kitchen table math, the sequel: testing, testing

Friday, December 7, 2012

testing, testing

Grammar is sooooo slippery.

If anyone has advice on teaching the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive modifiers, I would love to hear.

Here's my latest stab at it. (Katharine told me about the "Pause Test.")

And here's the boyfriend who plays the piano, an example I learned from a graduate student and Fulbright scholar whose native language is Arabic.

She was the graduate assistant in an Applied Grammar course for English majors I was auditing, and she was gobsmacked by how little grammar American students know. One day she said (paraphrasing), "The reason to learn grammar is to appreciate your language. We study grammar because Arabic is a beautiful language."


Hainish said...

Non-restrictive --> use commas.

If you can remove the phrase from the sentence while preserving its meaning, it is is non-restrictive. The phrase contains a truth that applies even if it is not explicitly included in the sentence.

Restrictive --> no commas.

Removing the restrictive phrase will change the meaning of the sentence, usually by broadening the noun phrase.

How to tell whether the phrase is restrictive? Try putting it on the other end of the verb "to be" or in a sentence beginning with "All."

George Washington, who was our first president, was inaugurated on April 30, 1789. --> George Washington was our first president. It works, so the phrase is non-restrictive and commas are needed.

George Washington is the president. --> It doesn't work, so the phrase is restrictive and no commas are used.

Catherine Johnson said...



Very interesting -----

Let's see how this test works with the Titanic sentence:

"The Titanic, which set sail on April 15, 1912, sank four days later."

All the Titanics set sail on April 15. TRUE!

I love it!

Thank you!

Catherine Johnson said...

How often does it happen that the relative clause modifying a proper noun is restrictive?

I'm thinking 'never,' but 'never' almost always turns out to be wrong in matters of grammar.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

There were two Winston Churchills—The Winston Churchill who became the British Prime minister, who was born on Nov 30, and the Winston Churchill who was an American novelist, whose birthday was Nov 10.

There—two proper nouns with restrictive clauses and with non-restrictive clauses as well. And the sentence is even one that I can imagine using in a conversation.

Anonymous said...

Since we're discussing grammar, what about this sentence?

"Do either of the two sentences below need commas to set off the adjective clause?"

I would use the helping verb does rather than do.

Hainish said...

I had a different example in mind for using "All": the example about curve-setting students in one of the links. But, see it does work when applied to the Titanics (all of them!)

Katharine Beals said...

Hainish is right (though it's more specifically the "truth conditions"--or the set of circumstances under which the sentence can be true--rather than the meaning more generally, of the main sentence that's at stake here).

The interesting thing is that adjectives, too, can be restrictive or non-restrictive (though here the pause test doesn't really work). For example:

God made a companion for the lonely Adam.


God made a companion for the lonely man.

Here Adam/man isn't being contrasted with other non-lonely Adams/men, and broadening the noun phrase by removing "only" doesn't change the sentence's truth conditions.

FedUpMom said...

Katharine -- whaddaya mean, "removing only"? There is no "only". I don't get it!

Katharine Beals said...


Catherine Johnson said...

Do either of the two sentences below need commas to set off the adjective clause?

I'm glad you brought that up!

"Do" sounds right to me, and I used it originally I ---- but then after a lengthy and frustrating Google search I changed to "does."

I've been keeping track of grammar I learned without ever being taught and grammar I didn't learn (just through reading) -- and this is one of them.

In fact, I was talking to Katharine about this just last week.

Take the sentence:

All of the students are here.

I see "all" as the subject of the sentence and "of the students" as a prepositional phrase modifying "all."

But apparently that's not right.

The grammatical subject is "students" and "all of" is an adjective phrase.

I **think** it's the same principle with "Do/Does either of the two sentences" --- but I don't know!

Which is it?

And what is the grammatical subject of the sentence?

Catherine Johnson said...

gasstation - good job!

I didn't put my question right.

In the example you give, we have to use an article before "Winston Churchill" ('the Winston Churchill..')

Do we ever have a 'naked proper noun' followed by a restrictive clause?

(I'm asking --- I'm thinking 'no,' but I don't know.)

Catherine Johnson said...

though it's more specifically the "truth conditions"--or the set of circumstances under which the sentence can be true


Students get completely confused when you tell them that the sentence 'doesn't make sense' without the restrictive clause and rightly so .... because often as not the sentence does make sense without the restrictive clause.

"Truth conditions" is important (not that I know what that means --- ) because as with so much else in teaching grammar there are relatively few 'stand-alone' sentences in the world.

Inside 'connected text,' a noun starts taking nonrestrictive modifiers as soon as it's been identified just once (I think ---- )

I've been auditing an applied grammar course where students were trying to punctuate a passage about Margaret Mitchell.

After the first couple of sentences discussing Margaret Mitchell, the next sentence said "The actress who lived in Atlanta all her life."

The "who lived in Atlanta all her life" is nonrestrictive and takes commas because "the actress" has already restricted in meaning by the preceding sentences.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

In "All of the students", "all" is indeed the head noun, and in "either of the sentences" either is the head noun. "All" is plural; "either" is singular.

"All the students" and "All students" are different, and "students" becomes the head noun.

The Winston Churchill example can have the articles removed:
There were two Winston Churchills—Winston Churchill who became the British prime minister and Winston Churchill who was an American novelist. It is a little harder to make the non-restrictive clauses flow smoothly without the definite articles.