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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

To Be or Not To Be: IS that the Question?

One of the surefire techniques to teach students how to sort through their sometimes grammatically (and often semantically) tortured sentence structures is a study of sentence focus. Yes, sentence focus. Just as a photographer focuses a picture on a particular object, a sentence must be focused on its subject. But the subject isn't the only important element; the verb plays a vital role. Two basic principles of sentence focus are:

1.whenever possible, have a clear concrete subject and
2.use vibrant, strong verbs.

Under those two guidelines, specific rules apply:

Make what you're writing about the subject of your sentence.

Whenever possible, if a human agent is present or implied in the sentence, use that human agent as the subject.

Avoid the automatic use of forms of to be (the most over-used and mis-used verb in the English language).

Avoid empty subjects and clutter (there is, there are, there were and the ever popular the reason is because).

Determine who or what is really doing what.

To demonstrate some of the above principles and rules, let's unpack the following sentence:

Darlene is a teacher in Mexico.

Darlene acts as the clear, concrete subject. We can't get any clearer than that.
But what is Darlene really doing in that sentence? Is she really ising? Or is she really teaching?

She really is teaching; she is not ising.

Darlene teaches in Mexico.

We now have eliminated the flabby verb is and replaced it with a much stronger, vivid verb, teach.

Before submitting a final draft essay for grading, my students must assess their essays for sentence focus. Though a painstaking process, if students hold their feet to the fire and do the work, they not only find wildly unfocused sentences and correct them, they also find numerous miscellaneous errors and sentences that appear to be experiencing some sort of linguistically psychotic break (sentences with which even nerdy English teacher-types sometimes struggle to untangle and make sense out of). To recast those sentences, students (at least those who really work the process) engage in word-smithing – finding the precise subject and verb that suits their needs, sculpting their sentences, finessing their language – an English teacher's hallucination turned reality.

One of my students, in the process of eliminating her automatic and abundant use of forms of to be (which by the way, students often cannot even articulate: they use the forms, but cannot identify those forms when asked – to be: is, am, are, was, were), came up with a ingenious idea: simply contract the form of to be, joining it to the subject with an apostrophe. Thus, in this student's essay analyzing political ads, I tripped over such sentences as:

The ad's showing McCain standing at a podium, speaking to a crowd.
The ad's sending the message that Obama's the best candidate for President.

And my favorite:

The voter's viewing the ad never knowing how manipulative it's.

Every time this student came across a sentence which used a form of to be (primarily is – which she used in almost every other sentence) she would simply contract it. As we discussed her paper and her process in conference, she told me, “Yes, I really wanted to eliminate my overuse of to be. That seemed to be the easiest way I could do it. It worked pretty well, didn't it?”

Yet she had not eliminated her use of to be – she had merely disguised it – and in the process, created confusion for her readers. Her incessant use of apostrophes to contract the verb and join it with the subject made for a huge distraction as I read and effectively clouded much of the meaning of her sentences.

Initially, I felt her struggle with and resolution of her sentence focus problem revealed an alienation and disconnect from her native tongue. But she is not as disconnected and alienated as one might believe. She is actually beginning to appropriate the language of our classroom, the language of a working, thinking writer (though she does not quite understand what all that language means). She is constructing herself as a writer, engaged in the analysis and craft of writing. Her approach tells me that to some degree, she pays attention, for she clearly received the message that sentence focus matters. And her process also brings to the fore some of her finer qualities: her creativity and ability to problem-solve and her willingness to push through a time-consuming, mundane process to achieve her goal.

Now, how many times did I use a form of to be (as part of my sentence, not in an example sentence)? And can you recommend a way to recast those sentences using a strong, vivid verb?

(Of course, sometimes the use of to be IS appropriate. But IS this one of 'em?)

10 Comments:

Blogger Jack K. said...

