Why grammar is hard

When I was in the 9th grade at Brooklyn Technical High School, my English teacher stood at the board and said, ‘Your textbook defines a verb as a word that describes an action or state of being.’ On the board she wrote:

A verb describes an action or state of being.

Next she wrote this sentence on the board:

Eating custard pie, Peter is a picture of happiness.

Then she called on me to identify the verb in the sentence.

It seemed clear to me that eating expresses an action, so I answered, ‘Eating.’

To my surprise the teacher said, ‘No, eating is not the verb.’

I protested, ‘But the book says a verb is an action word. Eating is an action.’

The teacher responded with what was to her an apparently clear explanation: ‘Yes, but eating is a participle, not the verb in this sentence.’

I had no idea what a participle was, but I began looking for another action word in the sentence—without success.

Sensing my frustration, the teacher offered a hint. ‘Remember that a verb can describe a state of being.’

State of being, I thought. What is a state of being?

Scanning the sentence to find a word expressing a state of being, I considered happiness. Happiness seemed to express a state of being. I figure that if I knew what a verb was, I would be in a state of happiness. Unsure but hopeful, I asked, “Is happiness the verb?”

‘No,’ came the judgment.

After another minute or so, the teacher answered her own question:

‘The verb in this sentence is is.’

But it didn’t matter. Grammar made no sense to me, and I dismissed it as something I would never understand.

Dennis Baron in Whimbey, Arthur and Linden, Myra J. Teaching and Learning Grammar: The Prototype-Construction Approach. Chicago: BGF Performance Systems, LLC, 2001. Print. (4-5).

“Open” and “closed” word classes

Word classes can be divided into open classes and closed classes. Open classes are readily open to new words; closed classes are limited classes that rarely admit new words. For example, it is easy to create new nouns, but not new pronouns.

Greenbaum, Sidney and Nelson, Gerald. An Introduction to English Grammar. 2nd ed. London, England: Pearson Education, 2002. Print.

Will this relationship last? (“Function words” can predict)

Parts of speech and classification papers

In English 109, we write three kinds of papers:

  • Classification
  • Definition
  • Simple argument

I’m especially fond of classification papers because there are so many ways to classify practically any subject you can think of. Classification is a puzzle.

Consider the “parts of speech.” How are English words classified into groups?

And: how should English words be classified into groups? Which classifications work best? (And how do we know?)

These are the questions we ask when writing classification papers.

Below are three ways of classifying English words.

First, the traditional parts of speech used by dictionaries:

NOUN the name of a person, place, thing, or concept Jesly, Devin; Dobbs Ferry; Mercy College; book, person; love, grammar, macroeconomics
PRONOUN a word used in the place of a noun I, you, he, she, you, we, they; me, him, her, us, them; my, mine, your, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs; who, that, which, that, whom, where, when, what, why, whose, whose, of which…
VERB usually expresses action or being (what the subject does or is/is not) The book is long.
The book is not long.
The sand feels hot.
He sat down.
She stirred the soup.
ADJECTIVE a word used to modify, or describe, a noun or pronoun black cat; brown dog
ADVERB a word used to modify, or qualify, a verb, an adjective, or another adverb The bird sings sweetly. (“sweetly” modifies the verb “sing”)
The bird has a very beautiful voice. (“very” is an adverb modifying “beautiful,” an adjective)
The birds sing very beautifully. (“very” is an adverb modifying “beautifully,” another adverb)
Sometimes adverbs modify nouns: the room upstairs (“upstairs” is an adverb modifying “room,” a noun)
PREPOSITION a word placed before a noun or pronoun to form a phrase modifying another word in the sentence of the people, for the people, by the people, etc. See: Common prepositions | Sierra College
CONJUNCTION a word that joins words, phrases, or clauses and that indicates the relationship between the elements they join FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so
SUBORDINATING CONJUNCTIONS: whenever, after, although, etc.
SEE: Subordinators & Relative pronouns | Sierra College
INTERJECTION a word used to express surprise or emotion oh! wow! wait! omg! etc.

(from Hacker & Sommers; adapted from Rider University Student Success Center)

A second approach: Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum divided the parts of speech into “open classes” and “closed classes.”

