Archive for June, 2012

The Five Most Misleading Grammatical Terms

As a Linguist and as a college writing teacher, I’ve concluded that much of the grammar terminology used by writing teachers and grammar handbooks ought to be abolished and replaced. This terminology was never designed for pedagogical purposes or for the writing classroom. Instead, it has been passed down through generations of traditional grammarians and philologists. Much of this terminology was molded from the grammar of Latin—not English. Eventually it was adopted rather uncritically by composition teachers and textbook publishers, and not much has changed since.

Writing teachers often overlook issues around grammar jargon, assuming that everything has already been decided from on high. If we were taught the definition of “subject” by our third grade teacher, how could anything else possibly be right? As I mention in another post, we must minimize and carefully consider the grammar terminology that we introduce to students. Because it’s cumbersome and confusing to explicitly define grammar terminology for students, the best terminology comes with intuitive names.

Unintuitive names mislead. Students, teachers, and handbook authors can’t help but to intuit meaning from the names of terms, often in ways that read too deeply and lead them into mass confusion. For instance, when we hear that a sentence is “passive,” we infer that it must be weak and undesirable—a conclusion that seems reasonable but that proves simplistic.

In this post, I will list the five most misleading terms in the teaching of grammar. I’ll contrast the mythology that arises when we read too deeply into the name against the reality that has been discerned from half a century of linguistic research. Then I’ll propose for each term some more intuitive name as a replacement.

Number Five: Subordinating/Coordinating Conjunction

Myth: Coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.) connect two clauses of equal “importance” or “weight”:

1a. The internet is becoming a huge part of people’s everyday lives and it takes away from precious time with family.

while subordinating conjunctions (although, because, since, etc.) join clauses where the one following the subordinating conjunction carries less “importance” or “weight” than the other:

1b. The internet is becoming a huge part of people’s everyday lives, although it takes away from precious time with family.

Fact: The distinction between coordinating conjunctions and coordinating conjunctions has nothing to do with the importance or weight of the items being joined.

In another post, I explained in detail the real differences between subordinating and coordinating conjunctions. I’ll sum up here: yes, conjunctions join clauses together, but the rest of the myth is a collective hallucination supported by a few carefully manipulated sentences in handbooks that seem to support it.

In the study of linguistics, researchers separate the semantic properties (meaning) of a given word from the syntactic properties (word order and sentence structure). It’s easy for non-Linguists to interchange the two, but these two subsystems of the language need to be examined separately.

Coordinating conjunctions differ crucially from subordinating conjunctions in their syntax. Most notably, coordinating conjunctions allow a robust range of possibilities, joining not just clauses but (almost) any two or more words/phrases, provided they are of the same type:

2a. He ordered us [to eat and to pray].

2b. He ordered us [to eat, to pray, and to love].

2c. He ordered us [to eat, to pray, to love, and to sleep].

On the other hand, subordinating conjunctions are much more limited in terms of the types of things they join together:

3. *He ordered us [to eat although to pray]. (Here and elsewhere, the asterisk denotes the sentences is ungrammatical.)

Further, they only join together exactly two clauses/things, but never more:

4. *The internet is becoming a huge part of people’s everyday lives, it is being used for many games and apps, although it takes away from precious time with family.

The term “coordination” derives from the fact that in many linguistic theories, two or more items conjoined with a coordinating conjunction exist at the same level in the syntactic structure of the sentence:

from p. 226 of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal, 1995

whereas subordinating conjunctions join two items on disparate levels of the syntactic structure:

from p. 226 of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal, 1995

Beyond that, it’s hard to draw a broad semantic generalization about the set of subordinating conjunctions, the set of coordinating conjunctions, and the “weight” or “importance” of the clauses they combine. The meaning contributed by a conjunction varies depending on the particular word, not the category of conjunction. Interestingly, some coordinating conjunctions share nearly identical meanings with some subordinating conjunctions—for instance, “although” and “but.”

