Category Archives: Grammar

Not Quite What I was Expecting

I spent part of this morning at CPS.  I was invited to today’s all-day meeting earlier in the week, but I wrote to Dr. Wong and told her that a) I wouldn’t be able to stay the whole day and b) I wasn’t sure, given the ambiguity of our relationship, whether it would be appropriate for me to be a part of those meetings in the first place.  We decided to split the difference by having me come in for an hour or so this morning, and Dr. Wong and I got a chance to sit down and talk specifics.

It turns out that they have no money to pay me, or, Dr. Wong said, they’d have formally hired me by now.  She seems genuinely interested in having me as part of her team; she told me that the dean who sat in on the workshop I ran last week had nothing but “glowing” things to say about me, and she recognizes that my particular discipline concentrations are decidedly lacking in her current staff.  She really wants me to get a feel for the school and the kids and the community – despite the fact that she can’t formally offer me a job – so she invited me to come and teach a writing workshop two days a week on a volunteer basis.  That would give me a time to see whether and how I would fit in with the place, and would give them a sense of what I can do with students.  I agreed to a six-week trial; we’ll reassess the relationship after that time.

Dr. Wong seemed really confident that there would be a position available for me in September, but a lot depends, of course, on the money situation.  The school will be more than doubling its enrollment in the fall, they’ve decided not to expand into the building in which they currently reside (they were thinking of breaking through a wall and taking over more square footage, but they’ve put that plan on ice for now), and the expectation is that there will be money in the budget for me.  I won’t know that for a while, though, so for now, I’m going to do the volunteer gig and see what happens.

It’s not an ideal situation.  I would really like to be paid for my time (especially given that I get to tack two travel hours to every trip I make out there).  This gets me in front of a classroom, though, working with kids, doing what I love, and making an impression that may well secure me employment for the next school year.  It’s not perfect, but it’s something I can live with… at least for six weeks.

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Filed under about writing, colleagues, frustrations, Grammar, job hunting, Teaching, winging it

Grammar Wednesday

The “by” construction.

I have no idea when kids started picking this up, but I remember jumping up and down on my freshman LU kids about it four or so years ago.  That was about when I started noticing that the students LOVED to write sentences like these,

By writing the Emancipation Proclamation, it shows that Lincoln was concerned that slavery was bad for the country.

By quoting from numerous reputable sources, it shows that Jeffers was careful in his research.

My LU kids write shit like this all the timeALL the time!  Finally, last week, I’d had it, so I did a whole lesson on why the “by” construction is terrible.

I wrote a ‘by’ sentence on the board and asked the kids what they thought of it.  No one had any objections to it at all (why would they?  they write it all the time).  Then I asked them to find the subject of the sentence.  It took them a while (which freaked me out – really?  You can’t find the subject of a sentence?!), but someone finally came up with “it.”

“YES!  IT is the subject of that sentence.  What’s the verb?”

In this case, I think it was “shows” – that’s usually the verb in “by” constructions – and they were able to find the verb much more quickly than they could discern the subject, which was at least a little gratifying.

“Cool – so we’ve got a subject and a verb.”  Now, I move in for the kill.  “What, exactly, is ‘IT’?”

Crickets…..

“….Yeah.  That’s why this is a terrible structure.  STOP WRITING SENTENCES LIKE THIS!!”

The payoff came at the end of the class.  I had them doing scrum workshops (where they throw their essays onto a table, grab one, read it, and write the author notes and suggestions.  When they’re done, they bring that paper back, put it on the table, and grab another one.  It’s not a very neat way to workshop, but it’s effective; in a half hour or 45 minutes, one student can go through 4 or 5 papers, so it’s a great way to get a paper in front of a lot of different pairs of eyes).  One student, exhausted from the effort, came to me and said “Mrs. Chili, I have NO IDEA how you do this job.  I was ready to kill myself after about the third paper.  Oh, and I noticed that EVERY PAPER I READ had at least three or four “by” sentences in it” (emphasis mine).

Yeah, kid; I know.

