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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”

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Everything you Know about Subordination and Coordination is Wrong

When textbooks (and teachers) talk about the subordinating and coordinating conjunctions, they often do so in a way that inaccurately describes how English works and that confuses students. The problem stems from the way that textbooks read too deeply into the traditional names of these terms, and they muddle the crucial distinction between syntax and semantics.

Consider the way that these conjunctions are defined by two writing textbooks. Below I will summarize from Writing Worth Reading[1] and A Writer’s Reference[2]—whose definitions typify the genre. These textbooks list the conjunctions that belong to each category. The coordinating conjunctions include:

  • and
  • but
  • or
  • etc.

While the subordinating conjunctions include words like:

  • after
  • because
  • when
  • since
  • etc.

In addition to listing the members of each category, these textbooks define these conjunctions in terms of their rhetorical and semantic properties. Coordinating conjunctions are said to join two elements of equal “weight” or “importance,” while subordinating conjunctions join elements where one is more important or demands heavier emphasis, with the less important or less emphatic element following the subordinating conjunction. The discussion then jumps to giving students rhetorical advice on how to combine sentences and clauses using both types of conjunctions, in order to embellish the relative levels of “weight” or “importance” of the items being conjoined.

Before we continue, let’s consider what decades of linguistic research into the structure of English tells us about coordination and subordination. In most theories, a coordinating conjunction is said to conjoin two (or more) grammatical constituents at the same syntactic level. Usually the conjoined elements are words/phrases that are syntactically like. Any place where you can put a phrase of syntactic type X, you can place two conjoined phrases of type X.

With subordinating conjunctions, the conjunction joins just two clauses/phrases, and the subordinating conjunction puts the two on separate syntactic levels. Usually, the constituent that begins with the subordinating conjunction is said to adjoin to the edge of the independent clause.

Linguists have shown that subordination and coordination differ in a number of other ways, but I’ve covered some of the most crucial. Crucially, linguists do not assume that the names “coordination” and “subordination” have any special significance. Nor do they assume that the syntax of a coordinated or subordinated construction automatically influences the semantics. The relation is syntactic, though individual conjunctions of course differ in meanings.

The textbooks, however, read much deeper into the names that happen to be traditionally applied to these two types of conjunctions. At the same time, they take a generalization about the syntax of two types of conjunctions and assume that a property of the syntax somehow affects the meaning and rhetorical structure of the sentence. Below I will show that why their claim is empirically inaccurate:

The authors of Writing Worth Reading give the following example sentences to illustrate how main ideas should appear in the main clause and less important ideas should appear in the subordinate clause:

1. When I finally left the casino, I had lost my last dollar.

2. After I lost my last dollar, I left the casino (260).[3]

As I interpret these sentences, it does indeed seem like the ideas in the main clauses are being emphasized, but because of a different reason.

It has nothing to do with the syntactic relation of subordination or coordination, and everything to do with the linear order of the two clauses relative to one another. As Joseph Williams points out (in a discussion that has nothing to do with conjunctions), a heavier prosodic stress falls near the ends of sentences, which has a way of subtly emphasizing the endings.[4] We could think of this as the default prosody, all else being equal. Speakers tend to provide information that is new to the discourse at the ends, after familiar information.[5] Therefore, the novelty and unexpectedness of this information can impact the reader, often catching them off guard. And finally, information presented just before some sort of ending point (period, paragraph ending, etc.) will hit harder to the extent that it is the information that the reader is left dwelling on. Note that the prior patterns describe strong tendencies, rather than hard rules. This means that it is not always a reliable property of endings to be more emphatic or important. It does mean, however, that skilled writers can exploit this tendency—which we can think of as a default way of interpreting a sentence—for rhetorical purposes.

We can easily perform a test to prove that the relevant variable is what’s at the ending, rather than what is or isn’t in a subordinate clause. All we have to do is flip the order of the two clauses in #1 and #2 and read them again:

3. I had lost my last dollar, when I finally left the ca-SIN-o.

4. I left the casino, after I lost my last DOL-lar.[6]

As I read these two sentences, the more emphatic part is what comes at the end, rather than what’s in the main clause. Furthermore, this pattern has nothing to do with subordinating conjunctions. It manifests just the same when the two clauses are conjoined with “and.” To illustrate this, I have slightly reworded #3 and #4 to say essentially the same thing, but I have inserted “and” in place of the subordinating conjunction:

5. I had lost my last dollar, and I finally left the ca-SIN-o then.

6. I left the casino, and I had just lost my last DOL-lar.

As I read #5 and #6, the more emphatic part still comes at the end. And we can flip the order around but still leave out the subordinating conjunction:

7. I finally left the casino, and I had just lost my last DOL-lar.

8. I left the casino, and I lost my last DOL-lar.

Again, the more emphatic part comes at the end of both #7 and #8. The effect is subtle, but if people agree with my intuitions, then it strongly suggests that the linguistic distinction between subordinating and coordinating conjunctions is independent of any notion of relative “importance.”

Though I focus in this posting on subordination and coordination, I’m making a point that’s much more general: in textbooks and writing classes, many definitions of grammatical terminology are shaped more by tradition than by what contemporary linguistic research has discovered about how English works. As such, it’s no surprise when students zone out in the face of grammar instruction and come to see it as an illogical activity that depends more on the teacher’s authority than the reality of the language that they live and breath. And it will remain that way until our teaching of grammar becomes more informed by linguistic research.

Here’s an immodest question: do students even need to be taught about the distinction between coordination and subordination?

In some classrooms, it makes sense; in others, it doesn’t. It depends on the larger goals of your pedagogy.

Often, subordination and coordination are taught as part of a sentence-combining pedagogy, where they represent two of the options students can use to join short sentences together and effect a more sophisticated writing style.

In such pedagogy, students can often get by without being explicitly taught the needless complication of the subordination/coordination distinction. When I teach my students sentence-combining, for instance, I minimize focus on the coordination/subordination distinction (which is tough, given that every textbook finds it so important to dwell on). I present students with a representative list of conjunctions (both types), and encourage them to use a variety. In particular, I encourage students to select the conjunction that most precisely expresses the meaning relation between the clauses being joined. This pushes students beyond the kind of monotonous writing where sentences are lamely combined with “and” or “but,” if at all. As a natural consequence, students will be using both coordination and subordination, which adds syntactic variety to their writing.

Students might need to be taught the coordination/subordination distinction for a separate reason—fixing punctuation errors. Coordinating conjunctions and subordinating pattern differently in terms of comma usage, and if students have trouble with these punctuation patterns, they might benefit from being explicitly taught which conjunctions pattern which way.  But crucially, I teach this distinction as one that focuses on word order and comma usage rather than on semantics, and I caution students against reading too much into the names “subordination” and “coordination.”

How do you deal with the issues of subordination and coordination in your teaching? Send me a message. I’d like to hear what other teachers do.


[1] p. 256 – 261 & 489

[2] p. 116 – 120

[3] In each example, I have underlined the main clause, which the authors claim is more important.

[4] p. 122 – 124. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 6th ed.

[6] In each example, I have marked the heaviest prosodic stress in the entire sentence with capitals.