Then, we spend years -- even a lifetime, teaching a child proper grammar and syntax. Children struggle to memorize rules and exceptions. I'm sure we've all heard "i before e except after c" and the various other rhymes and acronyms that we're taught to memorize as children. Yet, many people never learn why. Writing becomes a daunting task -- am I supposed to use who or whom here? accept or except? Can I add an "s" to this word or do I need an "-es" or even an "-en?" We correct their sentences. This sentence is incorrect, but why? A child's favorite question is often "why?" Yet, we often dodge this question. Why?
It is estimated that William Shakespeare coined as many as 1700 words. Some of these words such as: laughable, compromise, monumental, puking, negotiate, and excitement, are still used today. Some of these words never gained traction, leaving his audience and the readers for centuries to come puzzled at his word choice. Similarly, John Milton coined as many as 630 words. Milton was more forgiving to his audience. He used compounding to form many of his 'original words' -- combining two or more words to form one. Milton famously added prefixes to pre-existing words, translated words to different parts of speech, and added new meaning to older words. Milton is credited with words such as pandemonium, unoriginal, space (as a part of 'outer space'), enjoyable, fragrance, and terrific (meaning terrifying rather than great or awesome).
While we may never know what Shakespeare or Milton meant by some of their creative creations, we can use logic and reasoning to understand the majority of the English language. We can study Latin and Greek to understand the vocabulary. We can dissect sentences to understand grammar and syntax. When students truly understand the parts of speech, the parts of a sentence, phrases and clauses, they are able to identify errors in their own writing. They aren't searching for errors. They are searching for meaning. Am I really saying what I want to say? Am I saying this in the best way possible? Is my message clear? What purpose does this word serve? Within a sentence, each word has a 'job.' It serves a specific purpose. If it doesn't have any value, then it may not be necessary.
Adjectives modify nouns. They don't simply describe nouns; they change them. A blue train is not the same as a green train. A tall train might be the same train as the blue train. However, unless we identify the train as both tall and blue then the true characteristics of the train is still unknown. An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb. Once again, we aren't describing anything. We are changing the meaning. We often see little value in the difference between "a, an or the." These aren't just articles. They are also adjectives. "A train" is not necessarily "the train."
In my classroom, these basic language arts concepts never disappear. We discuss the parts of speech, the parts of a sentence, phrases, and clauses every day. We diagram sentences using Michael Clay Thompson's Four Level Analysis. Eventually, students are no longer assigned formal four-level practice assignments. Instead, we look at the sentences and paragraphs in the books that we are reading. We look at it in our own writing too. We discuss how authors can manipulate language to change the pace, tone, and meaning of their texts. We discuss how we can do this as writers too. Students self-edit their work in purple pens. I give them the tools that they need to succeed and they do. I don't tell them that their sentences or paragraphs are 'wrong.' I sit with them to figure how we can make their writing stronger.