Monday November 21, 2005

Quiz #4

Part of my responsibilities as a TA in a traditional English grammar class is writing and correcting quizzes (including coming up with bonus questions).  There are six quizzes over the course of the ten-week quarter, and we just had the fourth on this Friday.  I spent all day correcting it—a laugh riot, let me tell you—and I wanted to share the high points.

Up until this quiz, I'd been reining in my natural urge to make up (allegedly) witty example sentences, but after seeing our textbook's sentences about such diverse characters as Sherlock Holmes and TV's Tiny Tim, I decided there was no reason to be so boring.  Here's the cream of the crop:

The tinfoil covering his head was his only protection against telepathy.
Her obsession with Marky Mark was pretty disturbing.
We enjoy diagramming sentences.
To live with a death mark is not an easy thing.
    (Not an exact quote, but I needed an infinitive phrase used as a noun.)
Clark fooled his coworkers by wearing a pair of thick glasses.
Being green is not easy.
    (Another paraphrase, unfortunately, but I need a gerundive phrase.)

At the end of the quiz, there were three rather complex sentences the students had to diagram.  (Sentence diagramming RULES, by the way.)  We had warned the students that some of the sentences might be ambiguous, but that as long as they diagrammed a reading that had a reasonable real-world meaning, they'd get credit.  For example, given the sentence:

His hobby was watching TV.

...we'd give credit for the reading where the activity of watching TV was his hobby (was=linking verb, watching TV=gerund), but not the one where his hobby was sitting on a couch watching TV (was watching=progressive verb)—because, dude, hobbies don't watch TV!

Anyway, one of the sentences they had to diagram was:

The curator worried about preserving the ancient scrolls in the library.

This sentence was intended to be three-ways ambiguous, depending on where the prepositional phrase in the library attaches: it could be either the worrying or the preserving that took place in the library, or else the scrolls themselves could be in the library.  Many students diagrammed the sentences where in the library modifies scrolls and preserving, while just one diagrammed it as modifying worried.  However, one more student managed to find a reading I hadn't intended at all.  Do you see it?  It's:

The curator [worried about preserving the ancient] scrolls in the library.

...where the bracketed words are a participial phrase modifying curator, and scrolls is a verb.  Cool!  I'm still debating whether I'm going to give credit for it, though—although the student's diagram did show curator as the subject and scrolls as the verb, the participial phrase and the gerund it includes weren't diagrammed correctly at all, so I suspect that it might have been an accident.  What's more, that reading is pretty nonsensical—what's it supposed to mean that the curator scrolls in the library, after all?  So, maybe several points off for the parts that were diagrammed wrong, but a bonus point for thinking outside the box.  Outside the box is good, but being so far outside the box you fall off the table is not.

[Now playing, "I Just Wanna Get Along" by The Breeders]

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Clearly the curator is browsing the internet.

Posted by: David Moles at Nov 21, 2005 6:06:50 AM

Hm. These people's hobbies might well be watching TV:

Posted by: at Nov 21, 2005 4:28:38 PM

"Being green is not easy"

If you were to say "It's not easy being green", would "being green" not still be a gerundive phrase? If not Kermit, whom or what were you quoting?

Posted by: Kept at Nov 27, 2005 5:16:24 PM

I said paraphrase, not quote.

When we make the quizzes for this quarter, we're working off the quizzes from last quarter, and generally try to take the old sentences and replace them word-by-word with new sentences with the same grammatical structure. This helps avoid (but does not, alas, entirely prevent) the occurrence of unexpected ambiguities and structures the students have yet to learn. For example, "It's not easy being green" has an expletive subject, which we haven't talked about in class yet.

Posted by: The Tensor at Nov 27, 2005 5:59:55 PM