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Grammar Wednesday

Mrs. Chili is kind of reveling in the fact that she’s gotten to the bottom of ALL her grading piles. Of course, all that grading left me with PILES of Grammar Wednesday topics – pointing out the difference between then and than, getting the kids to write people who instead of people that, and beating into them that while it may be considered standard English to say different than, when they’re writing for me, they need to use the different from construction.

Gah!

Anyway, I’m eager to step back from my role as a teacher and get into full-on vacation mode, so I’m leaving you with this. I found it on Pinterest a while back, and it cracked me right up.

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Grammar Wednesday

Every year, in every class, I do a lesson on the First Amendment. I’m just geeky enough that I can write the thing out by heart on the board.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Yes, I am.

Anyway, I want them to really GET what the First does – or, more importantly, what it doesn’t do – and to that end, I have them parse the sentence; I want to get to the VERBS in it to find out what kinds of protections we can reasonably expect.

Nearly all of them find make as the primary verb in the sentence, but only one or two every year understand that the full verb in that main clause is shall make.  Most of the kids come to me not knowing what helping verbs are, and don’t understand that they really do change the meaning of the verbs which they precede.

Here, then, are the 23 helping verbs.  I learned them by rote when I was in high school (or maybe it was middle school?), but I recently discovered a little song – set to the tune of jingle bells – that really helps to cement the list in kids’ heads.  Ready?

“OH, helping verbs, helping verbs, there are twenty-three!

Am, is, are, was and were, being, been, and be-EE!

Have, has, had, do, does, did, may, might, shall and should;

there are five more helping verbs, may, might, must, can and could!”

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Grammar Wednesday

I’m recycling topics, you guys.  If there’s an issue you want me to address, fire off an email, please.  Otherwise, you’re going to keep getting retreads:

Less vs. fewer

image credit

This is really a question about whether one understands the difference between a count and a non-count noun; which one we have will determine the adjective we use.

A count noun is… duh… something you can count.  Remember that it’s not something you WOULD count, necessarily – snowflakes and stars are both count nouns – but they’re things you COULD count.  When you’ve got a countable noun, you would use fewer:

There were fewer fans at the football stadium once the team started their spectacular losing streak.

The new brand of oil means your car requires fewer oil changes in an average year.

A non-count noun is… duh… something you can’t count, even if you wanted to.  They’re words like money (but not dollars), rain, (but not raindrops), and furniture (but not chairs or couches; see the difference?):

The area had significantly less rain this summer than last, which means fewer trees will reach their full autumn color.

Joni makes less money than Jack, even though she does twice the work and makes fewer mistakes.

All those signs in grocery stores that direct you to the “ten items or less” registers are wrong because items is a count noun (as are groceries, and pretty much anything that you can put on a conveyor belt).  Tell them so for me.

 

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Quick Hit: This Cracked Me Up *EDITED*

I’m a closeted fan of passiveaggressivenotes.com.  I found this there this afternoon, and it gave me a giggle.

*Edited to include: Kizz commented that the handwriting in the grammar note looks a lot like mine.  It’s not, but she’s right: observe

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Grammar Wednesday

Tricky agreement question!

The other day, Carson sent me this question:

I saw a sign that reads “20 million pounds is distributed every year.” Janette and I contend that this is incorrect; however, her friend states it is right. Thoughts from the grammar queen?

(Let’s be clear here that the “grammar queen” moniker was his idea, not mine.  I make no claims to any kind of royalty, grammatical or otherwise.)

Here’s my answer to his question:

You and Janette are correct – the verb should be plural.

If you’re talking about the number, the verb that goes with it should be singular; “20 million IS a big number.”

Since we’re talking about a quantity of things, however, the verb should be plural.  We wouldn’t say “a thousand people IS marching on city hall this afternoon” even though the article that goes with “thousand” is “a,” which is singular.

Where this really gets people flummoxed is when we’re talking about percentages.  In fact, I think I came up with this on the side of a cereal box a couple of years ago… hang on, let me see if I can find it…yep; here it is.  The upshot of this problem is when we’re talking about ONE in some other number (whatever that number happens to be).  We’re talking about ONE, so the verb that goes with it should be singular: “one in five relationships STARTS online,” “one in 250 million people IS a redhead,” that sort of thing.  The problem is that people mistake the SUBJECT of those kinds of sentences (the ONE) with the MODIFIER (in the examples I gave, “relationships” and “people”) which is plural.

