Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

Resources for a Lesson Plan on Tautologies and Circular Reasoning

January 9, 2015

A tautology is a grammatical construct; circular reasoning is a logical fallacy. The two phenomena are related but not identical.

A tautology is a sentence in which the conclusion is equivalent to its premise. In other words, in a tautology, the predicate can be surmised by reading the subject.

Here are some examples of tautologies:

My mother’s brother is my uncle.

Father Brown is a priest.

It is what it is.

A circular argument occurs when someone affirms her position simply by restating it in different terms. In other words, circular reasoning is an argument where the conclusion depends upon or is equivalent to its premise.

In a circular argument:

X is true because of Y.


Y is true because of X.

A circular argument is similar in structure to a tautology, but a circular argument includes causal reasoning (because, therefore, for this reason, etc.).

Here are some examples of circular reasoning:

My mom is terrific because she is wonderful.

People do what Dave tells; therefore, he is a great leader.

I slumbered beyond my assigned wakeup time; that’s why I overslept.

Lesson Evaluation: Explain why the following examples are tautologies, circular arguments, or neither.

Chris Rock is a hilarious comedian because he makes people laugh.

A bartender is a guy who listens to people talk all day.

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Anthony is extremely strong due to his ability to bench press three hundred pounds.

If aliens didn’t create the pyramids then how come pyramids are the product of technology that didn’t exist on earth at that time?

Allen hasn’t had a drink in twenty-three years, but he isn’t really sober because he doesn’t go to AA meetings and he isn’t working the steps.

A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

They are who we thought they were.

If I could tell you, I would let you know.

I stopped eating meat in 1987; that’s what makes me a vegetarian.

by Richard W. Bray

Discovering and Correcting Un-doable Subject-Verb Combinations

December 4, 2014

aaaaaaaa subject verb

These new disposable diapers work hard to keep babies dry.

I call sentences like the one above undoables. Undoables contain a subject which is incapable of performing its assigned action.

I tell my students to correct undoables by picturing the subject executing the action: Can you imagine a disposable diaper working hard?

Each sentence in the following paragraph contains an undoable. See if your students can spot them and explain why they are un-doable.

       One concern that restaurants bring up is the issue of hygiene. Cleaning products take steps to improve cleanliness. However, halfhearted activities will not prevail. Furthermore, the way that many restaurants are maintained does not keep in mind adequate procedures for maintaining a germ-free environment. Many restaurants claim to be clean, but how can we be sure this is true? Our current situation is wreaking havoc on the intestines of restaurant customers. Unhealthy food should force restaurants to have higher standards. Therefore, strict policies must win the battle of the dirty kitchen. That’s why new laws should enforce minimum standards of restaurant cleanliness. Only then will America’s stomachs earn a respite from unhealthy bacteria.

by Richard W. Bray

Don’t Send a Conjunctive Adverb To Do a FANBOYS’ Job

September 5, 2014


I am begging you, in the name of all that is good and beautiful in this world, don’t send a conjunctive adverb to do a FANBOYS’ job.

A clause is a group of words which contains a subject and a predicate. In other words, a clause can function as a simple sentence all by itself. A simple sentence, as I told you before, is a group of words that tells us what someone or something is or a group of words that tells us what someone or something does. Here are two simple sentences (clauses):

I would love to give you a ride to Phoenix.

My car just had a nervous breakdown.

You might choose to join these clauses together in one complex sentence using the subordinator although:

I would love to give you a ride to Phoenix, my car just had a nervous breakdown.

You could also join them together using the word but, which is one of the FANBOYS:

I would love to give you a ride to Phoenix, but my car just had a nervous breakdown.

Another strategy for emphasizing the connection between these two clauses is to use a conjunctive adverb. The following words are conjunctive adverbs: accordingly, also, besides, consequently, conversely, finally, furthermore, hence, however, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, next, nonetheless, otherwise, similarly, still, subsequently, then, therefore, and thus.

However, you must separate the two clauses utilizing a period or a semicolon. Then place the conjunctive adverb at the beginning of the second clause. Most conjunctive adverbs should be followed by a comma when they are placed at the beginning of a clause (but not then). (Don’t capitalize the conjunctive adverb if you choose to use a semicolon.) Here are some examples:

I would love to give you a ride to Phoenix; however, my car just had a nervous breakdown.

I would love to give you a ride to Phoenix. However, my car just had a nervous breakdown.

One reason this can be confusing is that many conjunctive adverbs can be placed at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence, punctuated like the following examples:

However, we did not see any more yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

We did not, however, see any more yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

We did not see any more yellow-bellied sapsuckers, however.

