February 26: Kernel Sentence Day

On this 26th day of the second month it makes sense to use the most fundamental tool of literacy, the 26 letters of the alphabet, to create the most fundamental construction of English syntax, the two-word kernel sentence.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King asks readers to explore this challenge by combining subjects and predicates to form the most basic simple sentences:

Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence.  It never fails.  Rocks explode.  Jane transmits.  Mountains float.  These are all perfect sentences.  Many such thoughts make little rational sense, but even the stranger ones (Plums deify!) have a kind of poetic weight that’s nice.  Simple sentences provide a path you can follow in the tangles of rhetoric – all those restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, those modifying phrases, those appositives and compound-complex sentences.  If you start to freak out at the sight of such unmapped territory (unmapped by you, at least), just remind yourself that rocks explode, Jane transmits, mountains float, and plums deify.”

As King confirms the essential core elements of each English sentence is its kernel – the subject-noun and predicate-verb.  

Today’s Challenge:  Alliterative Abecedarian

What are some possible subjects (nouns) of sentences and some possible predicates (verbs)?   Brainstorm a list of subjects, alphabetically from A to Z.  Then, do the same thing with predicates, listing verbs from A to Z.  Finally, follow Stephen King’s advice and combine your subjects and predicates to form two-word alliterative kernel sentences, like the following examples:

Ants annihilate.

Buses bypass.

Cats caterwaul.

Dandruff defaces.

Ears eavesdrop.

Flamingos flock.

Quotation of the Day:  The way you live your day is a sentence in the story of your life. Each day you make the choice whether the sentence ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. -Steve Maraboli

 

December 11:  Predicate Adjective Day

On this day in 1987, the film Wall Street opened in theaters.  The film follows an ambitious young Wall Street broker named Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen, and a rich corporate raider named Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, who won the Oscar for best actor in the role.  

Gordon Gekko.jpgIn one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, Gordon addresses a stockholders’ meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he is planning to take over.  In the speech Gordon attempts to change the audience’s perception of him from corporate raider to company savior by targeting the wastefulness of the company’s management.  The core of his message is that “greed is good,” and that he is a liberator rather than a destroyer of companies:

Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you.

I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much (1).

The essence of Gordon’s claim in his speech is the sentence, “Greed is good.”  Syntactically speaking, this sentence is a classic example of a  predicate adjective, a type of sentence in which a subject is linked with an adjective.  With predicate adjectives, a linking verb acts as a kind of equal sign to connect the subject and the adjective, as in Greed = good. Most of the time linking verbs are forms of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were, will be); however, there are other verbs that also serve to link the subject and the adjective, such as the verbs appear, become, feel, look, sound, and taste.

Here are some other examples of predicate adjectives:

Life is not fair.

Love is blind.

The students were angry.

The students look confused.

Infanticide is rampant among prairie dogs.

Today’s Challenge: Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, Predicate Adjectives Are Nothing New

One caveat for using predicate adjectives is to watch out for making unsupported subjective claims.  For example, notice that in addition to stating his claim that “greed is good,” Gordon Gekko also varies his syntax and supplies additional evidence and explanation to support his claim.  Sometimes writers or speakers think that stating something with authority, such as “This is boring,” makes it true.  On the contrary, the validity of any stated claim rests on its backing, its support, and its explanation.

What is a claim that you could state in the form of a predicate adjective, and how would you support it?

Use the list of of subjective adjectives below to construct a claim about a topic you feel strongly about:

good, bad, boring, exciting, beautiful, ugly, awesome, awful, nice, mean

Make sure that your claim is a predicate adjective and that it is an opinion, not a fact.  For example, if you say, “The house is red,” you would be stating a fact.  In contrast, if you say, “The house is ugly,” that’s an opinion.  Follow up your claim with specific details that support your claim.  Make sure to vary your syntax and go beyond just linking verbs that state what “is.” (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)  

Quotation of the Day:  Music is subjective to everyone’s unique experience. -Jared Leto

1-http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechwallstreet.html

12/11 TAGS:  predicate adjective, syntax, Wall Street, Gordon Gekko, speech, linking verb, claim, Douglas, Michael

November 14:  Sentence Variety Day

On this day in 1944, writing instructor Gary Provost was born. Provost earned his living as a freelance writer, authoring over 1,000 stories and articles.  He also wrote books in a variety of genres, including young adult novels, true crime books, and books about writing.

