Me fail English? That's unpossible.
September 7, 2011 10:25 PM   Subscribe

So, this is a a little embarrassing. Apparently, I know nothing about the rules of grammar and English composition. Obviously, I have some of the basics of writing down (you can read this right?), but I don't know any of the terminology and nitty-gritty details about how sentences are constructed in English. I need help with resources to quickly catch me up to all the other kids in my Advanced Composition class.

So, I'm going back to school (previously) and am taking some community college courses to fill out my transfer requirements. Right now, I'm taking 'Advanced Composition' aka 'English 1C'. The problem is that I have no idea what the professor is talking about when he says "subordinate clause" or "resumptive modifier" or even "clause". I just never learned this stuff in school (or perhaps I forgot it) even though I was a whiz in all my writing classes, SAT's, etc.
We're using a book called 'Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace' and I can't get past the first few chapters because I don't understand sentences like:
"When a relative clause modifies a noun, the correct form is whom if you can delete the relative pronoun and still make sense..."
...because I don't know what "relative clause" and "relative pronoun" refer to.
So, long story even longer, what I need are some online resources or books that can give me a crash course in all this terminology because I have almost no knowledge of it beyond terms like "noun", "verb", "adjective", "adverb", etc.
(Also, why is it that my community college never has awesome paintball fights?)
posted by runcibleshaw to Education (28 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I would recommend the Oxford Guide to English Grammar.

In the alternative, just bookmark this for quick reference, and maybe spend an hour or so reading it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:34 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

A 'clause' is just a noun with a verb. It can be a very short sentence by itself, or a piece of a bigger sentence. But a 'resumptive modifier'? Dunno -- I'd have to look that one up.
posted by Rash at 10:40 PM on September 7, 2011

The most approachable grammar book I've read in the past few years is Karen Gordon's The Deluxe Transitive Vampire.

It might not be deep enough, but the Grammar Rock subset of Schoolhouse Rock! would give you a step beyond the basics in a memorable way. The Schoolhouse Rock Rocks! collection is a fine way to hear some of their best as done by mid-1990s rock and pop stars.
posted by Mad_Carew at 10:43 PM on September 7, 2011

Oh, and a bit of advice that makes sense whatever you're studying. "Look up any term you don't understand."
posted by Mad_Carew at 10:45 PM on September 7, 2011

Mad_Carew, the problem is that I'm having to look up these things piecemeal without any general understanding. I'm looking up things from class in one book, then looking up those things in another book and then looking up the definitions of the things in the second book online. By then I've forgotten what it was I was looking up in the first place.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:47 PM on September 7, 2011

A good study habit - Write the terms down in your notebook, then look 'em up. And write down a definition, in your own words.
posted by Rash at 10:59 PM on September 7, 2011

We just did this question a week ago.
posted by nicwolff at 11:01 PM on September 7, 2011

Oh good grief, I took four years of French and three years of Latin (foreign languages tend to make you learn formal native grammar for the sake of comparison) and majored in English and am a bit of a grammar geek and I'd still have to look up "resumptive modifier."

You are not the only person in your class struggling with jargon. I promise. Brush up on the basics, sure. Make yourself a cheat sheet of definitions for the second tier of often-used basics, sure.

But also raise your hand and tell the prof (nicely) that you're losing his larger point in all the jargon, and can he break it down a little more comprehensively? Seriously, don't be embarrassed. Were I there, I would speak up and do this even if I happened to know some of the arcane terms, just on principle.
posted by desuetude at 11:18 PM on September 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Hmm, that didn't come up when I searched for english grammar on the green. There are some useful links there, but his question has some fundamental differences from mine. He's a writer looking to brush up on the basics. I'm a student who needs a crash course in more advanced composition and its terminology. Many of the links and books mentioned in that thread are too basic. Still no help on what constitutes a "resumptive modifier" or "summative modifier".
posted by runcibleshaw at 11:19 PM on September 7, 2011

Desuetude, I'd love to but it would bring the entire class to a grinding halt while he explains every other word. I have some office time with him next week. We'll see...
posted by runcibleshaw at 11:27 PM on September 7, 2011

Seriously, ask your professor. I have no idea what a resumptive modifier is either. Using a lot of jargon like that seems like a weird way to teach a community college composition course, even an advanced one. Mention it to the professor and on your evaluation.

Also, you may not need to learn these terms. You don't have to know the names of grammatical terms if you have already internalized the grammatical principles behind them (i.e. if you can write good academic-ish English). So you might even want to wait until you get a paper back and see if you're actually doing anything wrong (if you're doing all right, you can just tune all that out, yay!).
posted by mskyle at 6:13 AM on September 8, 2011

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics and I had no idea what "resumptive modifier" meant.* This is not, like, basic tenth-grade English stuff that everyone should know. This is specialist terminology. I promise you are not the only person in the room who's confused if he's using terms like that without any sort of explanation or definition. Just raise your hand and ask what he means. (Hopefully some of the other confused people will be encouraged by your example and start asking questions too, and you won't have to be the only one all semester.)