Indeed, Donatello is the most valiant of all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Donatello is, indeed, the most valiant of all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Donatello is the most valiant of all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, indeed.

What you must not do under any circumstances is connect two clauses together with a comma and a conjunctive adverb as though that conjunctive adverb were merely one of those common FANBOYS. (Conjunctive adverbs deserve more respect than that.)

If you are still confused, try this. First, memorize the above list of conjunctive adverbs. (Or, if that seems too daunting a task, simply have them tattooed to the underside of your left forearm.) If you want to know when you are abusing a conjunctive adverb by placing it between two clauses with nothing but a comma for protection, simply cross it out. If you discover clauses on both sides of the conjunctive adverb, do the right thing and provide it with a period or a semicolon.

Evaluation. Correctly punctuate the following sentences. (Warning: I sneaked in a few FANBOYS and/or subordinators.)

I need to comb my hair in front of my eyes then I will be as cool as Justin Bieber.

Sharon won’t mind that I borrowed her new dress without asking besides I’ll return it before she ever finds out.

I was a skaterboy therefore she said, “See you later, boy.”

It’s not my fault that your weeping willow died for I am merely a tree surgeon, not a miracle worker.

My homemade cinnamon buns moreover made me the most popular person in the William Hung Fan Club.

I want to be rich and famous so I am going to introduce myself to Rihanna.

I will show all my dance moves to Rihanna subsequently she will marry me.

Rihanna won’t respond to me on twitter even though I have downloaded all of her songs and memorized the lyrics.

Rihanna’s bodyguard told me to stay away then she got a restraining order.

by Richard W. Bray

Of FANBOYS and Conjunctive Adverbs: How to Compose Compound Sentences

October 27, 2013

T-L-4953-FANBOYS-Co-Ordinating-Conjunctions-Display-Poster_ver_1 (1)
Let’s start with the FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so). I’ll use this handy, easy-to-remember mnemonic device instead of a more technical term because some people refer to them as conjunctions (as in, Conjunction-junction, what’s your function?), some call them coordinators, while others use the term conjunctive coordinators. (Oh, those wild and crazy linguists. In England they’re called philologists. Is that cool, or what?)

FANBOYS are used to combine two simple sentences into one compound sentence. You’ll be relieved to discover that compound sentences are much easier to punctuate than those pesky complex sentences. All you have to do is replace the period with a comma, insert the appropriate FANBOY, and change the first letter of the second sentence from uppercase to lowercase.

Here are some examples:

I want to go out. My girlfriend wants to stay home.


I want to go out, but my girlfriend wants to stay home

Don’t hurt me. I am just the piano player.


Don’t hurt me, for I am just the piano player.

(I know this sounds a little goofy, but when for is employed as a FANBOY, it means because.)

I worked very hard. I should get a good grade.


I worked very hard, so I should get a good grade.

I studied all night. I got a “D” on the test.


I studied all night, yet I got a “D” on the test.
(But and yet can be used interchangeably.)

I love pizza. My best friend owns a pizzeria.


I love pizza, and my best friend owns a pizzeria.

(A note on and: By my crude estimation, only about half of the high school English teachers in Los Angeles County enforce the comma rule for compound sentences using the word and. Moreover, the comma is unnecessary when combining two simple sentences with the same subject. Thus, the following sentence requires no comma: I’m going to go out and buy a car.)

The following words are conjunctive adverbs: accordingly, also, besides, consequently, conversely, finally, furthermore, hence, however, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, next, nonetheless, otherwise, similarly, still, subsequently, then, therefore, and thus.

Now repeat after me three times: FANBOYS are NOT conjunctive adverbs and they must never be utilized as such. More on that in a future post.

Quick lesson on combining simple sentences with FANBOYS:

#1 Share the above examples of simple sentences combined into compound sentences with your students.

#2 Number off students into groups of three.

#3 Instruct each group to compose eight pairs of simple sentences and then combine them into four compound sentences. (4+8=12)

#4 When groups have completed this task, they will show their work to the teacher who will put an asterisk next to one of the complound sentences.

#5 Students will copy the compound sentences along with the two simple sentences from which it was combined on the board.

#6 Teacher will review the sentences on the board as a whole-class activity.

by Richard W. Bray

A Lesson Plan on Complex Sentences

July 14, 2013


#1. Read the following paragraph to your students:

This morning I woke up. The time was 7:30 a.m. I went to the bathroom. I took a shower. I shaved. I brushed my teeth. Max barked at me. I took him for a walk. It was a glorious day. He was happy. I was happy. I felt famished. We both had breakfast. I went to work.