In 1985, Provost published a comprehensive guide for writers called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  In the book Provost covered a range of topics, from overcoming writer’s block to avoiding punctuation errors.  One particularly brilliant chapter of the book is on sentence variety.  Provost might have simply told his readers about the importance of sentence variety; instead, in one of the greatest meta-paragraphs ever written, he shows the reader:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important. (1)

As Provost’s paragraph illustrates, good writing has the rhythm and resonance of spoken language.  Writers can’t write exactly like they talk.  After all, much of our spoken language relies on nonverbal cues.  Writers can, however, imitate one universal trait of spoken language:  variety in sentence length – some long, some medium, and some short.  As you revise your writing, read it aloud.  When your sentences begin to sound monotonous, check for variety in the length of your sentences, as well as for variety in the type of sentences you write.  Often your ears will catch problems that your eyes missed.  Try it.  

Today’s Challenge:  Hold Your Ear Up to This Paragraph

What would you say is the secret to making written sentences sound as natural as spoken sentences?  The paragraph below does not have much variety in sentence lengths.  Read the paragraph aloud, and listen to where it could be improved.  Then, revise the paragraph by breaking up or combining sentences as needed.  You may eliminate any unnecessary words, but try not to eliminate any of the paragraph’s key ideas:

The words in a sentence are like Lego building blocks.  The English sentence is made up of various parts.  These parts snap together like Legos of logic.  You can construct solid, syntactical structures to make sentences.  English words, phrases, and clauses come in multiple colors and forms.  The sentence builder can use them to construct many creations. Some of these creations are small, some are medium, and some are large.  There’s no end to the fun you can have building sentences.

As you complete your revision, read it aloud.  When you have finished, write down the number of words in each sentence.  Check the range of the number of words in each of your sentences.  Do you have some that are long, some that are medium, and some that are short?  Use this strategy on your own paragraphs as a method of revision.  Read aloud.  Revise.  And try to capture the magic of the spoken word in your sentences.

Quotation of the Day:  Though the daily paper contains much that is swill, it also contains some good writing. From it you can learn to write leanly, you can learn to get to the point, and you can learn to compress several facts into a single clear sentence.  -Gary Provost

1-Provost, Gary.  100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  New York:  New American Library, 1985:  60-61.

August 7:  Syntax Day

Today is the anniversary of the Whiskey Rebellion.

File:Whiskey Insurrection.JPGOn this date in 1794, farmers in western Pennsylvania rebelled against a federal tax on liquor by tarring and feathering tax collectors and torching their homes. It was one of the first tests of federal authority for the young United States. In response to the uprising, President George Washington called in more than 12,000 Federal troops. The rebels put up little residence, fleeing to hide in the woods. Twenty were captured, and one man died while in prison. Only two of the rebels were convicted of treason, and both of these men were eventually pardoned by Washington (1).

There is a long tradition of sin taxes in America, and it may be a bad pun, but on what other day can you celebrate the syntax of English sentences?

Syntax is simply the way writers put together phrases and clauses to make sentences. Knowledge of syntax helps writers create more varied sentences. For example, variety in sentence openings is an important feature of good writing. Starting with the subject is a natural feature of English sentences, and there is nothing wrong with it. However, if every one of your sentences begins with the subject, your writing will sound monotonous and lifeless.

Three effective methods for adding variety to sentence openings are using prepositional phrases, participial phrases, and absolute phrases. Let’s look at how you can manipulate a sentence’s syntax to open in a variety of ways.

I. Open with a Prepositional Phrase: These phrases begin with a preposition and end with a noun, such as: on the roof, over the rainbow, in the garden, from the city, out the window.

Original Sentence: The students gathered in the cafeteria to watch the multimedia presentation on dental hygiene.

Revised sentence, opening with a prepositional phrase: In the cafeteria, the students gathered to watch the multimedia presentation on dental hygiene.

II. Open with a Participial Phrase: These phrases begin with a verb (often in the -ing form) that works like an adjective to modify a noun, such as, eating a sandwich, mailing a letter, or singing a song.

Original Sentence: Bill killed time waiting for his dentist appointment by reading a magazine article on effective flossing techniques.

Revised Sentence, opening with a participial phrase: Reading a magazine article on effective flossing techniques, Bill killed time waiting for his dentist appointment.

III.  Open with an Absolute Phrase:  These phrases begin with a noun or pronoun followed by a participial phrase, such as her arms folded, her voice soaring, or eyes focused.

Original Sentence:  The boxer jumped rope.

Revised Sentence, opening with an absolute phrase:  His feet barely grazing the ground, the boxer jumped rope.

Today’s Challenge: No Sin Syntax Super Sentence
Can you craft a sentence that has at least one prepositional phrase, one participial phrase, and one absolute phrase?  Look at the example sentences below and see if you can identify the prepositional phrase, participial phrase, and absolute phrase in each.  Then, write the opening sentence of a short story that contains at least one prepositional phrase, one participial phrase, and one absolute phrase.

Her melodic voice singing out loud and strong, Mary astonished the concert goers in the opera house, bringing the entire audience to tears.

Sitting in the chair, Max, a handsome young man with blond hair, read the book, his mind captivated by the unfolding mystery.