But as far as reference books go, Grammar: A Student's Guide is the best one I know for terminology. It's obsessively cross-referenced, so the entry on "relative clause" will have pointers to "clause" and "pronoun" and "modifier" and all the other relevant concepts. Makes it easier to figure out how everything fits together and fill in the gaps in your understanding.

*After googling a bit, the basic idea seems to be: If you have a noun with a long unweidly modifier in the middle of a sentence, you can trim the modifier off and put it at the end of the sentence instead — and sometimes that will make things clearer.
i.e. "He gave a book with an ugly picture of a squid on the cover to me" can become "He gave a book to me — a book with an ugly picture of a squid on the cover."
I guess these are "resumptive" in the sense that you stop talking about the book, finish your sentence, and then "go back" and resume describing the book in more detail.

posted by nebulawindphone at 6:25 AM on September 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

The terms "resumptive modifier" and "summative modifier" were invented by the author of the book in question, Joseph M. Williams. The only Google books hits for them prior to the 1981 publication of the first edition Williams' book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace come from shorter articles by Williams himself (the first being a 1976 article in the bulletin of the Iowa Council of Teachers of English). In his own words, "I've invented
new terms and borrowed others to describe features of style that standard grammars leave
unnamed, features such as metadiscourse, resumptive modifier, summative modifier..."

So you're not going to find references or explanations of them in other grammar texts, basic or advanced, because they're basically Williams' pet terminology.
posted by drlith at 6:37 AM on September 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

This is a long way to go about it, but it worked for me: I learned more about English from taking Spanish and German than I ever did in English classes. Because you aren't expected to know anything about foreign languages, they start at the beginning.
posted by gjc at 6:58 AM on September 8, 2011

This sounds more like a case of "bad teacher" than "ignorant student." One thing I learned in school is that sometimes teachers just aren't right for you. I had to re-take my physics course from high school in college because the AP credits didn't transfer over, and even though I could do all the problem sets, I didn't understand a damn thing the professor said. I'd spend all lecture feeling totally lost, then go home and magically understand all the material in the homework.

Later on, I dropped a calc course after failing the first exam and feeling like I just couldn't understand the material because it was beyond me. Next semester I took it with a different teacher and wound up with the highest grade in the class.

Give some thought to dropping it and taking the same course with someone else.
posted by pjaust at 7:42 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the learning of much more about your native language, by learning another.

And agree with the Bad Teacher assessment -- mastering a lot of esoteric jargon isn't required, in order to write well.
posted by Rash at 8:04 AM on September 8, 2011

I've got an English degree and have worked as both a writing tutor and a copy editor. I also have no idea what a "resumptive modifier" is. Let me nth the sentiment that there is no way you're the only person in the room struggling with the jargon. Furthermore, if the teacher is using terms like that in lecture then he's obscuring his lessons behind a needless fog of technical terms and needs to be checked with a quickness. I'd warrant that if you raised your hand and ask that he slow down and unpack some of his terms, you won't be regarded as the subnormal who stalled out class but rather a hero who made an effort to make this class more beneficial for everyone.

As for learning the grammar itself, get this: last year my class on language instruction examined a number of studies which showed that trying to hammer grammar directly into one's brain isn't always successful - that indeed some classes which endured a hammering style of grammar instruction actually came out of those courses doing worse on their writing exams. There's an educational philosophy that believes grammar is best mastered through practice, until it becomes almost instinctive. Most native English speakers have the core rules of the language mastered but couldn't name a one of them.

Personally, my workaround for this difficulty of directly installing precisely recalled grammar rules into my brainmeats was to look up the language rules I was struggling with in the class's grammar guidebook and unpack them as if I were going to teach a 20-30 minute microlesson on that rule. By shifting the goal from mastering the rule myself to understanding the rule well enough to explain it to others, I was able to kind of trick my brain into retaining much more of that information than I believe it would have had I simply tried shoving the concepts in there directly.

Also, I highly recommend live-fire exercises. That is, as you're attempting to unpack a grammar concept, write a bunch of sentences that require its use - write them correctly and write them wrong. Rewrite other sentences (which can come from about anywhere) to incorporate that rule. Rewrite sentences that involve the rule in such a way that they don't need it anymore. Basically, hit it from all angles so you've got a sense of how the rule functions from every direction.