#2. Ask students how they liked your paragraph. They will probably tell you that it sounded “boring,” “weird,” “choppy,” and/or “monotonous.”

#3. Ask them why it sounds “boring,” “weird,” “choppy,” and/or “monotonous.” Someone will say because the sentences are too short. Or, if you have already taught this lesson, someone will say that they are all simple sentences. Bingo. Paste a metaphorical gold star on that student’s forehead.

#4. Explain: Simple sentences are elegent and beautiful, and you wouldn’t want to live in a world without them. They are great for headlines, epigrammatic song lyrics, and those occasions when you want to make a point cogently and directly. But a story or an essay made up entirely of simple sentences is apt to be “boring,” “weird,” “choppy,” and/or “monotonous.” (There are some exceptions to this observation, notably books by Dr. Seuss and James Elroy). Fortunately, there are various sentence patterns which, along with strategically-placed simple sentences, will give your writing rhythm and flair. Today we will be entering the wonderful world of complex sentences.

#5. Explain: A complex sentence contains two clauses: a main clause and a subordinate clause. It’s easy to spot the subordinate clause because it begins with a subordinator.

#6. Provide students with this list of subordinators.

while, after, though, because, as soon as, wherever, when, before, as,
so that, unless, since, although, if, until, even though, whether

#7. Explain: If anyone ever presents you with a complex sentence and asks you to identify the subordinate clause, you can say, “That’s easy; it’s the one that begins with a subordinator.”

(One of the most common mistakes my students make is putting a comma in front of the subordinator. A complex sentence only requires a comma when the first clause is subordinate.)

#8. Provide students with these pairs of correctly-punctuated complex sentences. (If you love trees as much as I do, you can put them on the same piece of paper as the subordinators. Or, if you are a tree-worshipping Druid, you can post the information on Blackboard or some other Cloudy space.)

If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t be here.
I wouldn’t be here if I were a rich man.

I did not pass the Algebra exam even though I studied for over twelve minutes.
Even though I studied for over twelve minutes, I did not pass the Algebra exam.

Because you have a pool, you can be my friend.
You can be my friend because you have a pool.

#9. Activity
a) Group students into threes.
b) Number each group.
c) Instruct each group to create a complex sentence test with six problems like the two examples below.
d) Examine each test.
e) Have groups swap tests and answer each other’s tests on a single sheet of paper. (Students should not write on tests.)
f) When finished, the students should check their answers. (If they have any arguments with the answer key, they should not take matters into their own hands; they should call the teacher over.)
g) Continue to swap tests until every group has taken every test.
h) Students hand in all tests and answer sheets.

Examples Below

Create six problems. Place key on the back.

___a. If you love me you will take out the trash.
___b. If you love me, you will take out the trash.
___a I love you because you buy me things.
___b. I love you, because you buy me things.


Coming up: Spectacular lessons on compound sentences and conjunctive adverbs.

Richard W. Bray

A Lesson Plan on Simple Sentences

April 23, 2013

grammar puppy

Step 1. Teach this lesson on parts of speech.

Step 2. Ask students what a simple sentence is. Correct working answer for the purposes of this exercise: A group of words that tells us what someone or something is or a group of words that tells us what someone or something does.

Step 3. Present the following examples of simple sentences.

N-V (noun/action verb)

Love hurts.

Batman returns.

N—V—N (noun/action verb/noun)

Horton heard a Who.

Mr. Blandings builds his dream house.

Note: In a N–V–N sentence the second noun must receive the action of the verb. Thus, Antonia eats pizza. is a N–V–N sentence, but Tuan walks around the lake. is a N–V sentence. (Around the lake is a prepositional phrase.)

(noun/linking verb/noun)

Jeremiah was a bullfrog.

Time is a thief.

N–LV–ADJ (noun/linking verb/adjective)

The weather outside is frightening.

I feel pretty.

Note: Linking verbs include all the forms of the verb to be: is, are, was, were, be, being, been. The following words can act as linking verb, but only when they describe or rename the subject: feel, smell, taste, look, appear, seem, remain, stay, turn, grow.

In the sentence This soups tastes funny., tastes is acting as a linking verb.

However, in the sentence Guinevere tastes the soup., tastes is acting as an action verb.

Step 4. Group students in threes.

Step 5. Have each group generate a list of two N–V sentences, two N–V–N sentences, two N–LV–N sentences, and two N–LV–ADJ sentences on paper.

Step 6. Groups show sentences to teacher.

