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 time. ALL 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’?”
“….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.