A more intuitive name: get rid of the misleading coordination/subordination distinction. Why not just call them all “conjunctions” and encourage students to use a variety. As another alternative, we could call what are traditionally called “coordinating conjunctions” simply “conjunctions.” What have traditionally been called subordination conjunctions could simply be called “conjunctive prepositions,” since these words are treated as prepositions in many theories of grammar, and some (“as,” “after,” and “since”) actually double as more conventional prepositions:

5a. He strikes us as a con artist.

5b. Tom chased after Jerry.

5c. Since dinner, we haven’t eaten desert.

Number Four: Direct/Indirect Object

Myth: The direct object is the “receiver” of the action named by the verb. The indirect object is the “beneficiary” of the action named by the verb, or answers the questions “to whom?” or “for whom?”.

Fact: This definition depends too heavily on the semantics of the verb to analyze the syntax, and it’s nearly impossible to use when students apply it to the messiness of naturally occurring language.

Leaving aside the troubling fact that the mythological definitions of direct object and indirect object seem to overlap with one another, in the most prototypical examples fabricated in handbooks, it’s easy to figure out what the indirect object and direct object is:

6. John gave Mary a gift.

but when we look at more complex examples, these definitions are confusing and unhelpful for students who apply them to naturally occurring sentences of English:

7a. John had a bath.

7b. For his client, the attorney called the witness a con artist.

7c. I tossed the ball into the window.

The direct/indirect object distinction has been imported from the study of the grammar of Romance languages. In these languages, speakers choose completely different pronouns depending on whether an item is in direct or indirect object position, as we see in Spanish:

8a. Yo le di una galleta.

Literal translation: I gave him (indirect object) a cookie.

8b. Ella lo amaba.

Literal translation: She loved him (direct object).

In English, there’s no difference in the pronoun choice between direct objects and indirect objects, like there is between subjects and objects (“I” versus “me”). In teaching English writing to native speakers, I see no scenarios where students need to explicitly distinguish between direct and indirect objects. In other words, writing teachers should consider the direct/indirect object distinction a matter of grammar trivia, rather than something worth teaching.

A more intuitive name: Writing teachers would do best to circumvent this mountain, rather than try to scale it. If a definition is called for, grammar definitions that depend heavily on semantics are unwieldy and slippery. I would prefer clear-cut syntactic definitions that fit with the facts of English (rather than Romance languages) and that map straightforwardly onto a string of words. In this view, we could refer to objects of the verb as either “prepositional objects” and “non-prepositional objects”, depending on whether they occur within a prepositional phrase. Amongst non-prepositional objects, we could talk about the “first (non-prepositional) object” and the “second (non-prepositional) object”:

9. Gustavo bet Mercedes ten dollars on the game.

Number Three: Run-on sentence

Myth: A run-on sentence error occurs when a sentence goes on for too long.

Fact: It has nothing to do with length and everything to do with proper punctuation.

A run-on sentence is a punctuation error that occurs when two complete sentences are next to one another, without being joined by a conjunction (and, although, etc.) or being separated by an ending punctuation (period, semicolon, etc.):

10. I used this skill all through high school there is a particular time that sticks out in my mind.

While it’s true that many run-on sentences stretch out over a great length, that’s not their defining feature. A sentence stretched over an entire page, if punctuated properly, avoids being a run-on (though it raises questions of style). Conversely, you can have a very short sentence that’s a run on, such as:

11. I napped I awoke.

A more intuitive name: “run-together sentence error” or “fused sentence error.”

Number Two: Passive Sentence/Active Sentences

Myth: Passive sentences are weak and should be avoided. Use active sentences instead.

Fact: Sometimes that’s true, but passives serve important functions as well.

A passive construction differs from its non-passive counterpart primarily in terms of word order. Passive constructions occur when you start with a verb that both takes an object and allows the agent (or experiencer) role to be expressed as a grammatical subject:

12a. The policewoman smacked the kid.

To passivize it, add a version of the verb “be,” followed a verb in the past participle form. The subject position is filled by an argument canonically expressed by one of the verb’s objects, while the agent role either goes unexpressed, or is expressed in a prepositional phrase beginning with “by”:

12b. The kid was smacked (by the policewoman).

