"What can be said at all, can be said simply." Wittgenstein.
"'Tis the gift to be simple." Simple Gifts, Joseph Brackett.
Three key points.
Sentence. We organise written English in sentences so that readers can understand it from its printed form alone, without the personal touches and feedback that people exchange when they are talking. A sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop.
Verb. Verbs indicate an action, a feeling or state of mind, or a state of things. Most verbs "do" things, but not all. Some are composed of more than one word - I have done my homework. I am doing my homework. It is essential to take time to practise identifying verbs, particularly the verbs to be - am, are, is, was, were and to have, as they link words or ideas together, but do not "do" anything. It is possible to have a sentence without a verb (see the opening paragraphs of Dickens' Bleak House), but it is very unusual. Verbs are the most important words, and there is little or no hope of progress in understanding and using grammar if the learner does not recognise verbs and know how they are used.
Subject. Very nearly all sentences have a subject and verb. This is a tricky idea, as the subject of a sentence is not, as in everyday life, what it is about, but whoever or whatever is doing what the verb does (or feels, or is). Grasping the idea of subject is, for many, the most difficult single element of grammar, and one that needs to be revisited and practised.
It is important because a change in the subject, or even a repetition of it as we are writing, almost always requires us to insert link words or punctuation so that we do not run two sentences together by mistake. It often helps to point out that the subject usually comes immediately before the verb. Questions such as "whodunit?" or "what is it?" can also help identify it
Grammar on the Menu
1. Main. Most of us like eating out, and most meals have a main course. In grammar, a main course (or clause) has a subject and verb.
The dog barks.
We don't usually have two mains when we eat out - one parent told her daughter that "Daddy might, if he thought he could get away with it" - and we don't usually have two mains in a sentence. To avoid this as we write, we use a simple technique - when we repeat or change the subject, we add strong punctuation or a link word.
The dog barks and it chases the postman.
using a link word
The dog barks. It chases the postman.
using strong punctuation, in this case a full stop
Strong punctuation contains a dot - . ? ! : ; or a dash - . A comma is weak punctuation. It can be used to group, or phrase, words within a sentence, but not to end one. Knowing where to use strong punctuation or a link word is the most important single factor in writing an accurate sentence. It can be helpful to have learners think of a punctuation mark as the word it represents - this gives a better sense of its importance than the mark itself.
2. Main + dessert. Link words let us add something to the main, without creating confusion over what comes first or is more important.
The postman ran away because the dog was barking.
The bus can't get through if you park there
The postman wasn't scared, although the dog had barked at him.
Link words have different purposes, as we may wish to say different things, and these can be learned later. The most important point at this stage is to learn when they are needed.
3. Starter + main. (and the abominable "fronted adverbial".) We often insert a word or phrase before the subject of a sentence, in order to set the scene. Hear are examples:
Today, I got up early.
Because I'm usually late, I'm going to go to bed early tonight.
If we use a starter word or phrase, we usually insert a comma to mark off the main clause. This is a bit like removing a starter plate before serving the main - we don't actually leave the table and start again. These starters can be single words, or phrases, and there can be more than one of them
Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, Two starter phrases
I heard a maiden singing in the valley below. Main
(Interlude) Because a starter word adds some information to the verb - usually telling us when something happened - traditional grammar called them adverbs. Because they could be in the form of a phrase rather than a word, professors of linguistics, aping real scientists, decided to shorten "adverb or adverbial phrase" into "adverbial", saving themselves time, and imposing a layer of confusion on the general public. Because an adverb often follows the verb
Arsenal won easily
Mill Reef won at a canter
they decided to call a starter a "fronted adverbial", as it was placed before the verb. Suits you, sir, but this sesquipedalian verbiage does not help a ten year old.
4. Starter + main + dessert. The starter plus main can be followed by a dessert using the rules above - that is, we insert strong punctuation or a link word after the main.
There are other ways of extending sentences, which can be added to the learner's personal repertoire as the teacher decides they are ready for them. We can, for example, add a aperitif through two starter phrases, or a coffee, if we don't mind paying the restaurant's markup. These, though, are the main principles of sentence construction, and the overriding one is that we can't have two mains in one sentence.
Time Zones. (draft)
When we speak, time is shared between ourselves and person or people we are talking to, and so is obvious. When we write, the other person is not there, and so we must make issues of time explicit. We do this by means of time zones, each of which gives us a range of options that we can use without moving out of it, and so losing track of time.
The main time zones are the present, the past and the future. As we don't know what will happen in the future, we tend not to stay there for long. As stories tell us what has already happened, they tend to be written in the past ("Rosie the hen went for a walk."). Much public discussion, including politics and news, comes to us as it happens, in the present.
The old French word for time was le tens. English added e, to give us the word tense. This broke the link with time in normal English usage, and linguistics has taken this further by limiting the word to occasions where it uses a different form, as in the above quotation from Rosie's Walk. Other European languages have kept the link with time - Les temps, Die Zeiten, Los tiempos. We need to restore it, as it is the link between grammar and human experience.
We have three main ways of indicating a time zone.
- A word or phrase related to time. Once upon a time...
- The form of a verb - Marley was dead, to begin with. (Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
- Context. O'Dowd goes in command. (Thackeray, Vanity Fair.)
Once we are in a time zone, we can use different forms to indicate shades of meaning. These are the forms that have been given the name of tenses, but if they are simply forms, I suggest staying with that for the moment.
Present. Simple form I play the piano.
Continuous form I am playing the piano.
Past. Simple form I played the piano
Composed form I have had my breakfast.
Continuous form I was playing the piano
Double form I had played the piano
Future. Composed form I will play the piano later today.
Once we are in a time zone, we need to give our reader a signpost, usually a short phrase, if we move out of it. Remembering the zone we are in, and ways of moving out of it, is an important stage in developing control in writing, and takes practice. Roz Wilson's and Alan Peat's work on sentence construction can be very helpful in this. The main additional features of verbs, the passive voice and forms indicating a degree of uncertainty, can be introduced and explained as the need arises, which it certainly will in the course of writing. Traditional terminology here is only partly helpful. "Conditional" is ok, as "on condition that" can sometimes be substituted for "if". "Subjunctive" is an obscurity, and rarely used in English outside a command form - "Let it be".
The key point, at each stage, is to explain each form in a way that makes sense to the person learning, and then to have them practise.
Part 2 of Simple Gifts, Slimmed Down Spelling, is here.