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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

For the Love of Grammar

The house on the corner

Isn't it interesting how students grab onto new grammar structures they have learned in class. This is particularly true for the adjective clause, particularly the adjective clause using the verb "to be". For example, two specific ones that regularly appear in almost every paragraph or essay that lands on my desk include: the woman who is/was beautiful, and "the girl who was my best friend." " Come on guys. Let's get serious," I insist "You really don't need all this extra wording for a simple "beautiful girl," or "best friend."

Ah, but they do. Why? It's all about impressing the teacher. "If I put in an adjective clause, I will get a better mark. If I don't have enough complex sentences, I will lose marks" Today, my students kept coming back to one particular clause that should have been turned into a prepositional phrase.A number of students didn't like that at all. They absolutely wanted to keep the adjective clause in the sentence. " So, what was the sentence," you say Here it is in all its glory. "My neighbour lives in the house which is on the corner."

Now, any good writer who supports clarity above all and cutting away unnecessary words will endorse me when I say the clause should simply be replaced with the prepositional phrase "on the corner". But, this was absolutely not the case in my class. We came very close to having an actual debate on the subject. As we continued with a list of other sentences being combined into adjective clauses, student after student would come back to the "house which is on the corner," and strongly argue for keeping the clause in the sentence. "It sounds more professional," they said, " more academic.", or "how about if we said that is on the corner? Would that be better? "Why do we have to take it out?"
All of ths back and forthing took up a full half-hour of very valuable class time, but then I guess I could say the students were actively engaged rather than nodding off at their desks, They were talking about language. However , as I see it, they were focusing on the tress when they really needed to put more energy into looking at the fores, for example, forgetting the relative pronoun in a subject adjective clause.

Has the teaching of English come to this? Using adjective clauses simply because they will make a student's story show more complexity. What are we marking here? The number of complex sentences used, or tne ease and fluency with which the student can support an idea, as well as the ability to recognize when to use and not to use any clause structure that simply looks like added chaff. As I said to my students, adjectives clauses are fantastic, but only if they actually add information that genuinely moves the story or composition along.


  1. Nancy,

    I think you may have missed the point I was was trying to make(note the adjective clause.) Of course adjective clauses are important,in fact essential,when we want to communicate something clearly.
    My point, however, is that they are are not meant to be a structure that students overuse in the wrong way simply to demonstrate that they know how to use it.
    I have been teaching advanced level students in Canada for a long time. One thing I have noticed is that a large number of textbooks focus on teaching students to combine sentences with adjective clauses that use a lot of "be" verbs and adjectives instead of with ideas that actually help define the noun being described. As a result, our students focus on producing these "be" verb clauses,or prepositional phrase clauses instead of the kind they should be producing.
    Adjective clauses are important for any student who wants to communicate complex or sophisticated ideas to a reader who needs to know which person, place, thing or idea they are referring to in their sentences. We don't use them simply to impress testers, or teachers in order to demonstrate that we know how to make long sentences.
    I would never expect a student to even take a TOEFL test unless he or she understood all the rules of adjective clauses, and knew how to use them effectively.
    On the other hand, I don't think this is a structure they need to learn simply to pass a test. They need to learn it to make their ideas more precise - not more wordy. Remember, they are only taking the test in order to be able to take content courses, or get into jobs that involve their being able to use English in the real word - not in multiple choice tests. In the real world, they need to be able to tell us which job, study, company, etc they are referring to. They don't need to tell us that the company which is Broadway Avenue promoted them or that the man who is tall works with them.
    I would much prefer to know that they understand the difference between wordiness and clarity. Wouldn't you?
    By the way, would you like me to promote your site on my bog? Is this what this is all about?


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