Grammar Rules to Help the Homeschool Parent Who Hates Grammar
Grammar Rules to Help the Homeschool Parent Who Hates Grammar – Part 1
Almost every homeschool parent has an area of study that intimidates them (if you don’t, then good for you. You can come teach my kids). For me, it’s chemistry and upper-level math. I can read all the books, analyze all the literature, structure all the papers, but ask me to help my child decipher any math problem with more letters than numbers, and I’m out.
I lead with this, because as an English teacher, I have nothing but sympathy for parents (or any adult) who struggles with using the English language well. Or correctly.
I didn’t always have a good handle on grammar and punctuation either. I loved to read and write from an early age, but I was the queen of misplaced modifiers and a comma-over-enthusiast to boot.
It wasn’t until I started teaching the nitty-gritty of grammar and punctuation that I finally wrestled with the content and learned grammar and punctuation.
Many of us carry our school-struggles with the English language into our adulthood. We aren’t necessarily being graded on our e-mails (and definitely not on our texts), so we no longer see where we are making mistakes. I’ve even had friends say, “Nitpicking about grammar and punctuation is stupid and a waste of time. As long as you can get your point across, then you’re fine.”
However, that’s just the thing. When our use of the English language, especially when we are writing, breaks down, so does our ability to get our point across. This applies to everyone, no matter what their profession. Grammar rules exist to help us communicate our ideas clearly. Punctuation exists to do the same.
I remember reading once that punctuation is all the nonverbal communication you normally hear in a conversation, but it’s putting it down on paper. We naturally put in pauses or raise and lower our voices (and even use hand gestures) to indicate how our thoughts are connected and how they are to be interpreted. In written form, all of that goes away. Punctuation is what takes that nonverbal communication’s place.
To take this up a notch, homeschooling parents need to master grammar and punctuation at a whole different level. Not only do we need to communicate clearly as functioning adults, but we also need to be able to teach our own kids the hows and whys of grammar. Even in our program at Northpoint, where I am the English teacher in the classroom, I still partner with the parents in educating the students. Due to time constraints, for some papers, I punt the revision and proofreading parts to the parents.
So parents, here are the first two grammar/punctuation rules that SO MANY students (and adults) get wrong (and your cheat sheet for helping them).
1. Independent and Dependent Clauses: We have to start here before we can get into some of the punctuation biggies.
Let’s start with the word “clause.” I tell my students to go ahead and think of Santa Claus. I tell them to picture Santa and his big sack of toys. He needs two hands to carry that sack of toys. Those two hands represent the two things a group of words needs to be a clause: a subject and a verb. We actually get out markers and write “subject” on one arm and “verb” on the other arm. Santa CLAUS needs BOTH arms to pick up his sack. You need both a subject and a verb to have a clause.
“Around the corner” is not a clause. It is a phrase. It has no subject. Nothing is going around the corner. It has no verb. There is no action there.
“James went around the corner” IS a clause. James = subject and went = verb. Eureka!
So let’s move to dependent vs. independent clauses. Independent clauses can stand on their own as a full blown sentence. They form a complete thought. They can qualify for a mortgage. They can rent a car. They can sign legal papers. They are in-de-pen-dent. If we put it like a math formula, it would look like this:
Subject + Verb + Complete Thought = Independent clause.
They can be punctuated as a stand-alone sentence. ß This is an independent clause. ß So is that one. They make sense on their own.
Dependent clauses are dependent on independent clauses to make sense. They are like if Santa had children (which some movies say he did, others say he didn’t). Baby Claus certainly has two arms (representing a subject and a verb), but baby Claus is too little to hold the sack of toys or drive the sleigh or rent a car or qualify for a mortgage. If baby Claus wants to do anything, he has to come with his dad.
Ex: When I go to the store
This group of words is a clause because it has a subject and a verb. I = subject, and go = verb. But it does not make sense on its own. It’s dependent. We need more information. We have to pair it with a grown up, independent clause:
Ex. When I go to the store, I always buy llama food.
Baby clause “When I go to the store” gets paired with grown up clause “I always buy llama food,” and now everything makes sense. Except that I don’t own a llama.
2. Commas + Clauses: I had to make sure we got clauses straight because this is where so many people struggle. If you don’t know what a clause is and you skipped over #1, scroll back up, bucko.
Commas aren’t strong enough to hold together two independent clauses. Now – reread that same sentence, but do it in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice. I’m serious. The stupider a memory device is, the more likely you are to remember the lesson. Commas aren’t strong enough to hold together two independent clauses.
This is considered a comma-splice:
Jane went to the store, she took her llama.
This is bad. Some of you may have read that jumbled sentence, and in your head, it sounded “too fast.” It’s a run on. There needs to be a separation of ideas there, and a comma isn’t strong enough to do it.
Go back to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Picture him flexing his biceps. Picture him grabbing one independent clause with his right hand and pulling it towards his head in a bicep flex. Then picture him pulling another independent clause with his left hand. He needs BOTH biceps to hold two independent clauses together because they are INDEPENDENT. They want to be alone. So you have to have a “two bicep” approach to independent clauses. Arnold’s right bicep represents the comma. Arnold’s left bicep represents a coordinating conjunction. Those are conjunctions that join things of equal value (like two EQUALLY independent clauses). You only got a few options for coordinating conjunctions, and they can be summed up with the acronym FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So).
So our sentence should look like this:
Jane went to the store, and she took her llama.
If we broke down the sentence into its parts, we could dissect it like this:
Subject + verb + complete thought, and subject + verb + complete thought.
Use a comma between the clauses when the dependent clause comes first.
Read this sentence:
Because she went to the mall with her sister her friends toilet papered her house.
As we read that for the first time, we may understand it right away, but we may get confused until we reach the end of the sentence. At first glance, we might wonder if the writer is starting a list (she went to the mall with her sister, her friends, toilet paper… – you can technically go to the mall with your toilet paper).
We need a comma between the clauses to show where the dependent clause and its concept stops and the independent clause and its concept starts.
Because she went to the mall with her sister, her friends toilet papered her house.
If you say this out loud to yourself, you now know where to make the little pause between the clauses, and you see how the concepts are related clearly.
So parents, readers who might not yet be parents, we know grammar is difficult. We hope this small foray into grammar facts has been helpful the next time your kid hands you a five-page essay on the rise of existentialism in the west and asks you to proof-read it. If you have a grammar concept you want us to review, just let us know!