The English Building Block Most Kids Are Missing

English Building Block Most Kids Are MissingWhen you’re trying to teach kids higher English skills, it can be really frustrating when they are fundamental skills they simply don’t have. In my experience, the English building block most kids are missing is an understanding of clauses.

The Clause: English Building Block & Gamechanger

Defining Characteristics of Clauses

Since this is a blog for writers, I’m assuming that most of you already know what clauses are (English-wise). On the off chance that you don’t, however, here’s a brief description of the most important distinctions:

  • A clause must always have both a subject and a verb.
    • Independent Clause = a complete thought that can stand on its own
    • Dependent Clause = an independent clause with an added word in front of it

Yes, a dependent clause is an incomplete thought, but recognizing the conjunction or adverb that turns the independent clause into a dependent clause is really useful. See, students can’t always tell when something is an incomplete thought. They can, however, tell when the word “because” is in front of a subject and verb (more often, anyway).

Here’s an example:

  • Independent Clause (IC): He traveled forty-five miles in the driving rain.
  • Dependent Clause (DC): After he traveled forty-five miles in the driving rain.

The first one is a whole sentence. The second one is a fragment until or unless an independent clause is added to the end of it.

After he traveled forty-five miles in the driving rain (DC), he decided to not even try to drive the rest of the way that night (IC).

Why Is Knowing Clauses Important?

Some people will tell you that knowing clauses is important because it helps you to recognize the different types of sentence structures. While that’s true (the sentence structures are defined by the number and types of clauses in the sentence), naming the type of sentence structure isn’t particularly useful unless you’re going to be teacher English Language Arts or making your career in linguistics.

In which case, I sincerely hope that you don’t struggle with identifying clauses.

The reason I want all my students to be able to write and recognize clauses is that you cannot know punctuation rules well without them. You can’t. Where commas go, where semicolons are needed, where colons can be used – all these rules rely on whether something is a clause or a phrase, what type of clause it is, and where the clause/phrase is in the sentence.

Without understanding those punctuation rules, students are effectively left guessing or following rules given to them in lower grades that are only true sometimes.

For example, in younger grades, students are often told to put a comma in front of “and.” That’s only true if the “and” is part of a list (if you were taught the Oxford comma), or there is an independent clause after “and.”

To prove my point, the punctuation in each of the following sentences is correct:

  • We went to the movie theatre, the ice cream parlor, and the book store.
  • The number of parties on campus are increasing and seem to be causing a drop in grades.
  • Tim and his friend went to the pet store, and they immediately left after catching a glimpse of the tarantula in the clerk’s hand.

So… sometimes, the student would be right and other times, not. If the student’s teacher likes the Oxford comma, the student has a 2/3 chance of being right. If the student’s teacher hates the Oxford comma, the student has a 1/3 chance of being right.

The worst part of this is that the student has no idea why following this rule is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

This problem is most obvious when students are supposed to edit something. Anyone can (and will) make punctuation mistakes when writing. Students who don’t know these rules, however, have nothing to go on when looking for errors. They can’t find them because they don’t know where to put the commas, semicolons, or colons in the first place.

And, you know what? Those same rules can help the students understand reading passages better.

That’s why knowing clauses is important, and that’s why it’s so frustrating that most kids are missing this essential English building block. If we want kids to be able to write and punctuate effectively, we need to figure out how to fix this.

Any ideas?


Up With Which I Will Not Put: Not a Winston Churchill Quote

Nope. “This is just the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put,” is not a Winston Churchill quote according to quote investigator. We have been mislead yet again by the internet (well, it actually started with newspapers and such).

On the other hand, it’s an excellent example of why I’m not a big fan of trying to make English conform to Latin rules (AKA avoid ending with a preposition). It really shows how horribly awkward sentences can get when you try to use a common phrase (“put up with”) without ending with a preposition.

Sooo awkard…

What I like best about this quote, however, is how it shows the humor long associated with this debate. And, really, read the quote investigator article for quite a few variations on the story, its set up, and how newspaper men apparently didn’t get it (because they ruined the punchline).

