Monday, August 6, 2012

What is a sentence?
If you were asked, how would you define a sentence? Ask your friends. Ask you family. Ask your students. You may be surprised and amused by their responses.

Not long ago I was asked to take a class on basic grammar at a regional campus about 450 km from Adelaide, the state's capital city and the university's home base. All the students were in the first semester of a pathway program leading into an undergraduate degree. The class profile was typical for this regional campus: most hadn't studied for many years, were female and were native English language speakers. I knew that these students would find the idea of a class on grammar scary at best.

To put them at ease I began the class with the story of a guy I'd worked with some years ago who had a very definite and somewhat surprising answer to my sentence question:

'It's a group of 40 words about something.'

Why 40 words? He'd worked out from the novels he'd read that most sentences were about forty words long. This snippet of information explained why I had joined the ranks of staff who couldn't make much sense of his essays. Every sentence was forty words long.

It also crystallised for me why so many students, educated in a system which has de-emphasised the teaching of grammar, have no way of reviewing or correcting their texts at sentence level.

How did my regional students define a sentence?
 'A group of words about one idea.'
'It's a group of words that starts with a  capital letter and ends with a full stop. You put the full stop where you need to take a long breath.'

'In sentences you always start with a capital letter and end with a full stop. If you need to take a short breath you put in a comma. You put the   full stop where you need to take a long breath.'

'A sentence has to say something, make sense.'

'A sentence has a beginning, someone doing something and an end. It's about one idea.'

'All you want to say about one thing.'

'It has to have a, what do you call it, a subject, but I forget the rest...'
Everyone agreed that long ago a primary school teacher had linked sentence writing to breathing. Is it any wonder that holding up a mirror to some student essays reveals some very heavy breathers and others panting their way to that final full stop?

Any suggestions for those who write breathily?

The Grammar Gang welcomes Helen Johnston - Language and Learning Coordinator at the University of South Australia.  Helen has worked at UniSA for 'a long time' and her interests are teaching academic literacies - especially to those returning to study after a long absence.  Welcome Helen!