Grammar Instruction

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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Grammar instruction isn't what it used to be. This is not nostalgia. It isn't exaggeration. Grade-school teachers simply don't use sentence diagramming to show how the different parts of speech fit together in a sentence. I think it went out with New Math, which was so long ago that no one remembers it except aging Baby Boomers who groan when they do. It's a good example, however, of the central point.

Effective Grammar Instruction

The notion of expressing oneself for the sake of expressing oneself is, I am sure, a noble one in some respects. If unchecked, however, it can easily lead to almost nonsensical writing. The school marm I remember--who frowned as we stood at the blackboard with a piece of chalk and diagrammed our sentences--would either have a field day or keel over and expire on the spot today.

I can't help but wonder sometimes if we read what we write once we've written it. This is a real sentence from a real book. Mercifully it was fixed before it went to press. "He died following the amputation of a leg wounded during the battle." And what does this mean? The common sense that old-fashioned grammar instruction drills in is all it takes to sort out a muddled but simple sentence immediately. He died. When did he die? "Following the amputation of a leg" is when he died. Presumably he didn't die while following an amputation around a battlefield. He died after an amputation.

What comes next? According to the position of "wounded during the battle" in the sentence and lack of any punctuation to indicate differently, it modifies leg. The leg was wounded in battle? My impression, and Webster's, is that a person is wounded. A leg has a wound. The noun is a different thing altogether than the verb. Linguistics and grade school grammar instruction calls this the flexible function of a word. Wounded during the battle, he died after his leg was amputated. If this all seems a little much to figure out a simple sentence, you are not alone. That's why online forums and cheat sheets were created: to be fast but effective answers to grammar issues and questions.

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