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January 9, 2003 - Sentence Structure - 2003-01-08

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": January 9, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster, we meet an English teacher who plays our program to his students, much to our delight.

RS: What's surprising is that Brian Backman teaches right here in America, and his students are mostly native-born English speakers. Brian teaches at Anacortes High School in Washington State, in the Pacific Northwest.

AA: His special interest is sentence structure. So we thought this would be a good chance to go over some of the basics.

RS: One kind of phrase that Brian Backman finds his students sometimes have trouble with is called a participial phrase.

BACKMAN: "A participial phrase is simply where you take a verb and you use it as an adjective to describe a noun in your sentence. And that causes some problems sometimes because students throw that into a sentence without understanding that it's got to modify something, like an adjective modifies a noun. Let's say you take a sentence like 'Reading a magazine, my dog ran up and began to lick my face.' That sentence makes it sound like the dog is reading the magazine, when what the writer intended to say is 'I was reading a magazine when the dog came up and licked my face.' So 'reading a magazine' is called a participial phrase -- it's a verb, an action, but it describes a person, in this case the person reading the magazine."

AA: So how would he recommend his students rewrite a sentence like that?

BACKMAN: "I would look at that sentence and I would probably say 'While I was reading a magazine, my dog ran up and began to lick my face.' You could also say 'Reading a magazine, I was licked in the face by my dog.' You get into a little bit of passive voice there, which isn't terrible, but you just don't want to overdue too much of that."

RS: ... or start every sentence the typical way, with the subject. That, Brian Backman tells his students, can sound boring.

BACKMAN: "So by having some ways of starting a sentence -- for example, with a participle, it adds some action to the sentence and it also adds some variety. You could also put the participle after the verb. For example, 'Joe, laughing at a joke, almost choked on his pizza.' I could have started it with 'Laughing at a joke, Joe almost choked on his pizza.' And that's the kind of thing writers do, is they play around with their sentences and they understand where things go and where things are clear and where they're not clear, and it just gives you more variety. It also shows you the amazing thing about the English sentence is, there are so many different ways of saying the same thing."

RS: Yet, some ways that sound perfectly fine in spoken English might seem too casual in writing. Brian Backman runs into this issue with his students.

BACKMAN: "You want them to be able to capture that power of spoken language, that freshness that we have, that colloquial quality of the English language, but you also want them to write standard English. And it's oftentimes this struggle of getting them to understand when you write a sentence it has to be understood by somebody who can't ask you a question. So it has to be clear, the syntax has to be clear, read it aloud, make sure there's only one meaning based on what you wrote, and not some unintended meaning or some silly meaning like the dangling modifier or dangling participle. But still you don't want it to sound like a computer wrote it, or a bureaucrat wrote it. You want it to still be your sentence."

AA: "Now, for the 11 years that you've been teaching English, that's sort of tracked the time of the rise of electronic mail communication, e-mail, instant messaging, and this sort of language that we've seen spring up of kids writing back-and-forth in a very sort of abbreviated shorthand. Are you seeing that creeping into their writing at all?"

BACKMAN: "I think probably because students write a lot of e-mail and things like that, and instant messaging, they tend to condense the language. Some English teachers see that as a bad thing, I see it as enlivening the language, really, because it's adding new words and a freshness to our language. Just like, you know, students have forever been using slang. Some of those slang terms and phrases we use today, without even realizing that at one time they were slang and they were seen as non-standard English, and I see it as something that's constantly enlivening our language. And that's the great thing about English is we don't have an academy like the French do."

AA: But he says it's a challenge to get students to know when it's OK to use slang and when it's not.

BACKMAN: "We talk about audience, think about who you're writing to, whether it's a speech or whether it's a piece of writing, an essay, think about who your audience is and make it appropriate. And that's just a lesson that I have to continue to reiterate to students, that you just cannot talk the same way to everybody. And that's a problem, because in our culture we've become more comfortable with speaking to everybody the same."

RS: Brian Backman teaches at Anacortes High School, north of Seattle. He's written a book called "Building Sentence Skills: Tools for Writing the Amazing English Sentence," published just this week by Teacher Created Materials.

AA: Brian found our program on our Web site, and you can too. It's And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.