A significant part of my master’s thesis dealt with passive constructions, and I’ve come to appreciate their utility for speakers and writers. Some version of the passive construction exists in every language I’ve studied, and there’s a good reason. Speakers strongly prefer to select certain types of material as the grammatical subjects of their sentences, such as pronouns, phrases that refer to people, phrases that refer back to recent discourse, or phrases that are very brief.  Passive constructions allow speakers to reorder the canonical order to fulfill these desires. Thus, the subject selection in 13a provides a more natural way to express oneself compared with 13b:

13a. When I got off the bus, I was hit by a huge icicle .

13b. When I got off the bus, a huge icicle hit me .

Furthermore, speakers can often omit the agent of a verb when they desire to be concise or the agent can easily be inferred by speakers. To illustrate, compare the following:

14a. In Math class, homework was given. (passive)

14b. In Math class, the teacher gave homework. (active)

Passive sentences work fine in many contexts, but they can degrade the clarity and style of the writing when overused, or when used in the wrong situations. When misused, passive constructions can produce vague writing laden with bureaucratic evasiveness:

15. With regard to the oversight committee, it appears that mistakes may have been made and a procedures review will now be undertaken.

Interestingly, some people overgeneralize and even label sentences as “passive” just because they sound empty or impersonal for other reasons, rather than actually containing a passive construction:

16. Downsizing may or may not occur.

A more intuitive name:  “subject/object reordering.”

Number One: Subject

from p. 128 of Real Skills with Readings by Susan Anker, 2nd ed., 2010

Myth:The subject is what a sentence is about, or the subject is the doer of the action named by the verb.

Fact: Often the myth proves true, but I’ve never seen a worse name for a piece of grammatical terminology or one more riddled with ambiguity.

The term “subject” has countless meanings to everyday people. To people who study literature and philosophy, “subject” carries even more meanings. None of these have much to do with it’s grammatical meaning.

To linguists, a “subject” is strictly a syntactic and morpho-syntactic category, and it has little to do with the semantics of the verb or the meaning of the sentence. It’s a position in the syntax of a sentence. That’s all. Almost always, the subject position is a noun phrase that’s before the verb, and almost always, the verb morphology agrees with the subject in number.

17a. The guys walk  into the store.

17b. The guy walks into the store.

Although it’s frequently the case that the subject is the doer of the action named by the verb, this not always the case, such as with passive constructions.

18. The boy on the skateboard was barked at.

Further, a huge number of sentences lack a “doer,” yet they still have a grammatical subject:

19a. There is a problem with this file.

19b. Two plus two equals four.

19c. It rained out here last night.

Finally, the definition where a subject is what a sentence is “about” is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and it will drive students crazy. Clearly, most sentences are “about” many things all at once.

A more intuitive name: “initial position” or “pre-verbal position”

Response to “The Thunder is Playing Well”

The media criticism show On The Media recently aired a radio segment on grammar issues with certain NBA team names like The Heat and The Thunder. The show notes that unlike most other team names that allow the regular plural suffix (-s), these names are treated as mass nouns. Semantically speaking, all team names denote a plural group of players. But when it comes to subject-verb agreement, copyeditors and sportswriters are confused whether The Heat and The Thunder should be treated as grammatically singular or grammatically plural.

In other words, which is correct?

1. The Heat are playing well.

2. The Heat is playing well.

As the show starts us wondering about how to resolve this issue of usage, I couldn’t help to think about how many times my students have asked me to give them the rule about all sorts of similar issues. I’ve always felt like no matter how I answer them, I’m not satisfied.

Show guest and sportswriter Tom Scocca observes that in actual usage, publications vary in treating these names as both grammatically singular and plural. At the end of the piece Scocca takes a fairly nuanced position: there’s no fixed rule about which way to treat these team names. Instead, you have to examine them in the context of the sentence they appear and judge which sounds better. (Here it strikes me that investigating usage disputes based on the judgments of native speakers on a case-by-case basis is the same methodology used by linguists.)

In my experience, this sort of answer leaves many writing students unsatisfied. Most want fixed rules and definitive answers. They want the safety of a bright red line that can be drawn across all contexts, clearly separating the correct from the incorrect. This is the worldview inculcated by an educational system overtaken by multiple-choice tests. And this is the certainty that many handbooks provide: always place a comma before coordinating conjunctions. Only use “whom” in the following situations.

