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.
I’m getting ready to update my 2011 book Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching, and I’ve been gathering some fresh errors to use in the new edition.
Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching shows teachers how to use informal writing to teach students to spot, correct, and perhaps even avoid writing mechanics errors lumped under the heading grammar.
Such errors are notoriously difficult to cure.
Having students wrestle with sentences that appeared in general-circulation publications—figuring out what the writer intended to say, what the writer got wrong, and how to repair the damage—works better than anything else I’ve tried.
My students have two favorite types of real-life errors: Those errors that are:
made by professional educators
I found an advertisement this week that I think my students will enjoy:
CAREER/EDUCATION Advancement. Looking for a job? Or, more information on higher education? Want to know what local businesses are looking for when hiring? Commerce Chenango and Morrisville State College, presents a “College & Community Job Fair” on November 8, 2017 at Morrisville State College-Norwich Campus- 20 Conkey Ave. Running from 9:00 a.m.- 3:00 p.m., attendees will be able to talk one on one with representatives from corporate, small business, government and nonprofit organizations as well as College & University recruiters. Visit www.commercechenango.org/jobfair for more info.
I don’t think I’ll be attending the College & Community Job Fair. I’m really not up to six hours of running, and I’ll probably be too busy turning the advertisement into an informal writing prompt for teaching grammar topics.