Saturday, August 9, 2014

Grammar for More Powerful Writing? Absolutely!

I learned something new! Something that makes interesting writing, that I didn’t know the grammatical term for before, and that now that I can identify it, will enable me to help students find the pattern, practice it themselves, and intentionally integrate it into their own writing. Probably 2 out of 50 do it naturally, without thinking or knowing what it is they are doing. Now I can help those 2 do it more frequently and intentionally, and the rest of them begin to make their writing more lively and descriptive.

Yes, I have learned a lot from reading Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined, a book about teaching grammar and mechanics in the context of reading and writing. I’m excited about using writer’s notebooks and mentor texts more, and about trying wall-charts for rules and examples. And I’m really excited that I learned what an absolute phrase is and how it directs the reader’s attention, like a zoom lens, to important details that enliven the base sentence. 

Okay, forget the term absolute phrase if it freaks you out. (I completely understand--it freaked me out before this week.) Remember zoom lens.

Here’s the exercise Jeff Anderson does with his middle school students (80). Showing them a picture of a person on a bicycle, he writes the sentence, “The bicyclist raced.” Then he asks students to zoom into other nouns in the picture. They give him a list: legs, pedals, wheels, street, sweat, face, hands. Then he asks them to add an -ing verb (or verb phrase) after each one: wheels turning, street making a ribbon into the horizon, sweat dripping, face grimacing, hands gripping the handlebars. Finally he asks them to choose a couple of those phrases to add on to the base sentence--and they try adding them different places (I’ve bolded the added phrases): 
  • Legs pumping, sweat dripping, the bicyclist raced down the road.
  • The bicyclist raced down the road, legs pumping, sweat dripping.

Easy, huh?

Anderson uses a mentor text from Avi’s Crispin (p. 172): “‘And on my honor,’ Bear said, his voice booming, his arms spread wide.” 

So I went hunting for some examples in the fiction I’ve been reading this week:
  • “After working out, I knit, stitch by stitch, music on my headphones, rocking back and forth.” (Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson, p. 183)
  • “My mouth and tongue and belly have begun to plot against me. I doze off in my room and bam! I’m standing in front of the refrigerator, door open, hand reaching for the cream cheese.” (Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson, p. 183)
  • “They stepped into my tiny white room, / Grandpa looking terrified, / Grandma simmering with tears.” (Shark Girl, Kelly Bingham, p. 27)
  • “I wave back, and I watch that van / take Justin away, / the deck of cards, warm, still stacked in my palm.” (Shark Girl, Kelly Bingham, p. 76)
  • “For it is as if she were here with me for a moment, her calming hand resting lightly upon my shoulder.” (March, Geraldine Brooks, p. 4)
  • “His right hand was on my throat, his fingers--callused tradesman’s fingers--depressing the soft, small bones around my windpipe.” (March, Geraldine Brooks, p. 7)

I sort of get it with the zoom-lens idea, but for those of us grammar nerds who really want a more precise definition, Anderson says, “An absolute is a free modifier that is grammatically independent of the sentence and is set off by a comma(s). In the simplest terms, an absolute is a noun + an -ing verb” (79). Hah! “Grammatically independent of the sentence.” So there are some things that don’t fit neatly into a diagram but are still formal English! 

But there must be more complexity lurking in the undergrowth. That phrase “in the simplest terms” means it really isn’t this simple. If you were paying close attention to my examples above, you were already objecting that I was wandering from the pattern. Anderson gives the whole list for those who want to know (79):
  • Noun + an -ing, -ed, or -en verb (lip quivering, fist knotted, heart broken)
  • Noun + an adverb (head down, hat off)
  • Noun + an adjective (head sweaty, shirt white and crisp)
  • Noun + a preposition (pen in hand)
  • Preposition (usually with or like) + noun + any of the above variations (with hair standing up on the back of her neck)
  • Possessive pronoun + noun + any of the above variations (his knees drawn to his chest)

Finally, I tried making a few of my own:
  • Summer vacation mornings I soak in the quiet, gazing out the big front windows of the cabin, warm cup of coffee in hand, the sound of waves crashing on the beach below and cicadas singing in the trees around.
  • Brow furrowed, eyes squinted, I search the page for absolute phrases.
  • Suddenly, with thunder crashing and rain sheeting down, the storm is upon us.

Go ahead, look for a few zoom-in phrases in the book you’re reading. Call them “absolute phrases” if you dare. Then try your hand at a few. It’s not that I’ve never written one before, but now, when writing is seeming flat, I’ll have a trick up my sleeve for myself or for my students. And if you want even more writer’s tricks (aka grammar), read Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined

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