Greebaum and Nelson explain: “Open classes are readily open to new words; closed classes are limited classes that rarely admit new words. For example, it is easy to create new nouns, but not new pronouns.” (Greenbaum & Nelson, 86)

Open classes “Open” because new words frequently enter the group.
NOUN Paul, paper, speech, play
ADJECTIVE young, cheerful, dark, round
MAIN VERB talk, become, like, play
ADVERB carefully, firmly, confidentially
Closed classes “Closed” because new words rarely enter the group.
PRONOUN she, somebody, one, who, that
DETERMINER a, the, that, each, some
AUXILIARY (VERB) can, may, will, have, be, do
CONJUNCTION and, that, in order that, if, though
PREPOSITION of, at, to, in spite of

And finally, here is Huddleston and Pullum‘s list from 2002:

i NOUN The dog barked. That is Sue. We saw you.
ii VERB The dog barked. It is impossible. I have a headache.
iii ADJECTIVE He’s very old. It looks empty. I’ve got a new car.
iv DETERMINATIVE The dog barked. I need some nails. All things change.
v ADVERB She spoke clearly. He’s very old. I almost died.
vi PREPOSITION It’s in the car. I gave it to Sam. Here’s a list of them.
vii COORDINATOR I got up and left. Ed or Jo took it.  It’s cheap but strong.
viii SUBORDINATOR It’s odd that they were late. I wonder whether it’s still available. They don’t know if you’re serious.

(Download as pdf file)

After teaching English 109 for three years, I’m partial to Huddleston and Pullum’s scheme. I like the fact that they designate “subordinators” and “coordinators” as fundamental categories and find this approach terrifically useful.

I think you’ll see why in class.

UPDATE 12/29/2013:

This fall I found the distinction between open and closed word classes useful; I also find that teaching pronouns as a specific class is essential. So I’ve ended up using an amalgam of Greenbaum/Nelson and Huddleston/Pullum:

Open classes “Open” because new words frequently enter the group.
NOUN Paul, paper, speech, play
ADJECTIVE young, cheerful, dark, round
MAIN VERB talk, become, like, play
ADVERB carefully, firmly, confidentially
Closed classes “Closed” because new words rarely enter the group.
PRONOUN she, somebody, one, who, that
DETERMINATIVE a, the, that, each, some
AUXILIARY (VERB) can, may, will, have, be, do
COORDINATOR FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet 
SUBORDINATOR in order that, if, although, whenever
PREPOSITION of, at, to, in spite of

If you’re trying to improve your grammar on your own

This is the most helpful advanced grammar workbook I’ve found.

Grammar and Language Workbook, Grade 12. New York: Glencoe/McGraw Hill, 1999. Print.
ISBN-10: 0028183126
ISBN-13: 978-0028183121
Paperback: 348 pages
Publisher: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill; 1 edition (September 1, 1999)
Language: English
$9.20 at Amazon.com

Language Arts Grammar & Language Workbook, Grade 12: Teacher’s Annotated Edition
ISBN: 0-02-818311-8
You can usually find used copies of the Teacher’s Edition at Amazon. If you don’t, Google the title of the book and the ISBN number to find used copies elsewhere.

Table of Contents
Handbook of Definitions and Rules

Grade 11 Workbook:
Grammar & Language Workbook, Grade 11, Teacher’s Annotated Edition (Glencoe Literature) [Paperback]
Paperback: 392 pages
Publisher: McGraw-Hill Book Company Ltd (August 1, 1999)
ISBN-10: 0028183010
ISBN-13: 978-0028183015

Winston Churchill on learning to write English

[B]y being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell–a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great–was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing–namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its colour and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Form three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence–which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favor of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for is not knowing English, I would whip them hard for that.

My Early Life: A Roving Commission.Thornton Butterworth [UK] and Charles Scribner’s Sons [US], 1930.


S.M.’s sophisticated SVOO sentence

S.M.’s sentence:

Describing fables as informative fairy tales gives you a better understanding of what the story and characters are all about

A wonderful observation! Fables are informative fairy tales. I will remember that always.

Fables are informative fairy tales would be a terrific thesis statement.

S.M.’s sentence has an SVOO form. (Click on the chart to enlarge.)

In S.M.’s sentence, describing is used as a noun. In other sentences, “describing” is a verb.

I || am describing Aesop’s fables. [describing is a verb]
Describing Aesop’s fables|| is fun. [describing is part of the noun phrase]
Describing || is fun. [describing is a noun phrase]

I || am swimming. [swimming is part of the verb phrase am swimming]
Swimming || is fun. [swimming is the noun phrase]

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls the –ing form of the verb the gerund-participle.

(The S.M. of this post is not the S.M. of this post from March 2012. Same initials, different people.)

Pronoun substitution test for nominals
Richard Nordquist’s about.com page on gerunds
OWL at Purdue: gerunds
OWL at Purdue: participles
OWL at Purdue: infinitives

5 + 2: the 7 ‘canonical’ English sentences
3 ways to combine the 7 sentence patterns
10 basic sentence patterns in the English language
SM’s sophisticated SVOO sentence
DT’s astute observation (reflexive pronouns)

A short overview of English syntax by Rodney Huddleston tablehtml mergecells