The purpose of this assignment is to help you gain insight into a rule of English grammar—either a “real” rule that most linguists would agree actually governs our language, or a rule that doesn’t really rule. This could be a grammar rule, a punctuation rule, or even a usage feature of the language that you have a particular memory of.
Length & Format
This narrative will take the form of an essay, and should be around 500 words in length. In terms of genre expectations, think of this as one of those magazine essays you find at the end of the magazine.
For this assignment, you should begin with a personal experience related to a grammar rule. Consider encounters you’ve had with the rule through graded essays or comments, as part of classroom instruction, or even in your personal interactions with others. You might have experiences with the ways you’ve misused or seen others misuse the language. A focus on a specific or particular experience will be an important anchor for the essay.
With a rule chosen, research the rule to find out as much as you can about it. Look at grammar handbooks and style guides for information. Search the Internet, especially if this is a pervasive or commonly talked about issue. If your rule involves a specific word or usage, you might find looking at the OED or tracing the word’s etymology or history to be helpful. You will want to incorporate some solid, reputable source(s) into your essay, so spend some time with this research. Quoted or borrowed material should be cited according to MLA standards (which means this paper will have a works cited section). Look at this page from the reference section for a list of some helpful resources in print.
You are required to do some research on your rule using one of the corpora we’ve discussed in class (you can use one of BYU’s many corpora or Google’s ngram viewer for print books or the Reddit corpus). This research will provide you important insights into how the language rule you’re researching lives “in the wild.” It might, for instance, suggest that the rule you’ve chosen isn’t really followed by many writers, or that writers in certain genres/audiences follow it while others do not. You are expected to report on this research in your final written piece.
Finally, weave your learning and experience together into an interesting and informative essay. The essay should use your story, that of your personal experience or interaction with the rule, to help inform the audience—describing the details of the rule, the history of the punctuation mark, the evolution of the usage rule. Read through the model below for an example of the kind of writing I’m looking for.
This piece will be graded holistically as part of your participation grade for the entire course. I will be looking at these aspects of your writing:
- Are the rule and the personal experience effectively connected?
- Is the story told in enough detail that it’s entertaining without taking over the essay?
- How well are outside, expert sources integrated into the explanation of the rule? Are complex terms or concepts clearly and correctly explained?
- How well do you follow conventions for writing and documenting sources?
A Rule about Ending Sentences that Almost Ended A Relationship
She looks over at me out of the corner of her eyes, unsure I think of how to phrase what she’s about to say. “You know,” my fiancée hazards, “you shouldn’t really use the word ‘at’ at the end of that sentence.” Then, I think, she holds her breath, waiting for my response.
I am, frankly, a bit stunned. And more than a little chagrined. We were discussing where we’d meet each other before the campus devotional, and I had asked “Where will you be at?” It’s a seemingly innocuous question, and a structure (ending my question with a preposition), that I’ve used frequently. But as an English major, I certainly pride myself on speaking and writing correctly, and here we sit, my wife-to-be (NOT an English major) having just pointed out a flaw in my grammar.
The word “at” is officially classified as a preposition, a part of speech that precedes a noun phrase which serves as its object; the combination of the preposition and the noun phrase is referred to as the prepositional phrase. According to Martha Kolln, prepositions are some of the most common words in our language, and the prepositional phrase adds detail to or makes clear the noun serving as its object. Preposition and prepositional phrases can act as adverbial modifiers when they’re playing the role of an adverb, as in the sentence, The boys are playing in the street. Or they can act as adjectival modifiers when they’re serving as adjectives, as in the sentence, The phone on the desk is mine.
The grammar rule that my future wife had gently accused me of violating states, according to three expert grammarians, that “you should never end a sentence with a preposition” (Klammer, Schulz, and Volpe 277). This rule only comes into play when we have an unknown object for a preposition, as is the case with the question I posed or with a similar question pattern we often hear: “Who are you going to the movies with?” I didn’t know where my wife would be or I would have had an object to use with my preposition. So according to this rule, the question I posed would be correctly phrased as, “At where will you be?”
However, as these three experts also argue, most speakers of American English would perceive this as a more formal ways of phrasing the question, a mode that isn’t necessarily appropriate for an informal conversation with one’s fiancée. To use the phrasing, “At where will you be?” may have elicited an even stronger reaction from my bride-to-be. A good compromise is to simply leave out the preposition altogether, resulting in the phrasing, “Where will you be?” This doesn’t work quite as well the other common application of the rule in questions such as, “Who did Jenny go to the movies with?” Again, the correct phrasing, “With whom did Jenny go to the movies?” wouldn’t sound very good in informal company, and simply leaving out the preposition doesn’t work in cases like this one. Citing this rule as one that we should mostly follow in truly formal contexts is likely the best way out of this conundrum.
Worried perhaps at my silence as I tried to figure out this rule and how it should have applied to what I said, my wife was quick to add to her suggestion: “I only say it because my dad’s always given me a hard time about ending with ‘at.’” And since we were going to be married shortly, it was probably wise to avoid stumbling like this in front of her dad. She helped me see her correction as being done in a loving spirit, as she has consistently been able to do for the past twenty years of a marriage that, I’m happy to report, is still going strong.
Kolln, Martha and Robert Funk. Understanding English Grammar. 8th ed. New York: Pearson, 2009. Print.
Klammer, Thomas, Muriel Schulz, and Angela Della Volpe. Analyzing English Grammar. 5th ed. New York: Pearson, 2007. Print.