Representative Concepts


In the CWP, we often liken writing to “joining a conversation.” However, we can’t have a productive conversation, if we misunderstand each other. Therefore, I began thinking about the skills necessary to read and to write well, so I began thinking in terms of forms and syntax: you can’t read well, if you don’t understand how writing is constructed and if you can’t understand the writing at the sentence level.


Yes, the reading analysis templates below helped focus the students’ reading, but that development only got students so far. For example, many still weren’t succeeding at commenting well on quotes; thus, they would “quote and run,” hoping they fulfilled the requirement to use textual evidence but escaping any actual analysis. Therefore, as the examples show below, I developed a system where they first practice unpacking the sentence’s construction, and then they practice incorporating that close reading skill in commenting on the textual evidence they’ve incorporated into their essay.


Beginning my course with the study of syntax, then, allows them to study meaning production—the logical relationships that makes sentences, paragraphs, and essays—and thereby gain access to more complex content. After all, even the most complex sentences follow the same root grammatical forms as the simplest ones. As Fish writes, “if one understands that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships and that the number of relationships involved is finite, one understands too that there is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical, and only one rule to follow: make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at).” By understanding the concepts below, then, they can access that complex content.


The “Jabborwocky exercise” below, for example, reappears when we read difficult, jargon-laden essays. We remind ourselves that we have no idea what “slithy toves” are, but we know what they’re doing in the sentence. They then know that with a bit of work, they can access any text if they can unpack its internal logic, if they can see how the writer constructed it. In the end, we study syntax not as an end but as a necessary beginning to becoming strong writers. Below, I’ve provided some exercises I use in class to develop these skills.


I also aim for the exercises below to lead to the logical thinking and problem solving skills that Google’s Laszlo Bock seeks. During the first few class days, I introduce parts of speech because almost everything we do in the class follows from Fish’s definitions of a sentence: A sentence is “an organization of items in the world” and “a structure of logical relationships.” Therefore, sentences make meaning by putting words in a grammatically functional relationship.


In order to understand these relationships, the class needs to develop a common vocabulary to discuss the concepts: the parts of speech. Indeed, a student can’t use Lanham’s Paramedic Method if she does not know the different roles linking and action verbs play in a sentence, and a student can’t understand the politics of language if they cannot see how power gets embedded into language choice and grammatical constructions. In sum, then, my class studies syntax, not to memorize a bunch of rules in order to “drill and kill”; rather, we study them in order to understand the logic of constructed meaning and to challenge the authority that creates those rules.

By understanding the relationship between the three following lists, I have found that students feel empowered to read, write, and edit and, thus, think more critically about the world they inhabit:

  1. comma patterns
  2. four ways to connect Independent Clauses {ICs}, and
  3. (the major errors),


I’ve broken the study of syntax into clear concepts that students find easy to learn so they can improve their editing, writing, and reading skills. In fact, those three lists begin my course. I argue if students know these three lists, they can read and edit any English language text, and their feedback to me reinforces the lists’ benefits.


Though not exhaustive, the exercises that follow represent the kind work my students do to prepare them for their major essay assignments. The following examples should aim to explain how we build from the study of syntax to develop close reading skills. I use “Jabborwocky” to introduce parts of speech.


  • Jabborwocky (an exercise from Fish)


  1. A) Replace the words you don’t know in Carrol’s “Jabborwocky” with common everyday words. Use your imagination.  Don’t over think this.  It should take you no more than one minute to replace the words.`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.B) After replacing the words, please explain how you knew which word “would or would not go into the slot formerly occupied by the nonsense word.” Hint: think Madlibs.


——> the word’s relationship to each other tells me the job each word has.

C) Explain the concept that “form generates content,” and relate it to Thursday’s discussion.


  • Introduce Comma Patterns (How Commas Relate Clauses)


This exercise forms the basis on how I teach editing. I begin by asking the students to discover the role of the “, and” in “Jabborwocky.” Once they answer that, we discuss that “, conjunction” joins two “independent clauses” or ICs, as we call them in my class.  Once we know what an IC is and does, we discuss what Dependent Clauses (DCs) consist of.  The Journal for that night then asks the students to do two tasks:


  1. Scan as many articles as it takes to discover three other ways to connect two ICs.



  1. IC. (I like apples. You like pears.)

IC; IC. (I like apples; you like pears.