Step 7. Students write sentences on the board.

Step 8. Teacher reviews sentences as a whole–class activity.

Coming up: Lessons on complex and compound sentences that will knock your socks off.

Richard W. Bray

A Lesson Plan on Strong Verbs

September 15, 2012

Which statement is more likely to infuriate Dad?

Sorry Dad, but I wrecked your car.


Sorry Dad, but I demolished your car.

Which declaration evinces greater passion?

I enjoy fish tacos.


I crave fish tacos.

Which complaint expresses stronger indignation?

That slimy salesman confused me.


That slimy salesman bamboozled me.

In each of the above the examples, of course, the second sentence contains the stronger verb. But why?

Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous observation about pornography, I don’t have a concise definition for what constitutes a strong verb, but I know one when I see it. Strong verbs can contain one or more syllable. Strong verbs can be Latin, Greek, Germanic, French, etc. in origin. There is no particular phonology for strong verbs—they can sound rugged or mellifluous.

An imprecise working definition of strong verbs is words that arouse a vivid image and/or a visceral emotional response.

A note on word choice

Effective writing is largely a matter of choosing cogent nouns and verbs. It is important to remember that adjectives and adverbs are weak instruments, not suitable for heavy lifting. Or, to switch metaphors, think of adjectives and adverbs respectively as spice and garnish added to improve flavor and presentation rather than to provide essential nourishment.

When you select ideal nouns, you can sprinkle on adjectives as necessary. (This rule does not apply to William Faulkner.)

Adverbs should be allocated even less frequently than adjectives. Strong verbs obviate the extensive utilization of adverbs. Stephen King admonishes: “The adverb is not your friend” because adverbs “seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind” (On Writing 124).

An exercise for recognizing strong verbs

1. Present the three examples of sentences with strong and weak verbs from this blog post to students.
2. Discuss the importance of strong verbs and the distinction between strong and weak verbs with the entire class.
3. Group students in threes.
4. Provide each group with a different nonfiction article between 500 and 750 words long.
5. Instruct each group to:
a) List all the verbs from the essay. (There should be at least one in     every sentence.)
b) Select by consensus the ten strongest verbs from the essay.
6. Each group shares their list of ten strong verbs with the whole class.

by Richard W. Bray

On Redundancy, Oxymora, and Grammatical Correctness

November 19, 2011

It would be redundant to say that Dave was “completely devastated” when his hamster died because there cannot be degrees of devastation. I can be extremely scared by radio reports of zombies in my neighborhood, but it would be inexact to say that I am extremely terrified. Conversely, it would be oxymoronic* to declare that Dave was only “slightly devastated” by the news of his hamster’s untimely demise.

For the poet (by which I also of course mean the novelist) the phrases completely devastated and slightly devastated have all sorts of wonderful possibilities. However, writers seeking precision with their words (students enrolled in a Freshman Composition class, for example) should avoid such phrases.

* George Carlin has helpful lists of redundancies and oxymora in his book Braindroppings


State whether the highlighted portions of the following sentences are redundant, oxymoronic, or grammatically acceptable.

1. I was a tad heartbroken when my wife left me for my younger brother.

2. My aunt is a little bit pregnant.

3. Dresden was totally incinerated by the Allied bombing.

4. Pizza is extremely overrated.

5. My cat was completely dead after the accident.

6. Gertrude was a little bit exhausted after studying six straight hours for her English exam.

7. Osvaldo was completely miserable after he lost the tiddlywinks tournament.

8. The traffic around here is somewhat slow after jai alai matches.

9. Pham was extremely furious when I told her the results from Dancing with the Stars.

10. Ted overdosed slightly on pain medication.

by Richard W. Bray


April 6, 2010


Owe-Ewe-Gee-Aitch, I simply can’t pronounce it
Owe-Ewe-Gee-Aitch, it’s my duty to renounce it
Rough and tough rhyme with stuff
So why does cough rhyme with off?

Owe-Ewe-Gee-Aitch, there’s no rule of explanation
Owe-Ewe-Gee-Aitch, it’s just a spelling complication
I ought, I thought, never get caught
Saying bout when I mean bought

Owe-Ewe-Gee-Aitch, my English teacher doesn’t care
Owe-Ewe-Gee-Aitch, nobody warns: Speller beware!
If I threw my shoe at you
Would it be true that we are through?

Owe-Ewe-Gee-Aitch, the cranial overload
Owe-Ewe-Gee-Aitch, might just make my brain explode
Though I reach out and grow like a bough
I’ll flunk my spelling test anyhow

by Richard W. Bray