Good luck to you. I promise that this is something everyone struggles with. The English professors I have respected the most throughout my education are the ones that openly carry grammar guidebooks and use them because no one - no one - has this shit mastered and memorized 100% all of the time no matter what. Even professors who act like "summative modifier" is a term that everyone understands, I promise. Promisepromisepromise.
posted by EatTheWeak at 10:56 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

(also, when you raise your hand, I would encourage you to preface your comment with something along the lines of "I don't know if this is an issue for anyone else, but ..." and kind of make a soft-pedal invitation to the room to voice their concerns as well. Perhaps you'll be the lone voice of concern - which is fine - you paid for this class, you deserve its maximum benefit. But I'd not be surprised in the slightest if your comment triggered a flood of similar concerns or at least a strong grumble of agreement)
posted by EatTheWeak at 11:15 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in A Student's Introduction to English Grammar.
posted by crLLC at 11:30 AM on September 8, 2011

I've been publishing sicne 1973 and have no frigging clue what a resumptive modifier is. Nor do I care. Only pedants care about stuff like that. What I care about is writing clearly and well. To that end, let me recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk and White -- and, if you're like me and enjoy knowing your tools a little better, Fowler's Modern English Usage. I read the latter like a novel and absorb the information via osmosis. YMMV. Love the language -- eschew the jargon.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:05 PM on September 8, 2011

OK, I'm just going to add my voice to those telling you to ask your professor. Like others who have posted, I know a lot about grammar (many years of teaching it and an MA in linguistics) and I had to google "resumptive modifier". Seriously, lots of other people in your class are wondering too (and good teachers appreciate questions).

I just hope your community college's poor judgement in relation to paintball fights (or lack thereof) isn't reflected in the teachers they hire--teachers who expect their students to already know made-up terms like "resumptive modifier".*

*was that an example of a resumptive modifier? Damned if I know--ask your prof.
posted by Sing Fool Sing at 12:07 PM on September 8, 2011

When you have time with the professor, bring along some of your own work and ask him or her to point out clauses, independent clauses, dependent clauses and even resumptive modifiers in your own work.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 6:54 PM on September 8, 2011

I'm surprised OWL hasn't been mentioned. My go-to.
posted by at 8:36 PM on September 8, 2011

Desuetude, I'd love to but it would bring the entire class to a grinding halt while he explains every other word. I have some office time with him next week. We'll see...

Not to be totally snarky, but uh, good. Bring the class to a halt and get the guy to understand that he's gotta teach in English.

No, I know, it's easy to feel like a nag. I feel your pain. In team meetings, one of my colleagues and I take turns being the one to politely interrupt the IT folks to get them to define utterly un-intuitive acronyms and jargon.
posted by desuetude at 10:41 PM on September 8, 2011

Skimming this thread and learning that "resumptive modifier" is a term used only by Williams himself, I pulled my copy of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace off the shelf and looked up "resumptive modifier" in the index.

In my edition, it's discussed on p. 172:
Resumptive, Summative, and Free Modifiers

You've probably never hear [sic] of these terms before, but since mature writers often use these kinds of modifiers, we need terms to describe a sentence like the one that you are now reading, a sentence that I could have ended seven words ago, but that I extended to show how resumptive modifiers work.
He wrote that sentence using a resumptive modifier to illustrate what a resumptive modifier is.

He then goes through his sentence and shows the three things he did to make his resumptive modifier.

He's inventing terminology. His book, specifically, is the one that will explain what he means.

So I agree with those above who say there's no need to feel embarassed about not knowing what he means; unless you've read his book thoroughly and learned all these terms already, you won't know them.

On the other hand - they are there, in your book, explained, with examples.

Relative clauses (a much more common term) are discussed on pp 21-22 and 166-167; you can also find the term at Wikipedia.

... the problem is that I'm having to look up these things piecemeal without any general understanding. I'm looking up things from class in one book, then looking up those things in another book and then looking up the definitions of the things in the second book online. By then I've forgotten what it was I was looking up in the first place.

So you just need to take that final step: with all your definitions from all your different sources handy, go back to that original sentence (you left a bookmark in your book, right?) and try making sense of it, now that you've got your definitions at the ready. That should lead to more general understanding.
posted by kristi at 3:07 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

So apparently I was supposed to read that entire 'Style' book, which explained a few of the things I was unfamiliar with. Very interesting that it seems the author just straight up made up that term. I'm a little less concerned about understanding the terminology rather than the fact that I seem to be unlearning how to write. All the advice is appreciated. I'll drop an update after Tuesday.
posted by runcibleshaw at 9:52 PM on September 10, 2011

If it's any consolation, all our terms for talking about grammar and style were just straight made up by someone. That really shouldn't be cause for alarm.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:05 AM on September 12, 2011

Don't worry too much about English grammar. The thing so-called "bad English" is better than grammatical English(es). I always prefer the descriptive English than perscriptive English.
posted by sanskrtam at 4:17 AM on August 12, 2012

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