IC, fanboys IC. (I like apples, and you like pears.)

IC subordinate IC. (I like apples because you like pears.)


Students discuss why we have four different ways to make the same move. They discover that each slightly changes the relationship between the ICs. In other words, they discover that each form changes the relationship between the clauses, which modifies the meaning.  It fascinates them that the forms above have meaning, even emptied of content. Once they see this, they have serious understanding of how punctuation affects meaning.


  1. Peruse several articles to find other ways writers use commas. In the ensuing class, students then compare work and find familiar patterns. Eventually, we distill them to the most common patterns (while noting that others do exist and other style guides exist):



  • DC, IC or IC, DC.

Exp: Walking down the street, I fell down.

I love computers, which make me happy.

  • IC, fanboys, IC.

Exp: I like this, but you like that.

  • Subj, . . ., verb

Exp: Jane, who is my best friend, loves cake.

  • x, y, and z

Exp: I like oranges, books, and lamps.

  • Intro element, IC (or embedded)

Exp: However, I still like you.

I, however, still like you.


Once we have these patterns (and we make clear that this list is not exhaustive), I make the argument to the students that we can read and edit anything because these patterns give us a “toe hold” on the sentence to help us get to the subject / verb / obj (or whatever) structure. The above lists manifests themselves in my class in three ways:



  • Editing / Logical Thinking Test on the “major errors” (I add to this list in WRTG 101). We do this to give them practice so that the skill transfers to the essays and because it gives them practice in thinking logically. In fact, the test as shown elsewhere in this portfolio, consists of fifty sentences in which each sentence is either “correct” or has one major error. Not only does this test give the students practice in close reading and editing, it also gives excellent training in logical thinking.


Major Error List


  • Fragment (missing either s/v/or concept)
  • Comma Splice (IC, IC).
  • Fused Sentence (ICIC)
  • Subject / Verb Agreement
  • Pronoun Agreement
  • Dangling Modifier
  • Apostrophe



Following the steps below forces students to look for “errors” systematically, which reduces careless mistakes substantially. I encourage students to follow the steps below when editing. They can use this skill for the rest of their lives.



  • Find the comma pattern: in doing so, the student essentially edits for the first four errors. If those check out, then move to step 2.
  • Check for S/V AGR
  • Check for PN AGR by reading the sentence back to front looking only for pronouns and their antecedents. If bad, then fix. If good, then move to the next.
  • Check for DMs (occurring when the DC doesn’t properly describe the IC’s subject).
  • Check for Apostrophes. If bad, then fix. If good, then mark the sentence correct.


Example Sentence: Having been drunk for three days, the chickens escaped.

  • DC, IC (I can eliminate the following errors (Frag, CS, FS)
  • Check for S/V AGR (“chickens escaped” works).
  • Check for PN AGR/PN REF by reading back to front (No pronouns).
  • Check for DM (the DC does not, in fact, describe the subject’s IC, so we have a DM).


  • Editing Essays (to give us practice)


Students mark the comma patterns in their essays to check for major errors.


In the following example from a student draft, the peer reviewer found some comma splices by studying the comma patterns:


“In school, [5] I was handed worksheets upon worksheets about what it means to be a good Christian. Basically, [5] they were coloring pages on how to get to heaven. Do this, [CS?] don’t do that. Say this, [CS?] don’t say that. They sickened me, [1] these contingencies of life that everyone else so willingly believed would occur. Sure, [5] it was easy enough to follow these rules (or commandments) because most of them were just outlining what it means to be a decent human being. The principle, however, [5] got me. I questioned everything: why is it necessary to go to church, [CS?] how do we know God exists if we can’t see him, [4?] etc.”


  • Close Reading (if they can understand structure, they can access any content in any genre).


See “Close Reading” exercises below. In sum, I argue that knowing and understanding the comma patterns and the four ways to connect ICs and the major errors, students can read and edit any content they confront.



Putting Those Concepts to Use:


With Rebecca Moore Howard’s study that suggests that much plagiarism occurs because we don’t teach students the proper skills to avoid it, we use templates to help develop our critical reading skills.  By teaching students to adequately summarize sources and close read sentences, I can put my students at a competitive advantage. The examples below represent how I approach these skills:


  • Reading Analysis (or Single Author) Template (Adapted from Graff & Birkenstein)


Goal: To practice accurately writing from sources, students complete this template for every assigned essay. When first assigned, students reflect on how this template changes the way they approach texts. They also adapt this template to fit their Annotated Bibliography. The students usually do this for every reading we do. While we may not discuss all of these in every class, I expect every student to have thought about these concepts during their reading and their Journals usually compromise some or all of these components for each reading.