I need you as my teacher. This posting must be read many times. I ran across the problems caused by the verb form to be many years ago. Writing without using it requires diligence. I hope I did well here.

Thanks for sharing. Have a peaceful Thanksgiving.

November 26, 2008 10:35 AM  
Blogger J Cosmo Newbery said...

I need to print this out and pin it to the wall.

Thank you.

("She is actually beginning to..."??)

November 26, 2008 7:49 PM  
Blogger Pete Bogs said...

my college English teacher teachised me not to use the word "thing," but to come up with something more concrete in its place... not always easy!

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 27, 2008 6:18 AM  
Blogger Polly said...

I can't help it.
"To be nor not to be
That is the question."

You are one heck of a fabulous teacher. Wish I had one like you when I was a tyke back in school.

Happy Thanksgiving to you dear Bird.
You are superb.

November 27, 2008 10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't help but love this posting, G. For far too many reasons to list.
Miss you around the office
-Mark

December 05, 2008 6:37 PM  
Blogger /t. said...

allow me,
please, your
permission now
that i might speak
straight to the point
of this matter, dear bird...

happy holidays

¤ ¤ ¤

/t.

December 13, 2008 4:12 PM  
Blogger J Cosmo Newbery said...

I hope you have a very merry Christmas, that Santa brings you everything you deserve and that it doesn’t take too long to work off the effects of Christmas dinner.

Thank you for being part of what has been a fascinating year for me.

December 19, 2008 1:03 AM  
Blogger K9 said...

good thing pete wont be writing about the hairy cousin in the addams family. or was it the munsters? either way. merry christmas boydie.

December 22, 2008 4:00 PM  
Blogger Pete Bogs said...

bird - have a great Christmas...

K9 - LOL!

December 23, 2008 5:01 PM  
Blogger boneman said...

well, maybe this, too, will be lost in the shuffle, but, I can't let it slide.

You have used an apostrophe mark between two partial thoughts, instead of words.
A contraction of ideas, versus a contraction of words.
Interesting, eh?
Of course, I am not the brightest of students, past or present, but, I found myself floundering between the two ideas looking for somewhere which to stand.


They'll bury me for sure under some old plot of ground, I'de sooner pull my own teeth than stop doing the contractions I do.
Sure, archaic, I'll give you that.
There's not even an 'E' in 'would'
but then, if it's italics, why isn't it Italian dressing?

Perhaps I should just call this a rant and declare it a war to revive colloquialisms, or dialect?
HA!
No way!
After reading "Woe Is I" is when I started the long haul of dropping things such as yer everyday occurance of bumpkin talkin'.
Saved my apostrophe button from going blind, I did (a fate not enjoyed by such as the likes of 'E' oe 'A' and 'S', let me just say) and now I leave a clearer vision of what I mean.

THAT, I think, should be the impetus behind the language. The writing.
Whether foul or fair, let the meaning shine through.
"Sang the torpedoes," would move little old ladies at a tea party because it is more polite, but, "Damn the torpedoes, FULL SPEED AHEAD!"" will get your attention, and if you're not moving to that goal, stand aside else you might get pushed aside.

A bit dramatic, I'm sure, and not any part of contracted ideas or words.
But. Plainly stated.

What?
I plainly state. (?)
No power in that, at all, without a brief historical.
Farragut plainly stated.
Again, it is almost without any juice of importance.
Today kids would say he was out of ammunition and was preparing to ram the enemy.
The history is that torpedoes were floating mines, and that he was actually ordering his fleet into and through a heavily mined area, a task that served them well as i think (memory) that they lost very little (two? three ships?) and the battle was won.

Contractions are not as impotatnt or as compelling as non contractions.
If one has something important to say, it would not behoove that person to use a contraction.

Well, or so I think.
'Course, the thing is, I speak like this, sometimes and the long uphill battle has been to 'clean' up all that superfluity....shave away the brush to see the land more clearly.

January 04, 2009 1:42 PM  

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