About a month ago, I was reading a draft of a five-paragraph essay Doug had to write for language arts. I pointed out a couple of run-on sentences, and a minute later, he had separated them with periods. Then I moved on to the fragments. One of them was something like, “His brother, who wants the duke’s title.”
“But that’s a complete sentence!” Doug protested.
“OK, then what’s the subject?” I asked.
“And the predicate?”
“Wants the duke’s title!” Doug answered.
I’ll spare you all the arguing that went on during the next half hour. Eventually, Doug grudgingly and still somewhat incredulously conceded that sentences could be packed inside larger things that weren’t sentences. The most eye-opening moment I had, though, was when I asked, “Is Nick the cat a complete sentence?”
“Yes!” Doug said. The subject was Nick. The predicate was the cat. Likewise, in the kitchen was a complete sentence, with subject in, and predicate the kitchen. “The subject comes first,” Doug told me, “and the rest is the predicate. That’s the rule they taught us.”
“I see the problem,” I said. “You’re right that every sentence has to have a subject and a predicate, but what you didn’t realize is that not everything is a sentence. Predicates have to have a verb, at least in English they do. If there’s no verb, it’s not a predicate, and you don’t have a complete sentence.”
“A predicate doesn’t have to be a verb!” Doug said. “They never told us that!”
“Well, what you probably didn’t notice on all the worksheets you did where you identified subjects and predicates was that the predicates all had verbs.”
Doug was furious with his previous teachers for having allowed him to arrive at this overgeneral definition of a sentence.
“Do you think other kids have this same misunderstanding?” I asked. “Or other misunderstandings about sentences?”
“Hmmm,” I said. At the beginning of the school year, Doug’s language arts teacher had given me an invitation to come in and speak to her classes about linguistics when I had a chance. She didn’t even care about the topic; whatever it was, she’d find a way to connect it to the objectives the students were working on. She’s been doing Latin and Greek word roots with them, so I’d been thinking about bringing in an exercise in reconstructing words from proto-languages, if I could find one that didn’t require too much preparation work in phonetics. Now, though, there seemed to be a more immediate objective that I could give a linguist’s perspective on.
So it was that last Tuesday, I stood in front of Doug’s language arts class, asking how many had ever lost points on a worksheet or test because they hadn’t written an answer as a complete sentence. Just about all of them had. Only a few dropped their hands when I asked if they’d ever wondered what the big deal was, as long as the teacher had understood their answer. Then I moved to a different topic, and reminded them about learning about parts of speech in previous years. My question: Who had ever wondered what they were supposed to do with this knowledge now that they’d learned the eight or ten or however many parts of speech. They all had. My aim, I announced, was to take these two topics, parts of speech on the one hand, and sentences on the other, and fill in the missing material that connected the two. We’d start with a sentence they’d probably heard before…
To be continued
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