Everyday English speech is cluttered with simple words whose appearance—that is to say, their spelling—must be drilled into students so they don’t mistake one familiar word for another similar-sounding word when they write.
I tell my students they must know, for example, when to use bare and when to use bear. The reason they must know the correct use of those simple words, I tell them, is “so you don’t look stupid.” I refer to such similar-sounding familiar word pairs or word trios as “SYDLS words.”
This week, I’ve seen dozens of SYDLS mistakes in, of all places, a course developed by the Smithsonian in conjunction with The Great Courses entitled America’s Founding Fathers. The course embeds the professor’s lecture into the video as subtitles. It appears that someone transcribed the lecture from an audio recording, but no one checked the transcription for accuracy. The transcription includes such SYDLS as these:
“unregulated as to some,” in a discussion of finances, instead of unregulated as to sum
“enact bands on the importation of slaves” instead of enact bans
“The principle states” instead of the principal states.
(I also saw “justice tenacity” instead of just as tenaciously, which is a mishearing, although not a SYDLS.)
I have a file box of over 300 SYDLS word sets. I teach the most common ones the way I take vitamins: one a day. I try to give students some mnemonic device to help them remember one half of a pair of confusable terms. Sometimes that’s a drawing, like this:
See how the two As in altar are used as like sawhorses to create an altar?
Sometimes it’s just suggesting a link between a word and its spelling. For example, the word principle is used in settings where the idea of a rule could be substituted without destroying the meaning of the sentence entirely.
If you aren’t already dropping daily hints to your students about correct use of common words, I suggest you put that on your to-do list. It requires relatively little work on your part to make sure your students don’t often look stupid.
Postscript: Aside from the SYDLS, America’s Founding Fathers is a great course. I’d love to sit in Allen C. Guelzo’s classroom without benefit of subtitles. He really is a master teacher.
Here’s another informal writing prompt to use with teens or adult students in English classes.
Show and read aloud to students this three-sentence section of a blog post for web designers:
The practice of sectioning off content with the use of design elements has become increasingly popular. It allows designers to create some visual separation and develop a rhythm. The idea is to place separate-but-related portions of text into dedicated containers that look differently.
Then ask students to identify in no more than three sentences what errors, if any, they notice and how to correct the error or errors.
To turn this informal writing prompt into a miniature grammar lesson, add two or three minutes of teaching. The only actual error in the item is the word differently. Differently is an adverb. The linking verb look needs to be followed by the adjective different. Compare:
Marlene looks fatly in that red dress. to Marlene looks fat in that red dress.
I feel awfully today. to I feel awful today.
“Dedicated containers are differently” doesn’t make sense, but “dedicated containers are different” does make sense.
Hint to share with students: You can usually tell if you used an adverb where you needed an adjective by replacing the verb in the sentence with is (or are if the subject is plural).
One of the few bright spots in the current political turbulence is the way misplaced modifier production has ramped up. I collect those that amuse me and often have students attempt to figure out what the writer intended to say, where the writer messed up, and, if possible, revise the sentence to fix the problem.
Here are three that other teachers might want to have their students attempt to untangle:
“Karl Rove gently explains that Joe Biden beat Trump in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.”
“After making landfall in Cuba early Sunday, Florida now faces storm surges of up to four feet.”
“While he said testing can help, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb cautioned against holiday gatherings and encouraged the use of high quality masks during an interview on Face the Nation on Sunday.”
Many students commit gaffes in writing because their knowledge of grammar has not been honed to the level of precision required by writing. This mini-lesson assumes that:
Students recall the definitions of subject and direct object and can identify subjects and direct objects.
Students recall the definitions of noun and modifier and can identify nouns and their modifiers.
Students have been exposed to the idea that a pronoun refers to the last preceding noun.
In this activity, which should take at most 6-8 minutes, students write to learn more about manipulating nouns and direct objects in their writing. Begin by showing students these two sentences and reading them aloud:
In the U.S., we generate five million tons of gift-wrap waste each year. Get creative and make your own.
Watch and listen for smiles and snickers. Those responses identify students who have an intuitive understanding of English grammar. The ones who aren’t amused must be taught normal English sentence patterns.
Say something like this:
Both sentences imply some information that isn’t written out in words but that most readers can figure out. In the first sentence, for example, the pronoun we doesn’t have a noun to which it refers. Even without the antecedent being written, I’m sure you know who the word we refers to. If you had to put a noun in place of we, what might you use? [Get responses.]
The second sentence also has some implied words. Write no more than four sentences in which you tell what unwritten words are implied and how you figured out what the writer meant.