All that aside, it might also remind you of some traditional blonde jokes and various other forms of a tongue-in-cheek protest of this Latin rule.

The older form (including the “up with which I will not put” story) goes like this:
  1. A job or work context is given, and within that, someone (usually in management) sends out a message that ends with a preposition.
  2. A reply to that statement mocks its lack of grammatical correctness.
  3. The original speaker replies to the insult with a sentence that deliberately avoids using the preposition at the end and results in an overly elaborate and, therefore, humorous response (Oh, the irony!).

This is the format of the Winston Churchill story (which is apparently false), several versions set in the military, and more.

The new form varies in the aggressiveness of the response:
  1. A person asks a stranger a question that ends in a preposition (usually something along the lines of “Where are you from?”).
  2. Instead of answering the question directly, the stranger scornfully scoffs at the use of a preposition at the end of the sentence.
  3. The original person re-asks the question and uses direct address with an insult (usually a curse word) to keep the preposition from being at the end of the sentence (“Where are you from, b*%$?”).

Did you realize what that means?

There are actually traditional forms of jokes about this preposition rule. Multiple ones!

Now, that’s funny.

Of course, so is “up with which I will not put.” Even if Winston Churchill didn’t say it.


Learning Direct and Indirect Objects from If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

If you haven’t read, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, I highly recommend it – it’s a great children’s book. It’s also a useful tool to begin learning direct and indirect objects.

How to Use Direct Objects and Indirect Objects

First, I’d like to break down an action into two parts: cause and effect. The cause would be the subject (the one doing or starting the action), and the effect would be the object (the one that feels the result of the action).

Direct Object

A direct object is the thing or person that the verb controls. Depending on the verb, the direct object could be moved, struck, passed, lifted, etc. The action is happening to that object (but it will NEVER be directly after the word “to”!).

“If you give a mouse a cookie…”

You (subject) are giving (verb) the mouse a cookie. The cookie is being given, so “cookie” is the direct object.

Indirect Object

The indirect object is the thing or person that receives the direct object.

“If you give a mouse a cookie…”

You’re giving the cookie (direct object) to the mouse, so “mouse” is the indirect object.

Notice that you can reword the indirect object by moving it after the direct object and putting “to” in front of it. For example, “If you give a cookie to a mouse…”

Since this works without changing the meaning, we know that we have identified the correct indirect object*.

Why This Book?

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is the type of book that follows a pattern. That means that the sentences on each page are fairly similar. Most of the pages involve statements where very little changes except the direct object. That makes identifying the direct object simpler when starting out, so it’s a good way to start learning to recognize them in sentences.

Make sense?

*Once “to” is in front of “a mouse,” “mouse” becomes the object of the preposition and is no longer an indirect object (technically).


How to Recognize Logical Fallacies by Type

How to Recognize Logical Fallacies by TypeWith all the ridiculous reasoning being thrown around the news, internet, and more, I’m constantly reminded that people don’t recognize logical fallacies. With each reminder, I’d start thinking, maybe, if more people knew how to recognize logical fallacies (& resist), there’d be less bad reasoning in the world.

So I thought I’d write an article about a handful of extremely important logical fallacies. I’ve done it before for work, so why not?

Then, I started researching (I didn’t want to miss a really important logical fallacy simply because I didn’t think of it right off the top of my head). And I found out that there are waaaay too many logical fallacies for me to try to cover in an article! Seriously. I wrote down 104 that I might want to cover (not including duplicates with different names), and I skipped quite a few from each site I looked at (such as “The Master List of Logical Fallacies,” “The Skeptics Guide to Logical Fallacies,” “The Logical Fallacies Handlist,” and even the Purdue OWL article on Logical Fallacies).

The more I read, the more I started to see patterns – links between different logic errors. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe instead of encouraging people to memorize or even learn to recognize ALL logical fallacies (or even the main ones), what if I talked about those commonalties. Seeing the underlying motives of the fallacies might be just as helpful as being able to call out each error by name.

Plus, it could be useful for characterization and plotting, so win-win, right?

