Taking Issue

I feel a little like I’m poking the beehive with this one – we’ve not had a good linguistic scuffle around here in a while – but I just can’t let it pass.

517s8malepl_aa240_.jpgMy grammar students have been asked to purchase this book. It runs for about 83 bucks on Amazon; I suspect that it’s a bit more expensive at TCC’s bookstore because it comes with a reading packet, too. For that kind of money – really, for ANY money – we would reasonably expect that the book is good for what it claims to do, right?

I’m not so sure the kids haven’t been robbed.

Last Thursday, I left the students with the assignment to do the practice exercises for chapter 2. The work reviews the four basic kinds of sentences (students have to identify sample sentences as commands, statements, exclamations, or questions), subjects and verbs (students are asked to identify these things in the practice sentences), and sentence fragments and complete sentences. In one of the fragment exercises, students have to decide whether a sample structure is a complete sentence or a fragment; in the other, they are asked not only to decide whether the structure is complete, but to complete it if it’s not and, in either case, to identify the subject and the verb in the sentence.

I’m taking issue with the directions for this final exercise. It reads, and I quote:

Instructions: Below are some of the expressions from Practice 3. For each complete sentence, underline the subject with one line and the verb with two lines. Turn each fragment into a complete sentence. Then underline the subject with one line and the verb with two lines.

Is it just me, or is the final “sentence” in that series of directions grammatically incorrect? Ignoring that, if the sentence were complete on its own, there should be a comma after “then” – it’s introductory material – I don’t think that the structure actually is a complete sentence. My argument is that it’s really a dependent clause.

Run with me for a second, please:

I think (and I could be wrong here – I could also be channeling my inner prescriptivist…) that “then” in this sentence is functioning as a coordinating conjunction that connects two clauses; “first do this, THEN do that.” Turn each fragment into a complete sentence, then underline the subjects and verbs. The sentence as it stands can’t really stand alone; it’s dependent on the sentence that came before it for meaning – if we don’t know what we were supposed to do first, how would we know what to do next?

Am I right, or am I full of uptight, grammarian bullshit?

If I’m right, it bothers me deeply that this is in a textbook that is supposed to be teaching English grammar.



Filed under concerns, General Griping, Grammar, Questions, Yikes!

13 responses to “Taking Issue

  1. Didn’t I just tell you I had problems with then and than 😉 However, even I know that I would not allow this sentence to stand alone…at least not without the comma. I think I am pretty cool with commas…but then (?) again, I am a psych teacher so I may be delusional. 😉 I think you should write a letter to the publisher.

  2. Yikes!! I, too, see this as a dependent clause. Your students are being cheated and robbed. How can the publisher justify charging $83? Where were the proofreaders?

  3. If the last sentence had a comma, would it be correct? Would a different word be better?

    Finally, underline the subject…

    And make notes of these errors, put them on the final exam. Also, you can give them to the person making textbook decisions.

  4. Danielle, I’ll do a then/than Grammar Wednesday next week, I promise!

    Thanks, Butterfly – I was worried that it was just me…

    Seester, yes – I think that “finally” would have been more acceptable; it would have left the sentence as a command, and I’d have been fine with that.

  5. I think sometimes when giving a list of directions we habitually use periods instead of commas. I agree that using “Finally” seems to clear it up a little. It’s that pesky “then” that gums up the works.

  6. with a comma, it would be correct. “then” is an adverb, just like “finally” is. so if the sentence works with “finally,” it works with “then.”

  7. I haven’t been able to find anything about “then” introducing a dependent clause. Subordinating conjuctions like “because”, “if”, “when”, “although” introduce dependent clauses:
    I go to sleep because I am tired.
    I go to sleep when I am tired.

    But with “then”:
    I go to sleep then I am tired.
    The second clause does not depend on the first.

    All the dictionaries I’ve checked list “then” as an adverb and “because” and “if” as conjunctions.

    As to whether the sentence in question is a complete sentence or not… I think it is a full clause. However, my style guide recommends comma + “and then” in such constructions.

  8. To clarify: you’re right that the second clause depends on the first, but it depends on it semantically and not syntactically. We find indepedent clauses beginning with “then”. Here are some from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass:

    Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible.

    Then came another of those melancholy little sighs…

    She just kept the tips of her fingers on the hand-rail, and floated gently down without even touching the stairs with her feet; then she floated on through the hall, and would have gone straight out at the door in the same way, if she hadn’t caught hold of the door-post.

  9. The textbooks I have to use for my Intro Writing courses have so many typos and grammatical errors that I am giving a bonus point to the first student who finds one, on a page to page basis, daily.

    The tests and quizzes I have to use are full of errors, too.

  10. John, you said:

    As to whether the sentence in question is a complete sentence or not… I think it is a full clause. However, my style guide recommends comma + “and then” in such constructions.


    To clarify: you’re right that the second clause depends on the first, but it depends on it semantically and not syntactically.

    I think that the structure is a full clause – it satisfies all the requirements for being so. The “then” at the beginning just doesn’t SOUND right to me, though – I feel as though something important is being left out. I much prefer joining the two clauses together with a comma and keeping all the instructions together.

    Your clarification was an “Ah-HA!” thing for me. The two sentences DO depend on each other semantically, though I can see where, syntactically, they can stand alone. I was responding to the MEANINGS of the sentences, not really to the structure.

    Still, having said all that, I’m sticking to my guns that it shouldn’t be in the GRAMMAR textbook….

  11. Fair enough, but I don’t think it’s ungrammatical at all, for the reasons I gave.

  12. denever

    I’m with John; there’s nothing wrong with it as written. The need for a comma is arguable. The same would be true of:

    First we went to the mall.
    Later we returned to work.
    Once I had a bad experience with a renegade grammarian.

    They all start with adverbs and I don’t see anything wrong or ungrammatical about any of them. And while I tend to use commas more than most people, I wouldn’t use them for any of these sentences or your original example, unless another element were added (e.g., “Later, reluctantly, we returned to work.”)

  13. Mrs. Chili–Thanks for showing interest in my work and for your leaving a comment on my blog. I’ll try to update my blog more frequently than I have in the past. Unfortunately I don’t know any publishers personally. I’m working on my first book but don’t have a publisher lined up as of yet. Robert S. might be more helpful. You can also check out the book, The Children’s Book Writer and Artists Market (I think that’s the name of it.) Good luck with all your efforts!

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