Give students one to two minutes to write. Then ask students what they discovered about who is being addressed and what that person is supposed to do. If you are lucky, most of your students will probably have figured out that:
We in the first sentence means U.S. consumers. The sentence pattern is subject-verb-direct object: We generate waste.
In the second sentence, the writer is giving an order to one or more individual consumers. We know that because the writer says your.
The writer is ordering the consumer to (1) “get creative” and (2) make the consumer’s own something.
The writer doesn’t specify what that something is, but even though the sentence construction makes it sound as if the reader should make waste the only sensible conclusion is that the writer expects the reader to make gift-wrap.
Students who lack an intuitive feel for grammar won’t have realized that there is a disconnect between what the writer expects readers to do and what the sentence construction and rules of English grammar tell readers to do. You need to make that disconnect clear.
Present the grammar
1. A direct object is a noun or a pronoun.
2. When a pronoun is used as a direct object, the noun for which it substitutes is usually the last noun before it, as in these two sentences:
Clarice donated a fat check. It covered the cost of the roof repairs.
If the noun for which the pronoun substitutes isn’t the last noun before the pronoun, you may confuse your readers.
Provide reassuring context
Tell students that most of us have to work at following the rules that readers have learned to expect writers to follow. We’ll all mess up sometimes, and we all need to keep an eye out for mistakes we’ve made before, especially if they are mistakes that make people snicker.
Like most students of my generation, I “did” English homework work: I memorized vocabulary words from publisher-produced lists, responded to publisher-produced “questions for understanding” literature, and completed publisher-created exercises in correct placement of commas. By the time I graduated high school, valedictorian of my class, I had come to believe commas were just decorations, about as vital to writing as cosmetics to chickens.
I persisted in this belief until my senior year of college when a chemistry professor did what no English teacher was able to do: He helped me learn why comma placement matters.
My roommate had published poetry while in high school, but her ambition was to be an inorganic chemist. From the first day we met, Cheryl talked about wanting to isolate the amino acid lysine from human hair. For nearly three years, every time I got my hair cut, I’d ask for the clippings, which I gave to Cheryl to use for isolating lysine.
A psychology major, English minor, I worked as a “reader” for a visually handicapped sociology major with whom I shared several courses. When we were required to take a statistics course, I knew Sue wouldn’t be able to understand the text without seeing the graphs. I decided to take Sue to a chemistry lab where I could draw the graphs on the blackboards that covered three walls, since I knew from Cheryl that the labs were deserted in the late afternoons,
I discovered that I couldn’t just read the statistics book to Sue, even with the diagrams on the board. She had never seen a graph and didn’t know how to interpret one. I ended up having to learn the week’s statistics material and teach it to her. As I was doing that, the chemistry prof, Dr. Dale Ritter, would often walk through on his way to the instrumentation room as I was explaining statistics to Sue.
One day Dr. Ritter told me Cheryl had to write for her analytical chemistry class in a format suitable for chemistry journal, but what she wrote was in a literary style. He said he didn’t know how to explain what she needed to do differently and asked if I could help. Cheryl was already a very fine writer. It took only a few minutes to point out the features of journal style that she needed to follow.
When Cheryl hadn’t done the lysine isolation by my final semester of college, I teased her about it by telling some students in the chem lab about the acute embarrassment I’d suffered for three years when asking for my hair clippings. Dr. Ritter overhead me and asked if I’d like to do the lysine isolation myself. He said the lab had everything that was necessary, and he’d be happy to help me set it up.
I’d never taken a chemistry course, but it sounded like it might be fun. I said I’d love to do it.
Dr. Ritter got out the equipment.
Cheryl got out the directions.
I got bewildered.
Many of the sentences of the directions contained words that could be used as different parts of speech depending on the context, but none of the sentences had any internal punctuation marks. That often meant it was impossible to be sure what part of speech a particular word had in a particular sentence. For example, if you chose to regard a word as a noun, which you would have done if it had a comma after it, you would do something quite different than you would do if you treated that word as an adjective modifying the following word.
I’d read the directions and figure out what I thought I ought to do.
Then Cheryl would come along and read the directions, pausing in different places, and she’d conclude I needed to do something quite different.
Sometimes someone else would wander by, read the directions, and, by pausing in other different places, reach an entirely different third conclusion.
I learned from the experience the chemistry fact that putting hair in hydrochloric acid produces the smell of vomit.
I also learned from the experience the importance of commas. When you’re doing things with hydochloric acid, you realize quite forcefully that commas are not just decorations.
