Splice me main clause, Mr Christian

I think there’s some grammar in there.

I generally avoid teaching grammar,1 which is, in my view, the domain of Chinese English teachers. I do occasionally deal with word formation to test and enhance the vocabulary of students, but I don’t have much to say about the rest. Syntax mostly gets dealt with in feedback on writing tasks, and phonology when students start referring to Scout Finch as Scott.

This year we have a departmental grammar initiative according to which we cover a different aspect of grammar with which students typically have problems. I’m dealing with comma splices, fused sentences, and sentence fragments

Comma splices are sentences which are ended with a comma instead of a full stop. Fused sentences are adjacent sentences which lack any mediating punctuation. Sentence fragments are standalone  phrases or subordinate clauses.2

I trawled the Internet for exercises in these things, but was dismayed to find that many of the exercises for comma splices were little more than a matter of replacing the comma with a full stop, and those for fused sentences were solved by adding a full stop in the right place. A few exercises were a little more sophisticated, requiring students to combine sentences with an appropriate conjunction. By and large, though, this wasn’t a matter of grammar, but, in fact, punctuation.

Punctuation is not part of grammar even if such marks have a system of use. Like writing with which it is associated, it is artificial and doesn’t affect how English grammar is described.

Where native speakers might butcher punctuation, this is not to say that their actual sentences are ungrammatical. The omission of the comma in the previous sentence doesn’t make it ungrammatical; nor does the omission of the full stop; nor the presence of a comma in place of the full stop. The presence or absence of such marks depends on the situation. In the sort of writing my pupils do for me, I insist on the conventions to be correctly applied whether the style of writing is formal or informal. If they were on some online forum, punctuating every sentence with commas, it is of no concern to me.3 In other words, what is appropriate in the context?

In the case of comma splices etc., has punctuation been mistaken for syntactic failings? Possibly not.

I recalled something I had read about the limited scope of use of Chinese words for “and”, and after a little investigation, I found that they can only be used to join NPs.4 Thus the comma splices which occur with depressing regularity in students’ writing may be a consequence of this. While it’s possible to say “The cat and the dog” in Chinese, it’s not possible to say “The cat saw the dog, and the postman saw the cat”. Many of my students would write

The cat saw the dog, the postman saw the cat.
The cat saw the dog. And the postman saw the cat.

The second sentence is probably more advanced than the first in that the student knows that there should be a conjunction there, but still doesn’t understand properly that the two clauses can be joined directly together.5

Thus this would appear to be a matter of syntax, namely the use of “and” in English.

Fused sentences, as described above, are actually quite rare in the writing of Chinese students, but they do write sentences which are fused in that two main verbs occur in the same clause. I ought to keep a running record of these things because I strongly suspect they are Chinglish. Some may be 的 or 得 constructions; quite a lot could probably be fixed with a relative pronoun. This, too, is a matter of syntax.

Sentence fragments, on the other hand, do seem to be a matter of punctuation, the worst of which is the all too frequent abuse of “because”. Where I can understand how differences in Chinese and English grammar can lead to errors in the use of “and”, I find the misuse of “because” puzzling.

There are differences in the use of “because” and 因为. For example, Chinese conjunctions are often in correlative constructions which sometimes spill over into English so that I get “Although…, but…” constructions following 虽然… 可是… constructions in Chinese. However, I can’t recall seeing “Because…, therefore…” (因为… 所以… in Chinese) in any piece of English writing. I wonder whether 因为… 所以… is more common than “[main clause], 因为…” in Chinese, and thus it’s a habit for Chinese students to treat “because” as the start of a new sentence in English regardless of its relationship to any adjacent clause; but I have no definitive explanation for this perpetual and plaguesome error.

Notes

  1. By “grammar” I mean the whole system and not just “syntax”.
  2. This may be true in some cases, where the clause appears to be a well-formed sentence in its own right. In other cases, the main clause is adjacent, but the wrong punctuation has been used.
  3. All right, it’d annoy me because it would be a display of ignorance and casual indifference.
  4. Words for “and” in Chinese are 和 (hé), 跟 (gēn; also a preposition), 同 (tóng; used in southern China), and 与 (traditional 與; yǔ; literary). I surmise that these were perhaps all prepositions, which would account for them being restricted to co-ordinating NPs.
  5. It’s also found quite often when “but” is used, and quite probably for the same reason.
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