kitchen table math, the sequel: 3/25/12 - 4/1/12

Saturday, March 31, 2012

a jumbled sentence

Here is a jumbled student sentence cited by Carol Jago in her book Cohesive Writing: Why Concept Is Not Enough:
To just stop and look at things, ideas and even if you don't like them, or they scare you, stop and explore them you will be a knowledgeable person and make good decisions because you will know all the bad and all the good about the situation.
I've got to get Katharine to come tell us what's going on here. This may be what she calls a left-handed sentence, although I'm not sure.

From Legal Writing Tips:
Sentences that place an excessive amount of qualifying (or descriptive) information before the main subject and its verb are called “left-handed” sentences by LeClercq.


LeClercq says that left-handed sentences are the hardest sentences to read because readers have difficulty processing introductory dependent material before they have a context for it. Readers are forced to read through the introductory material, hold it in abeyance, and then place those introductory words in context.

Consider the following sentence that LeClercq provides as an example:
Based on a review of the material regarding the Worker’s Compensation Joint Insurance Fund that resulted in the Agency’s granting of an exemption for a similar fund in 1984 and the material submitted by the expert at our meeting, in my opinion the above-captioned funds meet the requirements for exemption as a government entity organization.
To reach the point of this sentence, readers have to absorb 39 words before the beginning of the main clause - and the main subject is still hidden behind the superfluous phrase “in my opinion.”
That is one whopper of an impossible sentence to read, I must say.

But it's not jumbled!

project-based assessment at the "Celebration"

The lead presenter in the Workshop on "project-based assessment" told us that, in college, half the knowledge a "technology major" learns freshman year is obsolete by the middle of sophomore year, so "content doesn't matter."

That is a direct quotation. I wrote it down.

"Content doesn't matter."

Also "technology major."

writing is hard, talking is easy

A few weeks ago, one of my students asked me why we're doing sentence combining exercises in class.

Good question.

In theory, the reason we're doing sentence combining exercises is that the research on sentence combining is positive, which is what I told my class. However, I have not actually read any of this research myself, so the real reason(s) we are doing sentence combining exercises are:

a) Arthur Whimbey recommended doing them

b) Robert Connors thought sentence combining was a good idea


c) a commenter here at ktm once reported that Morningside Academy uses sentence combining, which indeed appears to be the case. (I love ktm commenters.)

Still, although my faith in these sources is high, and although the notion of giving students practice combining sentences makes a kind of gut-level sense to me, I have the same question my student had, only I phrase it a bit differently.

My question is:  What is it about writing, anyway?

Why is it so hard?

And why is talking so easy?

Talking is easy, writing is hard ---- Why?

I've been mulling this over for at least a year now, and today I'm thinking one of the main reasons  writing is hard is that writing IS sentence combining. Sentence combining isn't just an exercise designed to help students learn to write; sentence combining is writing. It's what writers do.

Of course, people combine sentences all the time when they talk. It's perfectly natural and normal (and easy) for a person to say "I went home because I felt sick," which is a combination of the sentences "I went home" and "I felt sick."

It's perfectly natural and normal for a writer to write "I went home because I felt sick," too. However, arguably it is just as natural and normal for a writer to write, "Because I felt sick, I went home," whereas I have never heard a person actually say, out loud, "Because I felt sick, I went home" or its syntactic equivalent.

And I have certainly never heard a person say, out loud, anything on the order of "Weeping, shuddering, he sat on the edge of the bed." (Lois Lowry, The Giver)

Nobody talks that way, but everybody writes that way (everybody who knows how to write, that is). I don't know what writers do, exactly, that makes writing so different from speaking, but we do seem to move "sentence constituents" around a whole lot more than talkers do.

Which brings me back to my students. I can't remember whether I've talked about this before, but one of the issues you see in freshman writing is something I call "jumbled sentences." When I first encountered jumbled sentences, I didn't know what to make of them; they are so strange to me that I can't (yet) imitate them myself. I can't imitate them because I don't understand how they're put together.

I'll try to come up with some examples I can disguise well enough to post.

update: Here's one.

My impression is that often these sentences start out fine, but then the wheels come off somewhere along the line.

I'm thinking perhaps novice writers produce jumbled sentences because they're trying to combine lots of short, declarative sentences (or short declarative thoughts, more likely) into much longer constructions -- which is exactly the right impulse -- but they've had so little practice writing (and reading) complicated sentences that they lose control after the first clause or so.

But I don't know.

