181 - Grammar School

I was asked recently for the difference between a compound sentence and a complex one. You what?

There are fundamentally four types of sentence:

A simple sentence has a single independent clause.

Fred is wet. This is a sentence. This is a sentence in plain English. Go.

A compound sentence has at least two independent clauses. An independent clause can stand on its own as a sentence (because it is independent, so parts of the sentence are joined with conjunctions (probably ‘and’) or punctuation (dash, colon, etc) or even both. In some guides, the conjunction must be preceded by a punctuation mark, from the comma to a full colon. He is quick and athletic is not compound; He is quick and he is athletic, is. He is a good runner but he prefers to cycle. If you’d quite like these last two to read He is quick, and he is athletic, is. He is a good runner, but he prefers to cycle, then I think you’ve found a sufficient test for compound sentences. I disagree, but that is an issue of style; the test ought to be that if you took out the connecting conjunction (with or without its accompanying comma), would the two clauses stand independently as sentences? I say that is not difficult to see.

This sentence is typed and it is also written on English.

Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. (Joseph Heller, 1923-1999)

A complex sentence has one or more dependent clauses and an independent clause.

There used to be a real me, but I had it surgically removed. (Peter Sellers, 1925-1980)

This sentence is in English but that doesn’t make it interesting.

A compound-complex sentence must have two independent clauses and a dependent clause.

This sentence is in English—it is even spelled correctly— but that still doesn’t make it interesting.

So what is a clause? The definition says it is the smallest grammatical unit expressing a complete proposition. A clause has a subject and predicate, where the predicate is typically a verb phrase.

If interested, I refer you to Grammarpedia.

I looked at the use of grammar in writing algebra:

A simple sentence x=4. Subject x, predicate =4, verb = object 4.

Let x = 4 or when x=4 this is the first conditional, the particular case when x=4. Yet these behave as subordinate clauses to whatever follows, very much like an IF statement. If x=4, then works just as well. the clause is clearly dependent. English grammar content then worries about how real the situation is, where an unreal conditional is hypothetical. It is difficult to distinguish this in a maths model, since the model itself is in a sense hypothetical; from the mathematician’s point of view these are statements of reality as within the model. The then statement in if <this condition> then <that statement> else <this other> is considered to be the main clause and the else part is still dependent on the opposite state of the if condition.

There are two ways of describing structure, of constituency and dependency

(image from wikipedia). NP=noun phrase, VP = verb phrase, D is article, A adjective. the dependency relation is clearly not phrase related and avoids study of phrase structure. Other grammars include construction grammar and cognitive grammar; both of these avoid the above distinctions. See wikipedia, please.

We don’t teach grammar much any more and there is a push to reintroduce this into UK schools. My generation in Britain studied this a little, but as little as ten years later this was discarded as irrelevant in a drive to communicate more freely, to remove impediments to communication. Thus teachers 10-20 years younger than myself can’t spell reliably, much as current students just don’t do writing and reading outside of exam demands. And it is likely that as a work-skill, typing is far more a useful skill than hand-writing. Indeed, my own education was at the end of that era that taught hand-writing specifically (italics as a font style? not kidding). It is all part and parcel of education becoming a political football—”Look folks, we did something!”. The problem with this is that everyone had an education and they think this informs them in deciding what everyone else should have; worse, it is hard to argue well against this.

I found, in searching in my usual slapdash way, that the language of grammar in computing differs rather more than I expected from the same subject within language. That suggests that neither has understood grammar; in my view grammar should explain language construction. This is the same as the difference between following and leading—should grammar explain how you used (have been using) the language or should it explain how language in general is formed? I suggest the latter: the fine differences in meaning from different placement of words makes a deal of difference in English, and while I am interested in how some languages can’t do some of the things English can, there is equally an argument for understanding a minimum for comprehension. Then we might move language towards having precision when used.

The question remains, why teach grammar at all? I would argue that it makes understanding a second and subsequent language (apparently also called a second language, a numeracy problem). I found myself that the noun cases in Latin explained some of the strange things that happened in French and I became aware of these forms in English, but no-one attempted to explain how English behaved in the same vocabulary as the Latin required. Sentence analysis in English has interested me in the past, but for no other reason than that such analysis exists. It has had no use in changing the way I use language and I don’t see as helpful having a load of words to describe errors made by others. Bad enough to identify the errors in thinking: I’d far rather we reduced that deceit (which to me is what it is). Yet it may be that until we teach the terminology no (national, not individual) improvement is possible.

DJS 20151213

top pic of Plymouth College.

If you’re unfamiliar with this topic, I suggest you go to Grammarpedia. Its author is Tonya Stebbins of Monash University, Melbourne. You may find your version of English differs slightly.

Quotes in brown above are from herehttp://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/compound_sentence.htm

Sites visited.








A full colon: too much good eating and not enough time out.

Punctuation escalation    , ; : .  Comma, semicolon, colon, fullstop. We use dashes similarly for interjections and there are different length dashes, written about earlier by me, endash -, emdash —, where the convention is that an endash is surrounded by space and an emdash is not, but many guides will tell you that the endash should only be used for hyphenation, in which case you will want to know about hard and soft hyphens—the soft ones only show up if a line end occurs. Which is a complex-compound sentence of some length. We also use brackets for interjections within sentences and you might have preferences when to choose between brackets and (em) dashes. I’ve written these as single contracted words  above, though they may be written with and without their own dashes, e.g. en-dash, em dash. Ell, en and em are the three recognised lengths (widths, perhaps) of letters, where we might, these days, count pixels. One em is 16 points in a 16-point typeface, i.e. the width is the same as the height of the font. In practice this has meant that for many the em is now (only) the vertical size of a font. An en character is half of this width; an ell is even smaller. If you’re interested in this don’t look only at wikipedia, look also at sites such as this one, which fills out the topic a good deal. An ell is also a bigger unit, much the same as a cubit. Vertically, one refers to the ex-height. Letter spacing and word spacing leads you to looking at kerning, variability int eh spacing between particular letters (how would you like VA spaced? {VA VA VA VA}

I looked at characters in unicode: i and l tend to be a single unit stroke width plus a similar amount of space either side; an n is 4.5 such units wide plus outside space, but f, j, t and r tend to be narrower, 3.5 units wide. I don’t think I found the right terminology, but not for want of trying. On my first Mac I could go count pixels in characters. Obviously the pixel count varies with font size, but the relative width should surely be accessible.



© David Scoins 2017