The Reading Analysis Template (from Graff and Birkenstein):


In her/his essay/work/article, “_________________,” X argues that______________________. More specifically, X argues that ______. She/He writes, “ ______________.” In this passage, X is suggesting that_________________________. In conclusion, X believes______________.


Rhetorical Stance: Students also explain each essay’s rhetorical stance by breaking it down in the following way. We call it CATPA:



Reading for They Say / I Say: Students mark the following in the text for every reading. I do this show that most writing using the TSIS structure (so they should as well).


1) Find the They Say / I Say.
2) Note whether the author responds to a single author, an “on-going debate,” or a “standard view” (Graff and Birkenstein’s terms.)
3) Note how the author situates his or her argument in terms of Joseph Harris’s BEAM[1]: Is the They say an Argument source? And Exhibit source? A Method source?


  • Close Reading Exercise / Rhetorical Grammar: Inspired by Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence.


Goal: To practice “writing from sentences” and “close reading”


Exercise: 1) “Deconstruct” the following sentence to its Subject / Verb / Object structure: (Jane {doer} likes {doing}cake {done to}.

2) Think about what the base sentence tells us about why Melville writes such a long, complicated sentence? Does he write it just to say “look, ma, no hands!!”?

  1. A) “Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to colour, and therefore a blankness in itself.”




——>Root sentence: The spirit was a thing, a being, a ray, and a blankness.

——>He would write a simple sentence if he could; he can’t tell us directly what “spirit” is or he would tell us.


1) Break down the following sentences to their Subject / Verb / Object structure: (Jane {doer} likes {doing} cake {done to}.  After you complete the first task, then explain how all the other words and phrases relate to the s/v/o. Without changing any words, make your own version of the sentence.

A) “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”


——> His soul swooned as he heard the snow.


——> Exp: His food festered furiously as he watched the vegetables rotting rapidly in his cupboard and rapidly rotting, like the love of his final relationship, inside every kitchen and home.



B) “[W]ords slide into the slots ordained by syntax and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.”

——> Words slide and glitter.


  1. The following sentence comes from a referendum on the Georgia state ballot. Break the sentence to its base form. What tense is it in? Why? What does the syntax tell us about its rhetorical purpose?


“Shall property owned by the University System of Georgia and utilized by providers of college and university student housing and other facilities continue to be exempt from taxation to keep costs affordable?”


——> Shall property owned and utilized be exempt?

——> Owned by whom? Utilized by whom? Exempt from what? Why?


  • Framing Quotations: Contextualizing Close Reading


In this exercise, students extend the practice from above by analyzing them as they would in an academic essay. With such exercises, I introduce the “quote sandwich.”


  1. In his Enderby Outside, Anthony Burgess writes that “words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.” What Burgess means here is that _______________________________. His argument, furthermore, relates to the Jabborwocky exercise by ______________________________.


I often break students into groups of three and pick representative quotations from a reading and have students do this exercise. Each group then leads class discussion on that particular sentence, and how it helps us understand the work as a whole. After all, that’s the move we make when we “sandwich” a quote. Here’s an example from WRTG 101:


  1. Put each of these quotes in the template like the one we used for Burgess. However, I then want you connect how each statement helps us better understand Emerson’s larger point in “Self Reliance.”  In class, we’ll get into groups; each group will be responsible for discussing a particular passage.

Modify this template to your needs: In “Self Reliance,” Emerson writes “_______” ().  In other words,  __________.  This concept helps us better understand “Self-Reliance” because _____________________________.


Example Passages for Class Discussion


  • “To believe what your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,–that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense;”—Jackson, Quincy, Dias


  • “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitualate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.”—–Zuliana, Daniel, Michelle
  • “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.”—-Margo, Manna


  • “Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.”—-Shawnee, Samantha, Jiachen



  • “But the man in the street, finding no worth in himself which corresponds to the force which built a tower or sculptured a marble god, feels poor when he looks on these.”—Vashti, Asem, Jeff


  • “As men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.”—-Jonah, Gabriella




[1] B = Background, E = Exhibit, A = Argument, M = Method.