Quote of the Day: Those who prefer their English sloppy have only themselves to thank if the advertisement writer uses his mastery of the vocabulary and syntax to mislead their weak minds. –Dorothy L. Sayers

1 – U.S. Department of the Treasury. “The Whiskey Rebellion.”

2 – Backman, Brian. Thinking in Threes: The Power of Three in Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: Cottonwood Press, Inc., 2005.

 

 

July 22:  Syntax Sorcery Day

Today is the birthday of author Tom Robbins.  Born in North Carolina in 1932, Robbins attended college at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Washington.  Including service in the U. S. Air Force as a meteorologist, he also worked as a journalist, radio host, and art critic. Robbins moved to La Conner, Washington, in 1970 and since that time has written eight novels.

Robbins’ best known novel is his first, Another Roadside Attraction (1971).  As explained by reviewer and Robbins fan Mike Stone, this novel, and just about everything Robbins writes, defies easy description:

Most of the people I know who are now avid Robbins readers began that life baffled and confused by his prose. I include myself in that group. But after trying and giving up and trying and giving up several times, all of the sudden something clicks and you realize that he is a literary samurai (1).

Probably Robbins’ most admired gift is his ability to craft sentences.  As critic Jason Sheehan put it, other writers look up to Robbins, both literally and metaphorically:  “He’s the mountain every working writer surveys when they’re trying to put a sentence together that’s more complicated than subject-verb-predicate” (2).

As Robbins explained in an interview in 2012, when combined with care, words, phrases, and clauses can create something magical:

Certain individual words do possess more pitch, more radiance, more shazam! than others, but it’s the way words are juxtaposed with other words in a phrase or sentence that can create magic.  Perhaps literally.  The word “grammar,” like its sister word “glamour,” is actually derived from an old Scottish word that meant “sorcery.”  When we were made to diagram sentences in high school, we were unwittingly being instructed in syntax sorcery, in wizardry.  We were all enrolled at Hogwarts.  Who knew? (3)

Special insight into Robbins’ sorcery is provided by Michael Dare:

When he starts a novel, it works like this. First he writes a sentence. Then he rewrites it again and again, examining each word, making sure of its perfection, finely honing each phrase until it reverberates with the subtle texture of the infinite. Sometimes it takes hours. Sometimes an entire day is devoted to one sentence, which gets marked on and expanded upon in every possible direction until he is satisfied. Then, and only then, does he add a period (4).

Today’s Challenge:  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
What are some examples of three-word combinations that form complete simple sentences, such as “The sun rose”?  How might you expand such a kernel sentence to make it exactly twenty words long?  Try your hand at some syntax sorcery by taking a three-word kernel sentence and expanding it in a variety of ways so that it has exactly twenty words.  Working within these constraints will force you, like Robbins, to pay careful attention to every word, phrase, and clause.  In Robbins’ words, “Challenge every single sentence for lucidity, accuracy, originality, and cadence. If it doesn’t meet the challenge, work on it until it does.”  Write at least three different 20-word expansions of your three-word kernel.

Example:

Three-word kernel:  The sun rose.

Twenty-word Sentences:

The sun, a blazing ball of fire in the sky, rose triumphantly into the welcoming arms of the patient morning.

As a single ripple glided across the lake, the run rose, bathing the scenery in hues of pink and orange.

Even though yesterday Mary dumped him and he failed both his English and math tests, today the sun still rose.

For an added challenge, try to write using some rhetorical flourishes, such as metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, parallelism, adjectives out of order, or hyphenated modifiers.  Also try a variety of phrases, clauses, and sentence forms.  Here’s a menu from which to mix and match:

Appositive Phrase

Participial Phrase

Absolute Phrase

Adverb Clause

Adjective Clause

Periodic Sentence

Cumulative Sentence

Quotation of the day:  I love mayonnaise! I eat so much they’re gonna send me to the Mayo Clinic. I think it’s definitely a watershed food. People who don’t go for it are destined for a Miracle Whip. They don’t know what they’re missing. Actually, people ought to be aware that Miracle Whip, which isn’t real mayonnaise at all, is a crutch for people who aren’t strong enough to handle the real thing. Mayonnaise is the one product that’s better than homemade. This is an unsolicited testimonial. I always thought Cinco de Mayo was for mayonnaise. I celebrate it every year. -Tom Robbins

 

1-Stone, Mike.  Review of “Another Roadside Attraction

2-http://www.npr.org/2014/05/27/314614799/tom-robbins-takes-a-bite-out-of-life-in-peach-pie

3-http://realitysandwich.com/150587/syntax_sorcery_interview_tom_robbins/

4- Michael Dare, in “How to Write Like Tom Robbins” in The Spirit Of Writing : Classic and Contemporary Essays Celebrating the Writing Life (2001) edited by Mark Robert Waldman, p. 41.