stier's -- and the 1st night we got here she showed me a printout of a fantastic post from ktm --- it was yours on financial aid!

Catherine Johnson said...

I should throw pride to the winds and start posting some of my Catherine-discovers-grammar adventures.

For passersby, I'm a professional writer who, 2 years ago, began teaching the freshman composition course at my local college.

When I started, my knowledge of formal grammar was whatever I learned in grade school in Lincoln, IL. My high school didn't teach grammar, and although I took Spanish for years (and considered majoring in Spanish in college), I transferred almost none of my knowledge of Spanish grammar to English (I think because most of what I studied in Spanish didn't directly apply to English: the subjunctive, the reflexive forms of Spanish verbs, the negative --- )

In my town students constantly say they've learned all the grammar they know in foreign language classes, and while of course they're right, I'm now very skeptical that formal knowledge of grammar acquired in foreign language study transfers to reading & writing in English.

I do think that formal knowledge of grammar in the case of someone like Katharine, who is a TRAINED LINGUIST, transfers. But that's a different story.

momof4 said...

A recent post on another website made a good point about the current edworld fad that grammar should be "caught, not taught". The point was that, in the real world, the only students who have any likelihood of sufficient "catching" are very bright kids, from advantaged families, who also read a GREAT DEAL of high-quality fiction and non-fiction. In other words, almost none of today's kids. Bottom line; better go back to teaching it explicitly.
Problem; many, if not most, teachers (particularly ES-MS)probably don't know grammar and compostion well enough to teach it effectively. I recently read that the percentage of teachers with less than 10 years experience has just crossed 50%, and that group I think is less likely to have a strong background in grammar and composition. Even when I was in college in the 60s, English majors (and possibly minors) in Arts & Sciences were required to take Structure of the English Language, and Stylistics, in that order, but secondary-ed majors in the ed school were not required to take either. (although some did). They were the two most difficult classes in the department, with an outstanding professor teaching both, but everyone above C level (required) KNEW grammar when they finished.

Catherine Johnson said...

The point was that, in the real world, the only students who have any likelihood of sufficient "catching" are very bright kids, from advantaged families, who also read a GREAT DEAL of high-quality fiction and non-fiction.

Well that's the thing!

The grammar of academic prose is COMPLETELY different from the grammar of spoken English, period. The grammar of English spoken by people with Ph.Ds is completely different from the grammar of academic prose.

It's so different that I've wondered whether it ought to be considered something akin to a second language. (I actually have a book that argues it should be considered a second language, which, naturally, I have had no time to actually read).

How would anyone learn the utterly 'foreign' grammar of academic prose without reading and understanding a great deal of academic prose?

The only other option is teaching it explicitly and giving students enough practice that they master it.

Catherine Johnson said...

Problem; many, if not most, teachers (particularly ES-MS)probably don't know grammar and compostion well enough to teach it effectively.

Right -- and teachers say so.

momof4 said...

Yes; the young 6th-grade English teacher who (most regrettably)had my younger kids actually bragged that she had no idea how to diagram a sentence and assured parents that diagramming, and grammar in general, was not only unnecessary and irrelevant but undesirable. Fortunately, the elderly 7th-grade teacher believed in diagramming and grammar and the kids did a lot of it. Thank Heaven. And Mom did a lot of red-pencil applications onto k-12 papers, too - because too many teachers did not and would not correct mistakes. Ugh

That disdain helps explain how it could happen that of the 16 summer interns (most from Ivies or comparables) at a Manhattan PR firm, only one (my daughter!) was allowed to do any writing whatsoever. The rest answered phones, did filing, ran errands etc. (unsurprisingly, my DD wasn't too popular with her fellow interns)

Hope you have power! My Westchester Co son doesn't

ChemProf said...

Thanks, Catherine (and Debbie!)

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FedUpMom said...

I don't know where to post this.

I have a question for the assembled math-teaching brains: is 1 a prime number?

I was told by some kids I'm tutoring that their teacher told them 1 is not prime. I'm quite sure I remember learning 1 is prime, back in the late Jurassic when I went to school. 1 sure isn't composite, right?

Any thoughts? Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The definition of a prime number is a positive integer greater than 1 such that .... fill in the rest. This is so that you get unique prime factorization:
6 = 2x3
6 = 1x2x3
or 6 = (1^2)x2x3 or 6 = (1^3)x2x3 or 6 = (1^4)x2x3 ... etc

Anonymous said...

One is not prime.

If it was, too many proofs would have a phrase like "all primes except one" or "any prime except one.". Mathematicians hate awkwardness like this, so the math community solved the problem by defining 1 to be neither prime nor composit.

-Mark Roulo

Glen said...

The answer you should use is, No, one is not prime.

That's just by modern convention, though. Mathematically, one could be called prime or not prime, and historically it has been included in primes by some and excluded by others. Mark mentions that if it were included with the primes, it would require "except for" in some statements. Yes, but excluding it requires "except for" in others. The most basic definition of primes, positive integers that have no factors except one and themselves, has to add "except for one." (The workaround to avoid saying "except for" is just verbal trickery: "Integers greater than or equal to two...")

The Goldbach Conjecture originally claimed that all positive even numbers could be expressed as the sum of exactly two primes (2 = 1+1, 4 = 1+3, 6 = 3+3, 8 = 3+5, etc.) It's an amazing idea (it seems to be true, has been tested up to very large numbers without a single failure, but nobody has proven it and nobody knows why it works). Too bad it has to be restated as all even numbers EXCEPT FOR two. Unlike every other positive even number, two breaks the pattern, because one isn't prime, right? Once again, the "except for two" is finessed by saying "all even numbers greater than or equal to four."

I'm not saying that one should be defined as prime, though. You'll have "except for" either way, so you just decide which ideas you'd rather burden with the "except for" and which to keep simple. The idea that all integers have a unique prime factorization (as long as one is excluded from primes) has proven so useful to mathematicians that they agreed to define one out of the primes by convention, but their definitional conventions don't change the real math of the situation: one can be considered prime or not. But it is definitely defined as not prime these days.

FedUpMom said...

Thank you for your responses! I knew I could count on you all.