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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Teaching Sentences, Not "Grammar"

I care a lot about the quality of student sentences, which is why I put my focus there.

May 11, 2017




Three sentences:

1. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2100 pounds of hot flesh.

2. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 2100 pounds of hot skin.

3. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 2100 pounds of hot flesh.

Which is correct?

Which is best?



Writing at the Washington Post “Answer Sheet” blog early this week, I made the case against the direct teaching of grammar and for a more robust and rigorous writing instruction that requires students to solve “writing-related” problems  rooted in the rhetorical situation. 

My piece was in response to what I thought was a particularly egregious example of “zombie pedagogy”[1] previously published in “Answer Sheet” that analogized Mister Miyagi’s lessons of “wax on, wax off” as a method for Daniel to learn karate in the Karate Kid to to teaching students how to write proper sentences.

Never mind that Mister Miyagi is a fictional character or that we have no idea if the “muscle memory” his methods teach in the film are good for learning non-fictional karate (let alone writing). We know, definitively, that writing is not akin to muscle memory. It is a far more complex, higher-order cognitive process involving existing knowledge, working memory, and executive attention.

But just because direct grammar instruction and isolated sentence exercises are at best worthless, and at worst, harmful, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about the quality of student writing. Even if we’re mostly concerned about the acuity of the writer’s ideas, it’s difficult to appreciate those ideas if they’re muddled by unclear or uninteresting prose.

This is why I don’t teach grammar, but I do teach sentences.

The first lesson is usually on “sentence appreciation” with the goal of sensitizing students to the ways what seem like very fine adjustments can alter not just meaning, but impact, and how and why a writer may make different choices.

Those three sentences again:

1. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2100 pounds of hot flesh.

2. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 2100 pounds of hot skin.

3. I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 2100 pounds of hot flesh.

Of the three, sentence one is by far the most “correct.”

But sentence three is also, pretty clearly, the “best.”

Some of you may recognize this language from David Foster Wallace’s essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” which recounts his time on a cruise ship in particularly Wallacian fashion.

The sentence comes from the opening pages of the essay and is part of a list of the things that DFW saw, smelled, and heard on his journey. Sentence one is how it appeared in the serialization of the essay in Harper’s (under the title, “Shipping Out). Sentence three is how it appeared in a version restored by DFW for his essay collection that shares the title of the cruise ship story.

In class, I read the opening page or so, and I tell students to make note of any specific details that stick out as they listen. The opening is riddled with vivid descriptions, including one of a “woman in silver lame´ projectile vomiting in a glass elevator,” and “a tropical moon that looked more like a sort of obscenely large and dangling lemon than like the good old stony U.S. moon I’m used to,” and  but without fail, “I have smelled what suntan lotion smells like spread over 2100 pounds of hot flesh,” winds up in students’ notes.

Why? I ask them.

It’s so gross, they tell me.

Flesh, they say. Flesh is gross.

Indeed. Much grosser than skin we agree, once I read my inferior alternative. Why does he want us to think of gross things? Shouldn’t tanned bodies be attractive? I wonder.

The opening page is plenty for students to understand that Wallace was a cruise skeptic, and this is not an essay meant to immerse us in a comforting vision of rest and relaxation. Students, almost regardless of level, are able to appreciate a writer making a deliberate choice for a deliberate effect.

But what about that odd syntax – “smelled what suntan lotion smells like” – why do that? Why would the writer make that choice? Why would a periodical decide it should be different?

We talk about it, and ultimately arrive on something along the lines of how that choice makes David Foster Wallace sound like a “person,” which makes sense because he’s writing about his own very personal experience on a cruise ship. It seems like a sensible choice, and really, if I hadn’t pointed it out, they wouldn’t have worried about the syntax anyway because of that word…flesh.

They also recognize that a magazine may have a particular tone or style that puts bounds around expression, so for the Harper's audience David Foster Wallace may have had to rein himself in a bit and gone with sentence one.[2] We discuss how genre and audience impact the choices writers must make.

It is not difficult to help students become sensitive to changes and choices at the sentence level. The only underlying necessary skill to appreciate this particular example is being human.

It can be more difficult to get them to pay attention to the crafting of their own sentences with this degree of care, but in my experience it can be done provided a handful of criteria are in place:

1. They are connected to a task that involves writing for a specific audience with specific needs, attitude, and knowledge. They must know who they are writing to and why they are writing to them.

2. They are intrinsically motivated to convey their message to that audience in the most efficacious way because the student writer themselves cares about what they have to say.

3. They have the time, encouragement, and feedback necessary to continue the pursuit of the “right word” versus the “almost right word.”

This also means my feedback is a little different. Rather than focusing on deficits or correctness, I’m alert for “energy” and “impact.” I highlight the passages that seem to really work and ask students what went into creating them. I may then contrast them with other parts that lack punch or clarity.

In that way, I’m much more like an “editor” who is coaching the writer than a “teacher” who is identifying errors, but having done both, I’ve come to realize that my editor self works better when it comes to helping writers meet their goals and improve as writers than my teacher self.

For developing writers, I also must temper my expectations for how often and to what degree student may nail their choices in the same way David Foster Wallace does in this essay. It’s a lot like a round of golf.

If you’re a twenty handicapper, there may be three to five really great shots in an entire round. If there’s a handful of moments in the student writing that absolutely sing, I point to those and say, “There it is, do you feel it? How do we get everything so it does it like that?”

For the sentences that get hooked into the woods, rather than remarking about how very wayward that shot went, I ask, “What were you thinking with this? What are you trying to do?” redirecting the student back towards a reflective process under their own control. 

Rethink, revise, rinse, repeat.

If we want students to write good sentences, we should arm them with the tools writers actually use and allow them to work in the conditions writers need. Drilling grammar fulfills neither of those criteria.





[2] Also, between the time of its publication in Harper’s and the arrival of the essay collection, Wallace had become a significantly more famous and therefore powerful author, likely more capable of insisting on his own stylistic flourishes.

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