Building Blocks of English: Part I

I used to start grammar lessons by asking students, "What’s the basic building block of English?"  After getting answers like "the alphabet" and "words," I quickly changed the question.  I was looking for someone to say, "The sentence is the basic building block of English," but I never did.

Anyway, whatever you consider the first component of English to be, my point is that the sentence that does the work of communicating for us.  The question I begin teaching grammar with now is, "What are the three components of an English sentence?"

After some brainstorming and shouting answers out loud, the class will finally pinpoint the first two elements–the subject and the verb.  Then it gets wild with guesses like "adjectives," "adverbs," and "pronouns," which continues even after I announce that the third element is not a part of speech.

So what is the third element comprising an English sentence?

You have to have a subject and verb, but they have to be used in a way that makes sense.  The final element is that–the grouping of words has to convey meaning.

Seems logical enough, right?  You can’t just put any old subject, say prison, with any old verb, say rains, and make a complete English sentence.  "The prison rains" doesn’t convey meaning.

To repeat, then, the three necessary elements of an English sentence are having a subject, having a verb, and having meaning (making sense).

From time to time, I’ll return to my Building Blocks of English series.  Next time I’ll discuss how to join and how to separate sentences correctly.

Why the Parentheses?

I came across this passage while reading the Los Angeles Times and became perplexed as to why the author (Ross Newhan) would use parentheses, to wit:

The [Tom] Seaver vineyard is among the smallest.  He is growing cabernet (sauvignon) grapes on 3-1/2 acres of his 115-acre maze of bush, trees and spectacular vistas.

Okay, I used the brackets around Tom to indicate I added that word to the original text, but the author used the parentheses around sauvignon all by his lonesome.  Why?  Does he think people will think cabernet franc.  If so, just use cabernet sauvignon without the parentheses.

Parentheses are used to de-emphasize words or phrases in the place of commas, which would be the normal un-de-emphasized usage.  Dash marks are used to emphasize the word or phrase in a sentence.  So why does Newham use a set of parens here? 

Clearly, you can’t use commas or dashes in this construction.  I think he meant brackets, but since he is the author, he couldn’t use brackets, and since the whole parentheses thing doesn’t make sense, oh, well, forget it.  (Thank you, [tag]Alton Brown[/tag] for that profundity.  Parentheses used correctly here.)

It’s a mystery and a misuse. And on top of that, the damn grape names need to be capitalized–Cabernet Sauvignon (why did I follow his misuse of the names?)!

Cures for Writer’s Block

Sometimes we sit down at the computer, or take pen and paper in hand, and we hit the proverbial block wall mentally.  We just can’t write.

In a previous post on five tips for “perfect” English, I mentioned that [tag]writer’s block[/tag] often originates in our minds as we seek perfection on the first go-round.  Just relaxing and lowering your standards will often cure writer’s block.

However, there are other techniques, and I found this site on “Overcoming Writer’s Block” to help you.

Spot On: Derivation Please

Now, here’s a term I never use and seldom hear:  spot on.

As for definition, it means "extremely accurate or descriptive."  That much I can find in something called the Kernerman Multilingual English Dictionary, whatever that is.

However, the dictionary gives no origin for the phrase.  Sounds British to me.  Can anyone clarify?

Five Tips on Writing Perfect English

First of all, you can’t write [tag]perfect English[/tag], so my first tip is don’t try to write perfect English.  Try to write perfectly clear English instead.

So let’s look at my five tips, starting with the one I just mentioned:

  1. Don’t try to be perfect, cute, profound or anything else.  Just try to be clear and simple.  Sometimes just being simple will ensure clarity.
  2. Find someone who writes the way you’d like to write and copy that person.  I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who quipped that anyone can plagiarize, but it takes a genius to copy.  So be a genius and copy what works.
  3. Lower your expectations to the point where they don’t even exist.  Another sage said (and I paraphrase), "There’s nothing you can’t achieve in writing if you just lower your standards low enough."  In other words, turn off the inner critic that makes you think you have to perfect everything the first time you write it.
  4. Write it, leave it, and don’t come back to it for a couple of days.  With a fresh set of eyes and a brain that’s no longer thinking Gollum-like things of your first draft–"My precious!  My precious is perfect!"–you can then tear apart your first draft and dramatically improve it.
  5. If all else fails, drink a couple of martinis, beers or glasses of wine.  Maybe that’ll lower your standards enough that you can write without trying to be perfect.  If not, maybe it’ll loosen your tongue enough that you can meet someone interesting and commence a whole new journey in your life.  I call that win-win.