We have that same problem when it comes to other types of modifiers, too.  “That pile of rocks IS in my way,” “that group of students IS preparing for an exam,” or “the majority of Americans IS in favor of gay marriage.”  The subject of a sentence never comes in an “of” phrase, and “pile,” “group,” and “majority” are singular nouns.

I tell my students to figure out which verb to use by taking out the modifier, or the “of” phrase, and saying the sentence out loud.  Personally, I wouldn’t say “A million IS distributed;” I would naturally say “A million ARE distributed,” so I go with the plural verb.

Get it?

Love!

Chili

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Grammar Wednesday

The apostrophe.

Something weird happened last night. Just as I was thinking of him, Carson called me. I love it when that happens – and it happens quite a bit – but it still freaks me out a little. I mean, I love Carson and I’m always happy to talk to him, but we hadn’t actually directly connected to each other since our last Skype date, what?, a month or so ago? So when my phone buzzed with his call at exactly the same time I was thinking of him, it kind of blew my mind.

Anyway, our conversation revolved around nothing in particular – it was more of a “hey, I was thinking of you so I called you” kind of thing (again, with the mind-blowing). Before we hung up, though, he asked me if I’d address something in a Grammar Wednesday that was bugging him. Because I love Carson (and because I didn’t have anything better in mind), I told him I would.

It seems Carson subscribes to Runner’s Weekly (he runs. A lot. For long distances and great stretches of time. I have no idea why). “Shouldn’t the apostrophe be after the s?” he asked me.

image credit

Yeah, I think it should. I mean, it’s reasonable to assume that the magazine is aimed at more than one runner, right? The magazine doesn’t belong to just that one guy, right?

Here are the rules (as I learned them) about making things plural:

If you have a singular noun, proper or otherwise, and something belongs only to that noun, use an apostrophe-s – Schrodinger’s cat, Schrodinger’s cat’s favorite box, my friend’s weird-o traditions.

If you have a collective noun that ends in something other than an s, and something belongs to the entire group as a collective, use an apostrophe-s. The pride’s kill, my family’s ancestry, the group’s rehearsal space.

If you have a plural noun that ends in s, proper or otherwise, and something belongs to that group as a collective, use an s-apostrophe (in other words, put an apostrophe after the s that makes the noun plural) – the girls’ bedroom (they share it), the generals’ battle plans, the Windsors’ castle.

If you have an irregular plural noun, use an apostrophe-s – the women’s locker room, the children’s nursery school.

The exception to the ‘noun ending in s’ guideline tends to be with names that end in a ‘z’ sound, and even there I’ve seen variation. The way I decide whether to use an apostrophe-s or an s-apostrophe is I say the word; if I add an extra “es” syllable to the end, I use an apostrophe-s (Jesus’s followers). If I don’t add the extra syllable, I use s-apostrophe (Mr. Hastings’ class).

Yeah?

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Grammar Wednesday

Do you think I’d get in trouble if I printed this and posted it on my wall?

I probably can’t get away with it, but MAN, the kids would TOTALLY get the Oxford comma!

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Grammar Wednesday

FANBOYS!

I have a number of pet peeves, so I’m going to work though them one at a time.  Today, you’re going to get the “coordinating conjunction starting a sentence”  peeve.

A coordinating conjunction is a word that connects a word, phrase, or clause to another.  Anyone remember Conjunction Junction?  Yeah – that; coordinating conjunctions are the words that put ideas together; For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So – FANBOYS.

These words are not, however, words to start new ideas, and here’s where we get into trouble.  Except when writing dialogue (or in very casual writing situations), it’s not okay to start a sentence with any of the FANBOYS; doing so almost always results in a sentence fragment.  Observe:

But it was because I was hungry.

And then she left.

So I kicked her.

Do these things work in creative writing?  Yes; in fact, I love to use, “and ANOTHER thing…!” but it is almost impossible to make a complete sentence that begins with a FANBOYS word because the coordinating conjunction tells you that there’s another idea that needs to come before this one.

So don’t do it.

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