April 21:  Complex Sentence Day

On his day in 1989, the film Field Of Dreams made its debut in American theaters.  The film stars Kevin Costner as a farmer who hears voices in his cornfield imploring him to build a baseball field.  The film is an adaptation of a magical realist novel, Shoeless Joe by Canadian author W. P. Kinsella.  The book and film form the perfect mix of sentimental themes of fantasy, baseball, and family.

The most memorable line of the film — a line which has become one of the most memorable movie lines of all time — comes from the voice that Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, hears in his cornfield.  The voice says, “If you build it, he will come.”

This line, along with the film’s tagline “If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true,” are textbook examples of complex sentences.

Unlike a simple sentence, which features a single independent clause, or a compound sentence that features two independent clauses, a complex sentence features an independent clause and at least one dependent clause (also known as a subordinate clause).  

For example, the line that farmer Kinsella hears in his cornfield begins with a dependent clause, a clause that cannot stand alone:

If you build it

To complete the sentence, and to make it a complete complex sentence, the independent clause is added at the end.

If you build it, he will come.

Complex sentences are an essential element of any effective writer’s repertoire because they not only provide sentence variety, but they also combine ideas logically, showing a reader the relationship between two ideas.  For example, notice the differences between the sentences below:

Because he loves baseball, Bill plays every day.

Although he loves baseball, Bill plays tennis in the spring.

After he plays baseball, Bill always cleans his cleats.

If Bill’s team wins their baseball game, they will be in the playoffs.

Each of the sentences is complex, beginning with a dependent clause; however, in each sentence, the logical relationship between the clauses is different.  In the first, the relationship is cause and effect; in the second, it’s contrast; in the third, it’s time; and in the fourth, it’s conditional.

The words that single the relationship and that make the clauses dependent are called subordinating conjunctions.  

Read the examples below to see the different ways that subordinating conjunctions connect ideas:

Cause and Effect (or Reasons): because, since, so that

Because he loves to read, Bill is always carrying a book.

Contrast (or Concession): although, even though, though, while, whereas

Although he loves to write, Bill’s favorite pastime is reading.

Time: before, after, as, once, since, while, when, whenever

After Bill gets home from school, he sits down and reads the newspaper.

Condition:  if, once, unless

If Bill gets money for his birthday, he plans to buy some new books.

Use the mnemonic “A WHITE BUS” to remember the major subordinate conjunctions:

A White Bus

After, although, as

WHen, which, who, where, while

If, in order that

That, though

Even though

Before, because

Until, unless

Since, so that

Today’s Challenge:  If You Make a Parallel Product Pitch, It Will Sell

What are some products that you would personally endorse?  Imagine you work for an advertising agency.  Brainstorm some possible products that you might try to sell with a strong sales pitch.  Select one specific product, and construct a topic sentence for a 60-second sales pitch that features three parallel dependent clauses.  Notice, for example, how the following two topic sentences each feature parallel dependent clauses:

If you want the best value, if you want the highest quality, and if you want the best tasting cheese, buy Johnson’s Cheddar.

Boston Bacon is the best because it melts in your mouth, because it’s low fat, and because it goes well with any meal.

Writing three-pronged parallel complex sentence like these is a great skill to practice for effective writing.  These sentences can be used as a thesis statement for an essay, or as a concluding sentence for a paragraph or essay.  Notice that in the two example sentences above, the three parallel dependent clauses may come before or after the independent clause.

Once you have constructed your topic sentence, write the rest of your pitch by elaborating on the points in your topic sentence. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. -Elmore Leonard

 

 

 

 

March 4:  National Grammar Day

Today is National Grammar Day, which was established in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG). On this day, it is imperative that we all “March forth!” and honor the conventions of English that help us all communicate more clearly.

Brockenbrough founded National Grammar Day to raise awareness of language, to show why it matters, and to change some of the negative attitudes that people have about grammar:

For me, the goal is to get people to think about language and why being careful with it matters . . . . There was this idea out there that speaking well and knowing what words mean and how they work was somehow elite and untrustworthy. This is ridiculous. You’d never hear anyone complain that a doctor knows too darn much about brain surgery or their mechanic is too careful when it comes to fixing cars. (1)

Assert yourself on National Grammar Day.  Craft sentences with confidence. Punctuate with purpose, and compose confidently. March forth, and write imperative sentences — the kind of sentence that command, that begin with a verb, and that have implied subjects (“You” march forth.)

Today’s Challenge:  Write Now

What are some examples of two-word imperative sentences, such as “March forth.”?  Brainstorm a list of verbs from A to Z.  Then try to match up each of your verbs with a second word that will form a two-word imperative sentences.

Examples:

Ask nicely.  Be positive.  Carpe diem.  Don’t touch.  Exercise cognitively.  Floss daily.  Golf daily.  Help me.  Just sing.  Keep calm.  Listen carefully.  Make cookies.  Never whine. Offer hope.  Please shower.  Quiz often.  Read daily. Sing loudly.  Think big.  Use caution.  Visit Europe.  Work hard.  X-ray injuries. Yelp barbarically.  Zip it.

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative. -H.G. Wells

1- “A Toast to National Grammar Day.

 

 

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.