Commas are essential to clear communication.
Learn a lesson from my experience. When you teach comma use, be smart about it. Instead of funny examples, use examples from law and business that show how much damage a comma can cause.
A misplaced comma really could kill somebody.
Resources for comma use
Punctuation Matters: ‘Dear John’ Letter and a2-Million-Dollar Comma. The second example shows the importance of careful comma use in business.
Why Commas Matter: The Wire Act Story. Incorrect comma use changes how a law is interpreted.
Today I’ll show you three multiple choice question sets for testing students’ knowledge of correct punctuation rules. To create the questions, I used a sample question in 1956 Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives from a different subject for my pattern. I think you’ll see that the definition of knowledge as used in the Taxonomy means a far deeper understanding than simply being able to choose a correct answer.
If you use these questions with students, they may get some answers right by guessing, by they won’t get many right by guessing. To get all 11 answers correct, they have to understand the meanings of the terms in which the rules are expressed.
Knowledge is popularly believed to be the “easiest” of Bloom’s six types of learning, even though the authors specifically say that is not the case. Learning at the knowledge level is difficult for students because they typically have very little context for information they learn at that level. Learning at the higher levels may come much more easily because the students have far more context for understanding it.
Enough theory. Take a look at multiple choice questions about basic punctuation rules.
A five-question set
For the five numbered items below, indicate by letter whether the rules for the use of possessive apostrophes are:
(a) correctly applied, or
(b) incorrectly applied, or if
(c) from the information, it can’t be determined whether the rules are correctly applied.
_____1. The dog’s dish is empty.
_____2. My cars’ front and rear fenders are both dented.
_____3. He owes three month’s back rent.
_____4. The sounds of childrens’ voices carried across the street.
_____5. Jody’s sunglasses are on the table beside the door.
A second five-question set
Look at the numbered sentences below and indicate by letter whether the sentence is :
(a) correctly punctuated because the information set off by commas is non-essential (i.e., not restrictive),
(b) incorrectly punctuated because the information set off by commas is essential (i.e., restrictive),
(c) incorrectly punctuated because there are no commas to set off non-essential (i.e., non-restrictive) information.
_____6. The day, rainy and dark, was ideal for reading a good book.
_____7. I was late, having gotten caught in traffic.
_____8. The bridge, for example, is a tourist attraction.
_____9. After that dinner I am ready to burst my buttons.
____10. He plans to work this summer, and save for college.
One single question
11. Look carefully at this statement:
Bartz’ and Norton’s horses got out when the stable door was accidentally left unlatched.
To determine whether the possessive apostrophes are correctly used in that sentence, what do you need to know? Put an X in the blank before your answer.
____(a) The general rule that most words form their plural by adding -s.
____(b) The rule for forming the plural of words that end with an -s or an -s sound.
____(c) Whether Bartz and Norton are joint owners of the horses.
____(d) Both a and b.
____(e) Both a and c.
Use the results as formative assessment
You should use items like this as a formative assessment. Unless all your students are getting at least 8 of the answers correct, you need to keep reteaching the material in other ways until they do achieve that level. Don’t devote whole class sessions the reteaching: Give five or seven-minute lessons every few class periods. If you do that and you’re lucky, each time you give a lesson a few more students will catch on to what you’re talking about.
Punctuation is one of the least interesting parts of English language arts to teach or to learn. If we can’t make it interesting, we ought to at least make sure students understand why it matters.
Below is an informal writing prompt to get students thinking about why punctuation matters. I recommend you use whatever technology is available to you so that you can read the prompt aloud while students follow along.
The informal prompt
Look at these two sentences about a sports competition and think about when someone might say each of them:
May the best man win.
May the best man win?
Consider: Under what circumstances would someone use sentence one? Under what circumstances would someone use sentence two?
In no more than four sentences, explain the differences between the meaning of the first sentence and the meaning of the second sentence. You have 1 minute to write your explanation.
Notes on this informal activity
Unlike an oral question, informal writing gets every member of a class to do something with the information that’s before them.
Because this informal writing activity activity is brief, uncomplicated, and deals with sports, it’s fairly easy to get students’ attention for the two minutes it takes to read the prompt and write a response. The activity may even hold the attention of students whose acquaintance with sports gives them a more extensive list of reasons why someone would wonder whether it is possible for the best competitor to win a contest.
Reading aloud while students follow along is recommended because, for a variety of reasons, many American teenage and adults students need help reading. Anything you can do to help them associate word forms with word sounds—even if its just a two-minute activity—is worth doing.