If only language were so tidy. Although these maxims may work in the prototypical contexts, when you examine the messiness of usage across many contexts, you’ll find countless irregularities and idiomatic exceptions, you’ll find that respected writers vary in their preferences, and you may even find that different usages often correspond to subtle differences in meaning or style. For instance, #1 above sounds more British, while #2 sounds more American. In addition, Brock Haussamen takes the position that in cases where the verb morphology and the plural/singular morphology of the subject don’t agree in the normal way, the speaker may be conveying a slight meaning difference.[1] According to this view, the plural morphology on the verb in #1 entails that the playing described by the verb is being performed by separate entities, whereas in #2, the singular morphology on the verb entails that the playing is being performed by a single entity.

It refreshes me to see that contemporary commentators on language and usage are growing more nuanced and enlightened. Scocca bases his opinions on corpus research into actual usage, and he avoids dogmatic prescriptivism. Yes, he does tease some writers for their “poncy” Anglicized usage, but it’s done in good humor. If this same topic were covered a decade or two ago, I’m sure we’d get a different take: the guest would have insisted that there’s one right way to do it, and that those who deviate betray their illiteracy and ignorance. Next, the piece would have concluded with a cliched rant about sloppiness of writers nowadays, the failure of our schools, and the impending decline of civilization. That are what I call progress!

Harnessing Students’ Libidos towards Pedagogical Ends

To too many students, grammar instruction is synonymous with being bored and/or confused. That’s why I’m always looking for ways to spice it up. Recently, my eyes lit up when a friend who was trying out online dating pointed me to some research on grammar and online dating:

OkTrends, the research wing of the dating website OkCupid, published a fascinating blog entry about the relationship between writing mechanics and whether a prospective dating partner responds to your first message. The authors note that when online daters use netspeak spellings (“ur,” “u,” “r,” “ya,” “cant,” etc.) in their first messages, prospective partners responded back at a strikingly low rate. This response rate was both statistically significant and less than a third of the average. (As a noteworthy exception, messages containing netspeak expressions of amusement, such as “lol” and “haha”, were responded to at a rate slightly higher than the average.)

The ideas for how I could potentially use this online dating research in my writing class popped into my head so fast that I thought my brain was going into meltdown!

Telling my students about this study would be a great way to grab their attention and make issues around mechanics less academic and more relevant to their lives. Who hasn’t done online dating, or thought about doing it, or at least had a close friend or family member who did? At the same time, most students are beginning to realize how they are being judged when their language use deviates from the “standard.”

This study would also serve as an excellent springboard for a class discussion into the  sociolinguistics of slang and conventions of written language, as well as the relationship between digital technology and literacy development. Some discussion questions come to my mind:

  1. What conclusions do you think that the recipients of messages that contain netspeak draw about the people that send these messages?
  2. How fair/unfair/prejudiced are these conclusions?
  3. In what ways would your teacher respond to an essay that contains netspeak?
  4. In what contexts would it be advantageous for an online dater or anyone else to include netspeak in a message?
  5. Why might messages with “lol” and “haha” get more responses than other forms of netspeak?
  6. In what ways—both negative and positive—are digital technologies reshaping the literacy skills of young people today? (Most students assume that new technologies make literacy decline, but Andrea Lunsford has made a powerful argument that they are fostering new forms of literacy and bringing authorship to the masses.)
  7. Who decides that netspeak spellings are incorrect? (This could lead to an interesting discussion of how many usages are decided by convention, how conventions shift over time, and how poorly standard spellings correspond with pronunciations.)

In a class that focuses on critical thinking, this study can serve as a springboard into a discussion that questions the research methodology. For instance:

  1. What does it mean for the results to be “statistically significant”?
  2. What other variables might correlate with an online dater’s use of netspeak?
  3. Does the study prove that netspeak causes a low response rate, or simply a correlation between the two?
  4. Does the study show that people who use netspeak are overall less successful with online dating?
  5. In what ways might it be better for an online dater to get a lower response rate to their message?
  6. To what extent are the users of OkCupid representative of all online daters?
  7. What else might we need to know about the design of the study to gauge its validity?

