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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Advice for New Teachers: Try Sentence Disentangling

A number of writing teachers swear by sentence-combining as a technique for teaching students how to construct sentences.  The principle is simple enough: Give students a set of simple sentences, and have them put the clauses together in a more sophisticated form.  You can use sentences from anywhere.  Here's a set of independent clauses from a selection in an anthology I have lying around:

In June of 1968, I was drafted.
A month earlier, I had graduated from Macalester College.
I was drafted to fight a war.
I hated this war.

Put those together as Tim O'Brien did in the essay "On the Rainy River," and you'll end up with this:

"In June of 1968, a month after graduating from Macalester College, I was drafted to fight a war I hated."

It's actually kind of fun, if you're the type of person who enjoys this sort of thing (a nerd.),  But I'm not sure it gets at the heart of what troubles beginning-level writers.  Most of my students, for example, suffer less from a tendency to write overly simplistic sentences than from what we may consider the opposite tendency--the tendency to write things like this:

"The points that he described in his essay were very practical, especially the points about childhood stereotyping that how we try to make sense of the world, and what we should do to prevent ourselves from stereotyping."

Kind of makes you long for those boring clauses transcribed above, no?

I suspect that what causes this sort of verbal tragedy is a kind of insecurity: Inexperienced writers fear that if they don't, with all deliberate speed, get down on paper every thought that flashes through their minds, then they will lose the thought forever.  In the sentence above, things are going more or less OK up until "childhood stereotyping" (which is actually an incorrect phrase, as the essay being discussed is speaking about stereotyping learned during childhood--but let that go).  At that point, though, I suspect the writer had flashes of ideas about other points to make, and proceeded to throw them down without regard for sense or syntax.

It's OK.  As I explain to my students when I introduce them to these Word Monsters, every writer, whether novice or expert, does it from time to time--composes these sprawling, incoherent sentences.  The difference between good writers and bad is that when good writers spawn Word Monsters, they never see the light of day: They are snuffed out shortly after their creation, transformed into--if not high poetry, at least understandable prose.

What these sentences call for is not combining, then, but disentangling.  Take the sentence above (please!).

"The points that he described in his essay were very practical, especially the points about childhood stereotyping that how we try to make sense of the world, and what we should do to prevent ourselves from stereotyping."

I tell students that, if they find they've written a long sentence--or a sentence that feels long--to try to take it apart in order to see what they've actually got.  One way to start working with a sentence like the above Word Monster is to try pulling out all the verbs and trying to match them with their subjects.  This yields:

He described
The points were
We try
We should do

And right away, students can see a problem: After all, if we assume that a sentence's subjects should tell us a little something about the topic of a sentence--and we do--then this sentence has some lousy subjects.  From there, we could think about what the sentence is actually about: stereotyping (or, to be precise, an essay about stereotyping).

The author made points about stereotyping.
The points were practical.

"We try to make sense of the world [by stereotyping]" might become "Stereotypes help us make sense of the world."

"What we should do to prevent stereotyping" could become simplified to "We should prevent stereotyping."

Ultimately, once we untangle the sentence--and clarify what the writer meant--we might end up with a few sentences--combining the individual sentence parts, yes, but only after we have pulled the original sentence apart:

"The author made several practical points about stereotyping.  He explained that we stereotype because of childhood experiences and in order to make sense of the world.  He also suggests ways we could prevent stereotyping."

Ready for The New Yorker?  Probably not.  But an improvement over the original?  You betcha.

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