Mastering Written Sentences: What It Is

This self-instructional workbook is designed to develop skills in analyzing, fixing, and revising sentences to make them correct, clear, and effective. This is its exclusive focus. Obviously, then, it’s not a complete course text, but a supplement to be used along with instruction on other aspects of writing. As a supplement, it needs to be flexible—both adaptable to students’ varying needs in this area and to the broader goals of the course, and easy for students to use on their own, and for teachers to assign and monitor. And to justify requiring students to buy and use it, possibly in addition to other texts or materials, it should address a significant and general need not addressed in these other materials, or not addressed as effectively. Mastering Written Sentences fulfills these requirements for an effective supplemental workbook. To defend this assertion, we need first to discuss the student populations who need what it offers, the principles of written language acquisition it follows, its distinctive features, and the appropriateness of self- instruction as its delivery system.

Who Can Use This Book

In the authors’ experience, problems in generating clear, effective, and even basically correct sentences are more characteristic of average adult writers than are other problems of correctness. For developmental students such problems are perhaps their most persistent ones. Consequently, most of the more advanced students enrolled in developmental courses, ESL students with a good grasp of grammatical forms, and not a few students in regular college composition and beyond continue to need more help on the sentence level than writing instructors can afford to provide in class or in conferences. Yet the methods used in almost all available self- help writing workbooks make irrelevant distinctions, provide ineffectual, unsystematic practice, and fail to apply even the relevant rules to students’ own writing. Such methods make it nearly impossible for students to learn syntax from these books. Mastering Written Sentences, in contrast, can meet these students’ needs.

Why This Book Works: Its Guiding Principles

In writing this book, we have been guided by widely-held but too infrequently applied interdependent principles of written language acquisition. These underlying principles are:
  1. English syntax is a system whose principles learners must grasp on some level before they can control the complex structures of written sentences in their own writing.
  2. Only when learners have objectified their intuitions about the structure of written sentences, and have them clearly in their conscious lines of sight, can they move beyond them to write not only correct but also clearer and more effective sentences.
  3. However, a thorough grasp of a few absolutely basic principles of sentence structure will serve the needs of novice writers far better than their attempts to learn most of the terms and concepts of traditional grammar.
  4. Rules, even when fully mastered as such, will become operative only when reinforced by extensive practice.
  5. To be effective, this practice must be systematic and incremental, and executed in contexts of ever-increasing difficulty.
  6. Since meaning arises generally not from sentences in isolation, but from the relationships among them, and since focus on form is unrealistically easy when meaning is limited, it follows that sentences used for such practice should be contextualized within a framework of related meanings, and as often as possible be arranged in actual paragraph form.
  7. If such practice, no matter how expertly devised, is to be ultimately effective, students must apply its principles step by step to their own writing, with some feedback from a teacher or tutor or from fellow students working in small groups.
  8. Self-instruction, with some supervision and support, can be more effective in certain ways than whole-class instruction as a method of learning the basics of skills like sentence construction, governed as such skills are by invariant rules or by principles of limited variability.

How This Book Works: Its Distinctive Features

The principles of written language acquisition, as above formulated, have shaped the book’s distinctive features: The focus of Mastering Written Sentences may seem limited, but the problem it effectively addresses is general and persistent among students in and beyond developmental courses. The population that needs this work is diffuse, but because the book is simultaneously supplemental and self-instructional, it can serve the needs of all these students and their teachers efficiently and competently, in whatever writing courses they’re enrolled.

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version 3.1, last revised 4 August 1998