In a higher-level class where students are asked to conduct original research, the OkTrends study provides an excellent model. This sort of methodology where you look for statistical correlations that exist between certain patterns of usage and some independent variable is surprisingly easy for students to get started with. If you have a corpus of text (such as the entire internet) and a powerful tool to search it (Google), you can quickly gather statistical data. The trickier part can be interpreting the results. Geoffrey Nunberg has  popularized this kind of research, analyzing news databases to see how often certain politically loaded words are used in combination with one another.

I plan on trying some of this out in my classes in the future. I’ll keep this blog updated on how it works out.

Why Prescriptivism and Descriptivsm aren’t so Contradictory

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella discusses two general approaches to the grammar of the English language—prescriptivism and descriptivism. Whether or not you’ve heard of these terms before, the distinction matters, since your teaching of grammar is necessarily shaped by one or both. In this post, I’m going to discuss each, show their strengths and weaknesses, and advocate for how I believe teachers can combine the two to get the best of both when they teach issues of grammar.

Prescriptivism aims to dictate how people should be using the language. Put commas here. Don’t put semi-colons there. Say “different than” instead of “different from,” etc. Though “prescriptivism” has acquired something of a dirty name in many circles, the dictates that fall under the category of prescriptivism can range from the sensible and uncontroversial (capitalize people’s names), to the baseless and trivial (don’t end a sentence with a preposition).

Descriptivism attempts to describe how the language is actually used, without necessarily advocating that people have to be doing things in a certain way. Before making any claims, a descriptivist would examine existing writing, corpuses of spontaneous speech, or observations of how people around them use language. From this, they would draw generalization about the structure of the language, the ways things vary from one speaker to the next, and how things change with time, etc.

To make the conversation less abstract, consider how descriptivists and presecriptivists would each deal with an actual issue of English usage. Let’s say that you join together two clauses with a coordinating conjunction between them:

1. I ate the fish tacos but I’m still alive.

The issue here is whether to put a comma before the coordinating conjunction. According to the prescriptivist handbook Rules for Writers, you should put a comma before coordinating conjunctions (and/but/or/etc.) joining two clauses, unless the clauses being joined are “short.”[1] In a 1987 descriptive study, Charles Frederick Meyer analyzed 72,000 words of published writing, concluding that a rule like this prescriptive one is generally accurate, except that writers tended to omit the comma if the conjunction was and, while adding it if the conjunction was but.[2] In this case, the prescriptivist and the descriptivist use different methods to arrive at somewhat similar conclusions. (In reality, I suspect that many other variables influence whether a writer chooses to use a comma in these contexts, but such a discussion is beyond my scope here.)

In their most extreme forms, rigid prescriptivism and rigid descriptivism work poorly in the writing classroom. Extreme prescriptivists are ignorant to the realities of language, or they even betray prejudice against those who speak different dialects and registers. On the other hand, extreme descriptivists, when they teach writing, sometimes open themselves up to the criticism that their “anything goes” attitude conveys a lack of standards for their students that may even disempower linguistic minorities who wish to acquire the language of power. Both of these extremes, however, represent straw men; every experienced writing teacher I’ve known takes a more moderate position.

Although descriptivism dominates the field of Linguistics, writing teachers are oriented somewhat more towards prescriptivism. This shouldn’t surprise. After all, writing teachers aim to get students to write in a certain way (rather than to have students comprehend all the complexities of grammar). Our prescriptivism manifests itself when we correct students’ grammar in their essays, we refer them to handbooks that tell them how to punctuate, and we give them workbook exercises where the answer key gives one correct answer.

When we’re too heavily oriented towards a prescriptive approach to usage, it blinds us to appreciating the true reality of our language and how people actually resolve vexing issues of usage. For instance, consider the issue of how to express the third person, singular, epicene (neither male nor female) pronoun. What word goes in the blank here:

2. Someone left a car with its lights on in the parking lot, and ___ also forgot to close the windows.

In addition to s/he, he or she, prescriptivists have suggested over eighty possibilities, including himorher, hann, and ze, almost all of which are awkward and never catch on.[3] (Historically speaking, few prescriptive innovations, in fact, ever catch on widely beyond a small segment of educated, self-conscious writers.) Meanwhile, John H. McWhorter, a descriptivist, points out that the pronoun they has long been used as a singular, third person epicene.[4] But a descriptivist who points this out begins to sound like they’re making a prescription!

