Teach grammar...without teaching grammar: the labyrinthine sentence
Like most of us, I spent years memorizing irregular verbs and diagraming sentences, but I can’t confidently say that these activities made me more articulate or a more dexterous sentence spinner. But I can’t say that they didn’t either.
What I can say is that like most arbitrary human conventions, I really learned (and unlearned) the conventions of writing from watching someone else do it. Then I stole from them.
As a kid, I may have temporarily learned the rules of diagraming a sentence, but I still had no idea what made good writing tick. I may have memorized some irregular verbs, but I still had no idea how or why the best writers varied their sentences with dashes, colons and semicolons or why they were allowed to begin a sentence with “And” or “But” and I wasn’t.
Later on in life, one of my teachers exposed me to something called the labyrinthine sentence. Unlike traditional methods of teaching grammar, this one doesn’t involve rote memorization or workbooks. I’ve had good luck with the assignment and students get a kick out of it even though they find it intimidating at first. What continues to surprise me is that it works.
The gist of the assignment is this: Students are asked to write a sentence of at least 100 words. The sentence must contain at least one dash, a colon, a semicolon and parenthesis. What makes the assignment challenging is that the 100-word sentence can only contain one period at the end.
Before I give them the assignment, I spend a class period going over how dashes, colons, semicolons and parenthesis work. Students take notes, ask questions and then I give them the assignment sheet, which actually serves as a model for how they might craft their own. Their labyrinthine sentence can be about anything at all and you’ll be surprised at how laugh-out-loud hilarious some of them will be.
After they submit it, I look it over and schedule a 10-minute meeting with each student to go over how s/he might make the appropriate changes. After this, I have them submit a revision. Then I assign another one and repeat the process.
I'm interested in your feedback on this one. Let me know if you find any grammatical hiccups.
The Labyrinthine Sentence Assignment Sheet
Although I fully understand the challenge (maybe even the frustration) you will experience while composing a labyrinthine sentence—that is, a sentence of at least one hundred words and only a single period at the end—I declare to you that you can complete the annoying task and do it without breaking any grammar rules; incidentally, I never said it’d be easy; moreover, it probably won’t be as thrilling as some of our other assignments (or maybe it will be, I’ll let you be the judge of that), but I’m hoping that it will liberate you from being afraid of grammar: commas, semi colons, dashes, and don’t forget parenthesis; not many students use the latter, but I find parenthesis useful for breaking up my sentences, especially longer sentences that contain complicated ideas.
In case you’re wondering, let me tell you something about the above sentence: It contains 132 words, so don’t start thinking, saying, or grumbling (I guess you can grumble a little if you want) that it can’t be done—and just to prove it, let me give you another example: in this one, I’ll describe, say, the coffee mug I am drinking out of at the moment: It’s about five inches tall; it has a handle, of course, and then there’s a really corny, Christmas-themed picture—a white rocking horse bedecked in red streamers and bows—that wraps around the entire mug! I’m tired of describing this mug; it’s reminding me of Christmas and Christmas (inevitably) comes with snow—oh, and just in case you’re wondering, this paragraph contains 153 words; moreover, only a single period can be found in it and no one can scold me with their red pen for it.
Give it a go. Write something. Describe something. Say something—anything! This assignment is due on __________________.
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