Here is Jim Miller on talking versus writing:
Many kinds of spoken language, not just the spontaneous speech of domestic conversation or discussions in pubs, have a syntax that is very different from the syntax of formal writing. It is essential to understand that the differences exist not because spoken language is a degradation of written language but because any written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users – clerics, administrators, lawyers and literary people. The process involves the development of complex syntactic constructions and complex vocabulary. In spite of the huge prestige enjoyed by written language in any literate society, spoken language is primary in several major respects. There are, or were until recently, societies with a spoken language but no written language, but no societies with only a written language; children usually learn to speak long before they learn to read and write; and the vast majority of human beings use speech far more often than writing.

The syntax of spontaneous spoken language has been ‘designed’ or ‘developed’ to suit the conditions of speech – little planning time, the possibility of transmitting information by loudness, pitch and general voice quality, and support from hand gestures, facial expressions and so on (what is known as ‘non-verbal communication’). For a particular language, the syntax of spontaneous speech overlaps with the syntax of formal writing; there is a common core of constructions. For instance, "The instructions are useless" could be spoken or written. However, many constructions occur in speech but not in writing, and vice versa. "She doesn’t say much – knows a lot though" is typical of speech, but typical of writing is "Although she does not say much, she knows a lot."

The special syntax of spontaneous spoken language is not produced just by speakers with the minimum of formal education. One of the most detailed investigations of spoken syntax was carried out in Russia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The speakers recorded on tape in all sorts of informal situations were doctors, lawyers and academics, but their speech turned out to be very different in syntax from written Russian. Moreover, their syntax had general properties which have turned up in bodies of spontaneous spoken English, French and German.

This book deals with concepts suitable for the analysis of all types of language, from spontaneous unplanned conversation to planned and edited formal writing. The one exception is the unit that we call ‘sentence’. Attempts to apply this unit to spontaneous speech have not been successful; speakers disagree, sometimes spectacularly, on where sentences begin and end in recordings of spontaneous speech in their native language. The sentence appears to be a unit developed for formal writing. It is also appropriate for the analysis of planned speech where the syntax is that of writing.

People learn the syntax and vocabulary of formal writing from books and in school in a process that lasts into the early twenties for university graduates and can continue much longer. In general, the more exposure speakers have to formal schooling, the more easily and frequently they use in speech the syntax and vocabulary that are typical of formal writing.
Miller, Jim. An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xii-xiv. Print.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Look it up

Have just this moment realized I forgot to post an account of my exchange with the WNET staffer at the "Celebration."

Unfortunately, I'm fresh out of energy.

Boiled down, the encounter began with the WNET person saying Salman Khan should not be "allowed" to teach in New York schools because "he's 19th century."

It ended with the WNET person saying there's no reason for people to memorize things becauseand here she held her cell phone aloft"I can look things up on my phone."

When I said, "Can you look up calculus on your phone?" she made a face.

English 109 has an index!

One of my favorite things about the old kitchen table math site was the index. The book index is a brilliant invention; Google doesn't come close. After the first ktm froze, we moved to Blogger, and I've missed the index ever since.

Now I've got a new one.

Actually, Blogger has been offering the option of creating stand-alone pages for a while now, so I could probably start putting together an index for ktm, too.

In my spare time.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Admission Matters

I just finished reading this book by Springer, Reider, and Franck. (2nd ed.) I recommend it. It provides many specific details about the process. It discusses how to select colleges in terms of fit and whether one would be a stretch, a good fit, or a safety school. They discuss this process using GPA vs. SAT "scattergrams". It also goes into great detail on the pros and cons of Early Decision, Early Action, or just going with the normal application cycle. It also provides forms you can use to collect information about schools of interest, and it includes full Common App and recommendation forms. Finally, it provides a general four-year timeline of steps one should follow. The book is worthwhile just for describing these details of the process.

From a more philosophical standpoint, the book tries to put the whole process into perspective. However, one of key problems is the higher probability of acceptance with Early Decision. This forces many to pick one school as if it is the perfect school for them. However, the book goes on in length about how acceptance is a crap shoot and how it's not good to get caught up thinking that only one school will fit. You can't have it both ways. Colleges know darn well that the differences between many schools are subtle. They just want to reduce competition. Once they've gotten students to really want one college as if it's the only one, the crap shoot acceptance/rejection letters arrive on Dec. 15. Most kids are devastated just in time for the holidays with no other acceptance letters to balance the rejection. I suppose it wouldn't be good to say that you are only selecting that college because it's a stretch school and you want to increase your probability. Actually, the book includes a "letter" from an admissions officer who talks about how students should look at all schools in terms of probability of fit and acceptance. No one school is best.

It seems to me that the packaging of students is all for the benefit of the college and not the students. It's nice to think that schools wants a balanced or well-rounded community, but I see more of a "Slug Club" process (see Harry Potter, book 6) where schools try to cherry pick winners. Not only do you have to pay huge amounts of money for a college education, but you have to not seem packaged and be truly sincere about why college 'X' is so special. Then, the college will pick students based on what's best for them, not you.