To Acocella, descriptivism and prescriptivism are at odds with one another—one’s stance is either prescriptivist or descriptivist. At the end of her article, she claims that if you espouse both, you’re contradicting yourself. Here Acocella operates within a false dichotomy that shows an incomplete understanding. The two approaches operate at cross purposes. Descriptivism is essentially a stance that’s geared towards inquiry, one that rightly sees human language as a naturally occurring phenomenon that can be studied and understood without drawing value judgments, much as a Biologist would study the structure of a cell. With prescriptivism, the goal is more oriented towards practical ends, to influence how others use language, often in certain formal contexts such as public speaking or academic writing, or even to alter the future development of the language.

Acocella overlooks how perscriptivism and descriptivism each tend to focus on separate issues within the language. Prescriptivists focus on those areas of the language where certain usages cause controversy or where novice writers tend to make mistakes. Descriptivists often see such issues as relatively minor, and take a broader focus. In fact, many of the generalizations captured by descriptivists are transparent to prescriptivists. What prescriptivist would bother with injunctions to put the article before its noun or the subject before its verb? It’s so uncontroversially part of English syntax that it hardly seems worth prescriptivists’ time, whereas a descriptivist would point out that other languages allow other word orders.

In practice, the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism grows fuzzy, since each approach readily co-opts the other. The prescriptive approach constantly masquerades in the guise of descriptivism. This is the common orientation of many handbooks. When they make sweeping generalizations about how to use grammar and how to punctuate, they imply that this is just how everyone does it, and you should too. But a closer reading reveals that these examples are rarely backed up by solid evidence—just an authoritative, imperative tone, the weight of prescriptive tradition, and a few example sentences manufactured to back up their particular claim. Conversely, Acocella points out that being a descriptivist can be a form of prescribing what people should do, in the sense that descriptivists tend to be laissez-faire about many issues of usage. The descriptivist prescribes that each person should do what’s natural to them.

When we teach, our teaching must be informed by both approaches to language. We must be prescriptivists, because that is what writing teachers are expected to do—we prepare students to write effectively in certain types of formal situations. Students would grow annoyed if we refused to advise them on how to deal with the conventions of usage and mechanics. At the same time, our prescriptions need to be better informed by accurate descriptions of the English language, and by what is pedagogically appropriate. This is not to say that our prescriptions should match perfectly with descriptive grammars, but only that we need to think carefully the relationship between the two.

When balancing prescriptivism and descriptivism, we must make a constant trade off between being empirically accurate and comprehensive on one hand, and being clear, simple, and brief with our students on the other. It’s impossible to do everything. The advantage to prescriptitivism is that it simplifies the boundless complexities of language and elides the murky areas of ambiguity. This makes it easier to teach, easier for students to digest, and easier for teachers to evaluate. The disadvantage is that prescriptive approaches sometimes line up poorly with English as it is actually used by respected writers. This is one of many reasons that grammar instruction confuses students. Their teacher tells them to do it one way, and they see the authors of assigned readings doing something else entirely. What message does this send to students?

A thoughtful writing teacher comes up with a prescription for their students that approximates the descriptive reality and that helps them express themselves effectively. It won’t be perfect, it won’t cover every exception and irregularity, but it will get students close enough. Students demand authoritative responses to their uncertainties, but thoughtful teachers can acknowledge that they don’t know everything about grammar. When students go on to their next class, they can work through the remaining complexities on their own.

[1] p. 292 – 293

[2] This study is described on p.154 – 155 of Revising the Rules by Brock Haussamen.

[4] “Missing the Nose on Our Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution”. p. 373 – 380 in Language Awareness.

