223. To Get to the Other Side

We spend a lot of time trying to get children to know how to write complete sentences. It’s hard, because they don’t think or talk in complete sentences. Neither do we. Complete sentences happen during conversations, but not reliably. Know what I mean (not a complete sentence) (neither was that)?
Children learn how to have conversations before they learn how to write, and their first attempts to write reflect their conversational language, as well they should. Gradually, they learn some of the conventions that result in more effective writing. But written English and spoken English are not two entirely different languages; writing is a form of codification, and reading reverses the process.
No matter how many rules people write about punctuation, commas, periods, dashes, question marks, exclamation points, semicolons, and colons are all reflections of the way we speak. Our timing and intonation indicate which punctuation is appropriate. A short pause suggests a comma. A longer pause suggests a period. And so on.
The capital letters and periods that serve as boundaries between sentences have inspired many worksheets. For generations, children have drawn one line under the subject and two lines under the predicate. This sentence – the one you’re reading right now – is grammatically correct, but do you remember how to find its subject(s) and predicate(s)? And once you figure
it out, will you be any better off? Some children quickly learn how to apply the rules of grammar to their writing. Others memorize rules and try to apply them as they write. Still others never learn it, and get sick of hearing about it.
We’re taught that all the great writers had to learn the rules first, and then decided to consciously break them when their artistic sense told them to. That may make teachers feel good, but I don’t know how true it is. I’ll bet there are some respected authors who never learned how to write complete sentences. Some people have the gift of gab, and when they write, their language is conversational and quite readable. The rules have nothing to do with it.
Writing is a great way to communicate, and I’ve seen many children learn to take pleasure in it. Occasionally, there’s a child who has fun analyzing the structure of the language – diagramming sentences, figuring out when to write “who” and when to write “whom.” But I’ve known many more children who know why the chicken crossed the road, and think it would sound weird to answer, “The chicken crossed the road to get to the other side.”

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