JISHOU, HUNAN — After three weeks of reading their diaries and other compositions, I’ve been able to identify some patterns in the written English of my freshmen.
They have not fully understood the need for commas, or have confused commas with periods. As a result, they start many sentences with conjunctions: “and,” “but” and “because” are the most frequent.
Some who have mastered the comma and proper conjunctions use create run-on sentences. To be fair, this habit is one shared by native English-speaking students, so I can’t criticize my ESL students too much.
There are sentence fragments – clauses with no verbs, for example. Sentences that abruptly change topic or subject midstream. There is occasional misuse of tenses, using past for present and present for past, and conjugations, using singular verbs for plural nouns, or vice versa.
One exercise in the freshman comp book is to rewrite incorrect sentences so that they obey all the basic rules of English grammar. These sentences are usually pretty mangled, and a good eye can reconstruct them pretty quickly.
Grading papers can be tedious at times, so I took a break to read the transcript of the debate between Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin. (Yeah, I know, I’m a geek.) Barely one-fourth of the way through, I came to a not-so-original conclusion.
Palin is either an ESL student herself, or she’s been moonlighting as an ESL textbook contributor.
Other observers have noted Palin’s halting syntax and sudden changes in subject midstream. It’s a trait she shares with our sitting president. Some have compared her speaking style to that of high school student running for class office. Using just the debate transcript, I found Palin has given me and other English language teachers a wealth of material to give our students to parse and correct. She commits practically every error my freshmen have in writing their sentences.
“And” by far is her favorite sentence starter. She loves “and” almost as much as “also.”
Here’s one of many sentences that start with “and.” Notice the abrupt change in subject, too, and the breathless run-on quality.
“And I’ve joined this team that is a team of mavericks with John McCain, also, with his track record of reform, where we’re known for putting partisan politics aside to just get the job done.”
There’s about three main ideas in that one sentence. (1) She has joined a team of mavericks. (How a team of mavericks could work together to anything done is beyond me.) (2) McCain has a track record of reform. (3) Like him, we’re known for putting partisan politics aside to get the job done.
Here’s another rambling sentence, referring to Sen. Barack Obama:
“In fact, 96 percent of his votes have been solely along party line, not having that proof for the American people to know that his commitment, too, is, you know, put the partisanship, put the special interests aside, and get down to getting business done for the people of America.”
So, class, let’s try to rewrite this sentence into something more grammatically correct.
“In fact, 96 percent of this votes have been solely along party lines. That record does not provide proof that he can put the partisanship, put the special interests aside, and get down to getting the people’s business done. The American people need that proof.”
[Palin uses, “you know,” in this sentence, a habit which, you know, is pretty high schoolish. Fortunately, her college communication instructors must have drummed that pattern out of her delivery. Her repetition of “put the,” on the other hand, uses a common rhetorical device. It’s too bad she didn’t learn more of those.]
Here’s one with the main idea dangling off the end of the sentence:
“Again, John McCain and I, that commitment that we have made, and we’re going to follow through on that, getting rid of that corruption.”
“Again, John McCain and I have made that commitment. We will get rid of that corruption, and we will follow through on that promise.” [Or you can chuck the “and” out and make three short emphatic sentences. Your call.]
Here’s one that loops back on itself:
“I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you.”
Grammar aside, this sentence is rhetorically pretty lame. It’s a wimpy, passive-voice attack on her opponent’s platform. Try this:
“You seem to espouse the redistribution of wealth. I take issue with that principle.”
Other long-winded run-ons:
“That doesn’t cost the government anything as opposed to Barack Obama’s plan to mandate health care coverage and have universal government run program and unless you’re pleased with the way the federal government has been running anything lately, I don’t think that it’s going to be real pleasing for Americans to consider health care being taken over by the feds.” [Phew!]
“And we’re building a nearly $40 billion natural gas pipeline which is North America’s largest and most you [new? — I’m using the CNN transcript.] expensive infrastructure project ever to flow those sources of energy into hungry markets.” [Like Japan’s]
Those I’ll leave to the reader as exercises.
How about two that mangle common English idioms, a very common ESL error?
“But here, again, there have — there have been so many changes in the conditions of our economy in just even these past weeks that there has been more and more revelation made aware now to Americans about the corruption and the greed on Wall Street.” [more and more revelation made aware to?]
“We need to look back, even two years ago, and we need to be appreciative of John McCain’s call for reform with Fannie Mae, with Freddie Mac, with the mortgage-lenders, too, who were starting to really kind of rear that head of abuse.” [starting to really kind of rear that head of abuse? — sorta?]
A rhetorical question that makes no sense:
“What I want to argue about is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?” [The impacts — I hate that word — are the effects. So, “how are we going to affect the effects?” Wha? A good SAT vocab word to use might be “ameliorate,” although the Palins might be holding that in reserve for Bristol’s baby if it’s a girl.]
Start a sentence with “but” and then conclude with utter confusion:
“But in that tolerance also, no one would ever propose, not in a McCain-Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital or contracts being signed, negotiated between parties.” [How can tolerance prohibit anything?]
“But I will tell Americans straight up that I don’t support defining marriage as anything but between one man and one woman, and I think through nuances we can go round and round about what that actually means.” [How can the stipulation, “one man and one woman,” have any nuance? Seems pretty clear-cut to me.]
She followed that puzzler with something that almost approached clarity, but obscured her main point with excess verbiage:
“But I’m being as straight up with Americans as I can in my non- support for anything but a traditional definition of marriage.” [Yeah, that’s straight up, with a double negative, and a twist. Why not just be really succinct: “I support only the idea that marriage is between one man and one woman?”]
I’ll end with two statements about education. The first one I missed entirely while listening to the debate, and I now wonder why Biden didn’t jump across the stage and strangle her. It’s ungrammatical, but primarily it’s astonishingly insensitive.
“I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and god bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right?” [Biden’s wife died in a car accident. Biden refers to the accident later in the debate, and Palin completely dissed him by ignoring it in her follow-up remarks.]
The second convolution:
“My kids as public school participants right now, it’s near and dear to my heart. I’m very, very concerned about where we’re going with education and we have got to ramp it up and put more attention in that arena.”
Do all “hockey moms” talk like this? Ice hockey is not that big in Kentuckiana (or Hunan), so I don’t really know. I do know many soccer moms, and they are pretty articulate. In fact, most of the “Joe Six-Packs” I know can string words together and usually make some sense (when they’re sober).
So how is it that Sarah Palin, who says she talks for these “real Americans,” can’t?