Allow me to ‘explain you’ something: The inevitability of modern syntactic change

**This post also appeared on The Speculative Blog on Quora**

When it comes to English, I have two minds. My prescriptive mind says there are certain, immutable rules in the language that should never be broken. Conversely, my descriptive mind says, “Hey, chill out. Language changes all the time, and you should not only deal with it, you should embrace it!” These two minds are in constant conflict, especially in my classroom. On one hand, it’s my job to teach students how to speak and write “properly,” and yet, I know that what is “proper” English now may be archaic and non-standard in the (very near) future.

This brings me to a recent observation: there is a syntactic change taking place in English with the phrase ‘explain you’ and its variants. My students use this modern, slang-style brocabulary in conversations, saying things like, “I will explain you it.” Native (read: old) speakers will note the cognitive dissonance of that sentence. It should be, “I will explain it to you,” but the syntax is inverted. Weird, right?

Maybe not…

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Garden path sentences, or “When the old man the boat, the young duck the oars.”

Native speakers of a language usually don’t have too much difficulty understanding what other native speakers are saying. That’s why grammar is so cool (to people like me). When you read the words in this sentence, your brain processes the syntax in real time, and everything makes sense. Sure, you might need to go back and reread a word or sentence every now and again if you get lost or distracted, but for the most part, reading is a pretty seamless exercise for the average literate person on the internet. Our brains just know when the syntax of a sentence works. Likewise, our brain gets hung up when the grammar is off. For an example, look at the following sentence:

horse raced

No doubt you probably had to go back and reread that sentence a couple of times to try to make sense of it. Most of you probably still can’t make it work. Your brain is telling you something’s not right. When your brain started reading the sentence, it assumed a horse was racing past a barn, but by the time you got to the end, your brain saw the barn falling. Your brain tells you that the syntax can’t make both of those things work. What the heck is going on? Is there such a thing as a “barn fell” that the horse ran past? No? Then clearly the sentence is just plain wrong, right?

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A little perspective…

Over the weekend, some terrible stuff happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m not going to throw my two political cents into the fray because there are already plenty of opinions out there on the issue.

Instead, I want to talk about perspective. And my students.

As an English teacher, I spend a lot of my time asking people how things would be different:

  • How would the story be different if it were told from a different character’s perspective?
  • How would the conflict change if a certain event hadn’t happened or happened differently?
  • How can one character make another character understand his point of view?

It’s difficult for the students to think critically enough to answer some of these questions. Heck, it’s difficult for many adults to think critically about things like this. And even when we confront these questions earnestly, there’s no guarantee that the assumptions we’re making are sensible or well-informed, let alone correct. Most of the deeper implications of this problem are lost on eleven-year-olds, so I play a little trick on my students to illustrate the perspective problem.

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10 emergency classroom items for teachers (of either gender, really…)

Ok, so I was trying to avoid possible sexism in the title of this post, but I didn’t want to call it “10 emergency classroom items for teachers” and imply that I knew what female teachers needed. At the same time, I didn’t want to call it “10 emergency classroom items for male teachers” and appear to alienate three quarters of America’s educators.

Thus, I present to you, “10 emergency items for teachers (of either gender, really, but with a slight bias toward men…possibly).”


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My Focus Brick: Some advice for teachers

I originally posted this on Quora. as a response to the question, “What’s a great piece of advice for teachers?” It resonated with many people on the site, so I wanted to share it here on my teaching blog as well.

What’s a great piece of advice for teachers?

This is my “Focus Brick” in my classroom:


It’s in the top-center of my back wall so it faces me while I’m teaching. It’s just a regular old brick with the letters “TJK” written in washable marker. There’s not much to it, but it’s an incredibly effective tool for me because it’s a constant reminder of something I frequently forget:

They’re Just Kids.

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Making the Mundane Interesting

I tell my students:

I’m going to read a story to you, but there’s a warning: it’s a disturbing story. It’s not suitable for all audiences, and I’ll understand if anyone wants to leave before I begin. Seriously.

Anyone want to leave? No? I don’t want to get any angry emails from your parents about this, ok? Ok.

Everything in this story is based on true events. This is real, it’s horrifying, and it happens every day. I’m going to relate the tale from the perspective of one who experienced it first-hand. Here it is:

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Drawing Lines: The Notebook Lesson

I’ve always liked using writers’ notebooks in my class. They’re great for journaling, drafting, general brainstorming…even doodling. In the past, however, I never really associated any pomp and circumstance with these writers’ journals at the beginning of the year. The exchange was more of a “Hey guys, can you all bring a spiral-bound notebook for a writing journal? Cool.” That was it. The magic was in the process of USING the journal over the course of the school year.

I wanted to try something different this year. I’m sure I’m not the first teacher to do something like this, but I went out and purchased spiral notebooks for EVERY ONE of my 6th grade students this year (they were 17 cents at Wal-Mart and Big Lots, so the investment was worth it). I feel like the act of giving every student a notebook makes it more personal.

On the second day of school, I gave my students these notebooks, but before I presented them to the kids, I provided a bit of ceremony, and in my long-winded fashion, I said:

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