The Mathematics of Writing

  • On 2012-10-31
  • Learning Spy, Writing

Today I have a guest post, mainly because I liked this post soooo much that I had to repost it. This post is from David Didau who calls his Blog  “The Learning Spy”. I quite enjoy reading his updates as he has similar thoughts and ideas as I do but his context is that he is a teacher in the UK and he is an English Teacher. Now while I was OK at English I was really great at Mathematics and Science. This article (partially reproduced here) made so much sense to me as a mathematician and engineer that I thought it worth reproducing.


How are most children taught writing? Badly.

8 weeks ago I took over an AS English Language class in which none of the students had a clear understanding of the difference between a noun and a verb. How is that they have got so far through formal education with absolutely no explicit understanding of how sentences work? The answer, my friend, is that teachers’ own language skills are just not up to snuff.

I had an argument with Phil Beadle recently in which he maintained that he’d never met an English teacher who a) knew what a sentence was and b) knew how to use a comma. I was shocked. Could this really be true? Obviously I proceded to demonstrate my own understanding in true show off style but this merely disguises the problem he was trying to describe. It really doesn’t undermine his argument to say, I’ve only met one English teacher who knows what a sentence is. (See below for definitions.)

Like most English teachers, I’m a graduate of English Literature and, like most people my age, I escaped any hint of grammar teaching in my own education. My great good fortune was to teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL) before becoming a ‘real’ teacher. I had to get to grips with my trusty copy of Michael Swann’s Practical English Usage in fairly short order to be able to field the steady stream of questions about present participles and phrasal verbs.

As products of this system, the modern English teacher is very comfortable discussing metaphor, alliteration and other literary techniques but is often rather out of their depths with semi colons and conjunctions. Needless to say, if we don’t know these things, there’s little chance they will!

My personal bête noir is the lie that you put a comma where you take a breath. I’ve lost count of the number of children that I’ve had to disabuse of this misapprehension: it is simply not true. That said, knowing that punctuation marks where originally notation for actors on how to read scripts does give some credence to this theory and while it’s still fairly useful advice that you might take a breath where you see a comma, it’s certainly bad advice for our putative writer. So what to do?

Well, the teaching of punctuation deserves a post of its own; here it is my intention to demonstrate how approaching sentence construction from the logical and precise stand point of the mathematician might be helpful. Basically, one has to start by knowing that a sentence must contain the following elements:

  1. A subject. This is the noun (or noun phrase) about which the sentence is about
  2. A verb. This is the process by which the subject interacts with the object. It is not a ‘doing word’.
  3. An object. This is the noun (or noun phrase) with which the subject is interacting.

For instance: I (the subject) am (the verb) a teacher (the object).

The observant among you may have noticed that I failed to label ‘a’ (an indefinite article) and that’s deliberate. For one, I don’t want to over burden anyone and also they aren’t required in a sentence. A better, purer example perhaps might be:

David (subject) loves (verb) English (object).

This understanding of the SVO structure can then be applied to existing sentences. Here’s one entirely at random from earlier in the post:

Like most English teachers, I’m a graduate of English Literature and, like most people my age, I escaped any hint of grammar teaching in my own education.

Now, this is a fairly complex sentence made up of 4 different clauses which I’ll try to deconstruct into its component parts:

To continue to see how her breaks it all down mathematically go here The Learning Spy: The Mathematics of Writing



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