Grammar as Rhetoric

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One of the things I consistently tweak year-to-year is grammar instruction. I’ve tried a variety of textbooks and approaches, from traditional to progressive, from diagramming sentences to sentence combining.

Lately I’ve come to stress basic sentence patterns and options in phrase modifiers, especially prepositional phrases and verbals. Grammar instruction is often reductive; you end up constraining yourself to simple-stupid sentences to keep definitions and concepts understandable. I try, instead, to make grammar instruction expansive, showing students that there are options to make their sentences denser, richer, and more sophisticated. I try to show that once you understand the basic skeleton of a sentence, you can play around with different units of moving parts to control the sequence and emphasis of information.

Occasionally, I will take a model sentence from the literature we’re studying and use it to demonstrate how the writer uses grammar for rhetorical effect. Here’s an example of such a lecture that I put together from an excerpt of Katharina’s concluding speech in The Taming of the Shrew:

(Note: the sound is pretty quiet; you’ll need to turn up your speakers to hear me)

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