Recognize Logical Fallacies by What They Do

After looking at a lot of logic errors back-to-back, it seems like they all have one of two purposes: to distract from the facts or cause commotions with your emotions (or both).

Distraction & Redirection

When a magician doesn’t want you to see his trick, he directs your focus elsewhere. These logic problems do the same thing – they move your attention away from the facts that might make you disagree. They can do this by subtly switching the topic, distracting you with emotion, skipping a step (or 3), or playing with words.

Topic Changes You Never Even Notice

There are a lot of logical fallacies that allow people to change the topic while pretending that they’re not changing the topic. Yeah. It’s really infuriating if you catch them at it, but, unfortunately, it happens all the time.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Red Herring: responding with a fact that seems important but isn’t really related to the argument
  • Straw Man: oversimplifying the opponent’s argument to defeat it makes you seem like you’ve won, but you weren’t actually defeating their argument – you were defeating the oversimplified version.
  • Faulty Analogy: a good analogy helps explain something. A faulty analogy works about the same way as a Straw Man argument because it makes you think you’re arguing against one thing when really you’re arguing against something else.
  • Overgeneralization: Like the others, this statement can be true, but it’s usually too general to justify making a decision based off of it or to defeat the opposition. Since it is true, however, sometimes it’s seen as a winning statement regardless of those other pesky details (*sigh*). Interestingly, it’s also known as a cognitive distortion (thinking errors that can effect your world view and emotional health).
  • Calling “Cards”: this is like saying that someone is playing the “race card” or “gender card,” which suddenly changes the argument to whether the person is pretending there’s an issue to get his/her way rather than the argument of the issue itself.

There are many, many more. To catch them, though, pay attention to whether the statement is actually 100% relevant to the argument or has the strength to prove the point. Looking for examples where the argument isn’t true or scale differences (like 1 side arguing that disabled vets should have ways to get help through government aid, and the other side arguing that people should work for a living – the second side is arguing a much larger scale, so it’s not directly arguing against the specific situation).

Making It a Personal or Emotional Issue

Yes, this could fall under the “playing with your emotions group”; however, there are times when the subject is changed through an unrelated point that pulls on people’s heart strings enough that it feels both related and significant.

  • Patriotic Ad Populem: linking an action with patriotism or being against patriotism when patriotic feeling is not actually part of the equation
  • Ad Hominem: attacking the person instead of the topic (and suddenly they’re trying to defend themselves instead of their position)
  • Appeal to Tradition: although “It worked before,” doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better way, it can feel like it does. In reality, the argument about whether it worked before is a different argument than whether there is a better way for the future.
  • Measurability: This changes the topic of the argument by saying that something isn’t measurable; therefore, it is not important (which is not grounded in fact but emotion).
  • Tone Policing: “You’re being emotional.” Yes, and? That doesn’t devalue the points the person has made. It’s also not always/often true.

These are particularly hard to counter because they can feel important even though they’re not motivated by logic.

Skip That

Skipping facts that argue against you, jumping straight to say a conclusion when you don’t have the facts to back it up, etc. If you’re not paying close attention or don’t know a topic very well, it can be really easy to miss the fact that someone glossed over a few steps to make an argument.

Sometimes, people think the step is so obvious that they don’t have to say it (but they really do need to). Other times, people drop the facts on purpose.

Doubletalk and Trickery

Then, there’s when people play with the words and the word meaning to confuse the issue and trick people into believing something. This is stereotypically thought of with lawyers and politicians, yet anyone can use it.

  • Equivocation: using a different definition of a word than the other person did to make the original argument seem flawed
  • Loaded Question: closely related to passive aggressiveness, this asks a person a seemingly-simple question that assumes something negative about them. Like, “Have you stopped drinking too much?”
  • Circular Reasoning: when the support for your argument is really the same as the argument – it just uses different words. Some people do this and don’t even know, especially school kids. “Drugs are bad because illegal substances have negative effects,” is basically saying the same thing twice. There’s no support.
  • Passive Voice Fallacy: using passive voice to shift attention. Like talking about “the book was stolen” rather than “he stole the book.” One shifts the attention to the theft, the other to the thief (also associated with victim shaming).
  • Moving the Goalpost: “I’ll admit your product is better if it can do x.” The product does x. “Oh, well, it really needs to do y to be better.”