Coaching the Perfect Jump-Shot, Teaching the Perfect Sentence

Recently, I went to the gym with a friend to shoot hoops. After he crushed me 21-to-0 in a game of one-on-one, we decided to shoot around for fun. He observed my form, and he offered to coach me to improve my jump-shot

“Start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Shoulders over toes.”

I looked down. Good. I shot. Clank, off the rim.

“You’re twisting your upper body to the left as you shoot. You’re jerking your head away from the ball. Keep it straight.”

I tried again. Clank. He shot me a disapproving look.

I realized then how much shooting a jump shot shares in common with writing an effective sentence: when things go well, many, many things need to synch up seamlessly, and we often don’t even notice. With a sentence, you need to execute skills of organization, reasoning, transitioning, parallelism, agreement, word choice, word endings, punctuation, etc. With a jump shot, each part of the body needs to be moving fluidly in synch. Your knees bend and spring. Your core explodes upwards. Your eyes focus on the basket. The shooting forearm swings forward. The wrist flicks with just the right amount of force to put slight backspin on the ball. Each motion contains infinite subtleties. Being slightly off with one can turn the shot into a brick, just as a brief lapse into clunky grammar can derail an otherwise excellent sentence.

“You need to be jumping straight up and down as you shoot.”

I shot again. As I landed, I noticed my body drifting to the left. Clank.

“Okay. Imagine drawing a line from the tip of each big toe to the top of your sternum. It forms a triangle. Now chop the triangle in half. It forms a line, running through the floor up through the center of your body. As you shoot, your body should move up and down along this line.”

I tried to visualize it, but I got lost trying to follow the imaginary geometry bisecting my body. I shot again. Clank.

“When you start, do you see how you’re holding the ball off to the right? Hold the ball directly over your head as you shoot. You’re holding it too far off to the right.”

“But I can’t get it there,” I protested. “My shoulder isn’t flexible enough.”

I shot again. Clank.

“You need your shooting arm to move in an axis straight towards the basket. It can’t be drifting to one side.”

I shot again. If I made it, maybe he’d back off. Clank.

“Try doing it again, but when you jump, try to land in the same place where you start.”

I shot again. In-and-out.

“Try to do a jump shot, but don’t jump. Just spring from your knees and hips, up and down, but keep your feet planted.”

I shot again. Airball.

As I was trying to process all the guidance, I grew more and more overwhelmed. The more I tried to focus on the technical details and the imaginary lines, the more I tensed up, the more my focus wandered, and the worse my shot became.

And then I wondered: is this how lots of students feel in the face of well-meaning but overly complex grammar instruction?

Just as grammar instruction posits all sorts of abstract structures that lace together the words we can actually see, my friend’s guidance depended on all this invisible geometry that underlies the mechanics of my jumpshot. To an expert who learned it an early age, the invisible stuff seems obvious and fundamental—and so necessary to improvement. But experts often forget how difficult it can be for the novice to visualize the invisible, let alone utilize it to improve their skills.

Teachers must acknowledge the limits to how much instruction any of us can process at once, especially when we ask students to grapple with the abstractions of grammar. After all, no matter how concrete they seem in handbooks, the phrases, and the clauses that comprise our sentences and the parts of speech are all abstractions, and most students will look at a sentence and only see the bare words themselves. It is difficult to move beginning students beyond this level of analysis. This is not to say that we cannot explicitly teach students how to analyze grammatical structures or improve their writing at the sentence level; it means that we face serious limits to how much we can hope to do. In our instruction, we need to be careful not to overwhelm students with more information than they can digest at one time, or more than what they can actually incorporate into their own writing.

We also need to acknowledge that students improve slowly. No basketball player goes from a bench-warmer to Jordanesque in three months. Nor can we expect a clunky writer to guild New Yorker caliber sentences in the course of a semester.

At the same time, huge chunks of the skills that go into crafting effective sentences (or executing a perfect jumpshot) cannot be explicitly taught. It’s infeasible. There’s not enough time in a semester. Effective coaches and teachers are targeted in their instruction. They break it into small pieces that are easy to digest. With writing, students require exposure to good examples and plenty of time for imitation and trial and error. The same goes for basketball. You can learn so much just by spending an hour in an empty gym goofing around with your form or scrimmaging with good players and copying their moves.