What should parents look for when choosing a program to help their students acquire these benefits? First, seek a comprehensive program. Some programs on the market teach only the structure of the English language; those programs enable students to recognize parts of speech like nouns and verbs, parts of sentence like direct objects and predicate nominatives, phrases like gerund and appositive phrases, and clause types like noun clauses. What they may not teach is how to apply that knowledge to writing. To prepare students to write well, a grammar program should also cover usage: when to use passive and active voice verbs, how to make subjects and verbs as well as pronouns and antecedents agree, how to avoid modification errors (don’t let those modifiers dangle!), and how to use pronouns correctly. Finally, having gained a thorough knowledge of grammatical structure and usage, students should study mechanics, those conventions of punctuation and capitalization that make writing easy to read.
2. Sequential Instruction
If parents really just want their children to be able to punctuate a sentence correctly, why should they waste time requiring those students to study arcane phrase and clause structures or complicated rules for avoiding modification errors? Why not just teach the rules of punctuation? If only it were that easy.
Correctly punctuating sentences depends on a knowledge of grammatical structure as does avoiding usage errors like those of modification. If students don’t understand what participial phrases are, how will they be able to identify those phrases in their own sentences and set the phrases off with commas? If they can’t spot the subject of a sentence and the participial phrase that should modify it, how can they avoid dangling or misplaced modifiers? The short answer is they can’t.
Teaching grammar, then, should follow a logical sequence. First, students should learn to recognize the structure of English, its parts of speech, parts of sentences, phrases, and clauses. Only then will usage and mechanics rules make sense.
One danger in selecting a grammar program is picking one that requires analysis of only
simple sentences like these:
- We walked (into the gymnasium). (prepositional phrase)
- The next person to sing will be (predicate nominative)
- (Quilting) is (gerund subject)
- After Greg ate lunch, he went (to soccer practice). (dependent and independent clauses)
Yes, young secondary students should begin with sentences like these, and with some study, they will very likely be able to successfully identify the parts of these sentences—all to the good! However, sentences used in real life writing and literature are not so simple. To be useful in real world writing, a program must provide practice in analyzing the kinds of sentences we want mature students to be able to write and understand, sentences like these:
- (After running laps) (for [what seemed like hours]), we staggered (into the Wellington Gymnasium) and dropped (onto the bleachers).
Gerund object of a preposition; noun clause as object of a preposition; subject + compound simple predicate.
- The next people to sing will be Sharon and Cheryl, fortunately, they have practiced the madrigal thoroughly. (Is the comma after Cheryl correct? Why or why not?)
No, a comma placed between two independent clauses is a comma splice, one of the most common punctuation errors students make and is considered a serious error because a clear separation between sentences is not indicated.
- Quilting with a friend is fun. (What is the complete subject of this sentence? Is a comma needed before is?)
The complete subject is “quilting with a friend.” A comma should not be placed before is because commas should not normally separate a complete subject and a complete predicate.
- After Greg ate a hearty lunch, he hurried to a seemingly interminable soccer practice, his heavy meal making him sluggish. (Should the comma after practice be a semicolon?)
No, the words that follow practice are an absolute phrase rather than an independent clause. Semicolons separate independent clauses, not clauses and phrases.)
As any linguist will agree, language is fascinating but complex; students need a rigorous program so that they can use the glorious possibilities of English to communicate the ideas about which they are passionate.
Whatever one may think of his content, Stephen King is no doubt a master writer. In his highly regarded treatise On Writing, he advises, “If you want to refurbish your grammar, go to your local used-book store and find a copy of Warriner’s Composition.” Widely regarded as premiere textbooks for the study of English grammar, the Warriner series exemplifies comprehensiveness, sequential instruction, and rigor. At Excelsior Classes, we join masters like Stephen King as well as those college students who for decades have relied on Warriner for grammar instruction that excels.
Marilyn Whitlock loves learning and sharing that love with others. She has a bachelor’s degree in English education, a master’s degree in English literature, a graduate certificate in instructional design, and has completed coursework for a Ph.D. in English literature with a concentration in British literature of the 18th century. As a Ph.D. candidate, she received a full academic scholarship, was a graduate assistant, and taught freshman composition. Since completing her education, Marilyn has taught in a variety of venues including public schools, private Christian schools, and within the homeschool community.