These tactics bother me more than many because they feel more deliberate – let’s be sneaky and change the topic with my language skills because I know I can’t defeat your points. It’s also the annoying habit of some of my teenage students, so that could be part of my dislike, as well.

Playing with Your Emotions

In addition to the distraction tactic above that tugs on your heart strings, there are plenty of logical fallacies that use emotional appeals to try to override facts and logic. The most common reasons are to alarm, excuse an action, or rile the emotions so much that reason is virtually impossible.

Scare Tactics

Yes, “scare tactics” is a specific fallacy. At the same time, it’s a really good way to describe this general tactic of alarming people into belief.

Here are some other examples:

  • Slippery Slope: a small negative act will soon and inevitably lead to a much worse, end-of-the-world-as-you-know-it type action
  • Misleading Statistic: this has a bit of distraction in it – it’s using a statistic to scare someone through their ignorance or lack of context (Over half of the people in this study died within weeks! Granted, there were only three people…)
  • Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire.
  • Argument ad baculum: using a threat of force to get your way (like threatening to fire someone if they don’t do x, y, or z unreasonable demand)

Unfortunately, scaring people into belief works. Equally unfortunately, people either don’t feel there’s anything wrong with using these or don’t recognize them as incorrect (because they get forwarded around the internet a lot).

Excuses, Excuses

You know how kids always have excuses for their behavior even when they know (or knew to start with) that the behavior is wrong? Yeah. Apparently, people don’t really grow out of this. They just find new, more socially acceptable ways to try to falsely justify their behavior.

  • Appeal to Heaven: “It’s God’s will.” (Always followed in my mind with “He told me so. Yesterday. At lunch.”)
  • Appeal to Nature: “It’s unnatural.”
  • Default Bias: we can’t change anything, so there’s no reason to try.
  • Fundamental Attribution Error: “It’s ok when I don’t do the chores because I’m tired, but when you don’t do them, you’re just being lazy” (also known as hypocrisy).
  • Moral Licensing: “It’s ok to do this bad thing because I did a good thing earlier.”
  • Moral Superiority: “He deserved it.” OR “She deserved it.”
  • Appeal to Privacy: “what I do in private is my business” (even if it involves, say, murder).
  • Sending the Wrong Message: “We can’t do that because it would send the wrong message to ____.”
  • Silent Majority Fallacy: a lot of people agree with me even if they don’t say so (and they don’t)
  • Venting/Locker-Room Talk: “He didn’t really mean it. It was just locker-room talk.”
  • Diminished Responsibility: “I was really tired, or I wouldn’t have done it.”

Yep. Lots and lots of excuses that don’t actually justify the behavior at all. Beware these errors!

Trigger Words

I know that people have heard a lot about trigger words and safe environments lately (a discussion that’s sadly included too many logically fallacies), so let me clarify what I mean when I use “trigger words.” Basically, I’m talking about words that bring on such a strong emotional response for a group or individual that emotion overrides logic, and any chance of debating a topic with reason is lost.

Do you have any friends that become completely irrational when a certain word or phrase is brought up? For example, maybe, an ex-girlfriend’s name makes Leroy so angry that he can’t stand to hear about any possible reasons behind her behavior (let alone any possibility that he shared any of the blame).

That’s a trigger. Here’s some ways they’re used:

All these amount to is knowing how to push someone’s buttons at the right moment (which, honestly, counts as a different kind of distraction IMHO).

Long story short? Watch out for emotional appeals and logic gaps or tangents. That’s what most logical fallacies are trying to do. 

Is it really that simple? No. Probably not. But if you keep in mind that it isn’t really that simple, the two tactics may work out. As far as I’m concerned, recognizing more logical fallacies is a good thing. Falling for fewer of them is even better.

Any questions?