Ask a college English professor and chances are he or she will tell you that most incoming freshmen are woefully unprepared for college-level compositions. Why? Consider this commentary from Dr. Robert Einarsson, professor of English at Grant Macewan University in Edmonton, Alberta:
In the past, the carefully structured sentence was the medium for encapsulating and precision-stating our thoughts. Today, precision and structure seem to be less important than the ability to “wax eloquent” at the drop of a hat.
The teaching of English today reflects the same misplaced priority. Less and less grammar is taught, and more and more group discussion takes place. Precision becomes less important; spontaneous expression of opinion becomes all-in-all. Composition classes involve paragraphs, essays, and creative writing, but not the basic building block of expression, sentences. Students today receive little or no instruction in sentence structure and grammar, a situation that was unthinkable fifty years ago. For some thousands of years and more, grammar was the mainstay of intellectual education; but, on the authority of a handful of education experts today, it has now been all but deleted from the English curriculum.
In an effort to “stand against the current culture of language as quantity and flow,” Dr. Einarsson wrote a brief but thorough and engaging course. Traditional English Sentence Style presents a complete study of sentence structure via analysis and application. First, students analyze sentences for their structural components. They then apply what they have learned to excellent examples from authors such as Jane Austen, Francis Bacon, William Butler Yeats, and Abraham Lincoln.
Here’s a chapter breakdown of the workbook:
- Chapter 1: Sentence Patterns
- Chapter 2: The Prepositional Phrase and Other Phrase Types
- Chapter 3: The Clause
- Chapter 4: Independent and Dependent Clauses
- Chapter 5: The Four-Fold Way to Punctuation
The text also includes some of Hugh Blair’s lectures on sentence structure, taken from his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.
In this course, upper-level student begin to consider sentence segments or “internal clusters” and how they relate to each other. Dr. Einarsson’s explanations are both thorough and clear. For example, I found helpful his use of formulaic expressions to represent phrases.
In teaching analysis, Dr. Einarsson employs a practical method of sentence diagramming that I find much more user-friendly than what I learned in school. His system of underlines and brackets sets apart sentence components without disassembling the sentence itself. In this way, students can more easily see how discrete parts work together to create elegant, balanced sentences. Answer keys are a very welcome addition for those of us directing our students.
I also appreciate that Dr. Einarsson selected excerpts from classic English works for student to analyze. In working closely with such examples, high schoolers have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with solid and polished writing styles. With this background in place, students are better able to develop their own writing styles.
Although the course is brief at only five chapters, the material is weighty. Students should take their time carefully studying each concept before moving on. You may decide to break chapters into shorter readings and discuss the material with your student.
As you’ve most likely noticed, Traditional English Sentence Style is not a rudimentary grammar course. This upper-level study of sentence-structure grammar presumes a working knowledge of parts of speech. Before assigning this course to your student, read it over yourself and consider his or her readiness level. You may decide to take some time reviewing grammar concepts as a prerequisite.
Traditional English Sentence Style is available for FREE as a PDF download on Dr. Einarsson’s website, Classiclanguagearts.net. There are also three free audio files of supporting lectures, which I have not reviewed.
Classiclanguagearts.net is a treasure trove of materials and resources for upper level English concepts. For example, I was taken with the Lexicon of Advanced Vocabulary, a downloadable PDF that discusses the question of too many synonyms in English (aside: I was pleased to find that he and I agree: synonyms provide differing shades of meaning). Three advanced crossword puzzles are part of the lesson.
The website also offers:
- Several audio lectures
- An inspiring list of recommended authors and books for upper level reading
- Lectures on rhetoric and traditional poetry study
I highly recommend this invaluable course of study for high school students. After completing Traditional English Sentence Style, students will be much better prepared for college-level essays and research papers.