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Common Core Standards: ELA See All Teacher Resources



Grades 11-12

Language L.11-12.3

Knowledge of Language

L.11-12.3. Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

  • Vary syntax for effect, consulting references (e.g., Tufte’s Artful Sentences) for guidance as needed; apply an understanding of syntax to the study of complex texts when reading.

“Syntax” is the name given to the rules that govern sentence structure in any given language, including English. Varying syntax when writing shows a mastery of the language, and it allows students to emphasize or de-emphasize certain ideas based on where and how they are placed into sentences. Understanding syntax also helps students understand emphasis while reading, giving them a broader insight into what’s being said in a text.

P.S. If your students need to brush up on their spelling and grammar, send 'em over to our Grammar Learning Guides so they can hone their skills before conquering the Common Core.

Standard Components

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Teaching Guides Using this Standard

Example 1

Sample Activities for Use in Class

1. Sentence Combining

Combine students into small groups and give each group the following selections of short sentences. The groups should work together to find at least two ways to combine each selection of short sentences into a single sentence. When each group has finished, get the class together as a whole and discuss the long sentences each group came up with. What does each long sentence emphasize, and what does it conceal through de-emphasis? When would each type of sentence be the most appropriate or effective?

The books were school-books.
The books were in the attic.
The books were old.
Nobody had read the books for years.

The kittens are thin.
The kittens are black and white.
The kittens are friendly.

The motorcycle is not large.
The motorcycle is not heavy.
The motorcycle is powerful.

Example 2

2. New York is a city. It is a city of things. The things are unnoticed.

(Adapted from http://grammar.about.com/od/tests/a/scnewyork.htm)

Have students read the following passage from Gay Talese’s “New York is a City of Things Unnoticed,” paying attention to how Talese constructs his sentences and how they vary. Then, have students construct their own sentences using the short sentences in the six questions below. Students may also combine numbers - or some sentences from different numbers - to create sentences.

New York is a city of things unnoticed. It is a city with cats sleeping under parked cars, two stone armadillos crawling up St. Patrick's Cathedral, and thousands of ants creeping on top of the Empire State Building. The ants probably were carried up there by wind or birds, but nobody is sure; nobody in New York knows any more about the ants than they do about the panhandler who takes taxis to the Bowery; or the dapper man who picks trash out of Sixth Avenue trash cans; or the medium in the West Seventies who claims, "I am clairvoyant, clairaudient, and clairsensuous."

New York is a city for eccentrics and a center for odd bits of information. New Yorkers blink twenty-eight times a minute, but forty when tense. Most popcorn chewers at Yankee Stadium stop chewing momentarily just before the pitch. Gum chewers on Macy's escalators stop chewing momentarily just before they get off--to concentrate on the last step. Coins, paper clips, ballpoint pens, and little girls' pocketbooks are found by workmen when they clean the sea lions' pool at the Bronx Zoo.

A saxophone player stands on the sidewalk.
He stands there each afternoon.
He is in New York.
He is rather seedy.
He plays Danny Boy.

He plays in a sad way.
He plays in a sensitive way.
He soon has half the neighborhood peeking out of windows.
They toss nickels, dimes, and quarters at his feet.

Some of the coins roll under parked cars.
Most of them are caught in his hand.
His hand is outstretched.

The saxophone player is a street musician.
He is named Joe Gabler.

He has serenaded every block in New York City.
He has been serenading for the past thirty years.
He has sometimes been tossed as much as $100 a day.
This $100 is in coins.

He is also hit with buckets of water.
He is hit with beer cans.
The cans are empty.
He is chased by wild dogs.

Quiz 1 Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. The word “syntax” refers to:

    Correct Answer:

    The many different ways in which sentences can be constructed in a language.

  2. One reason to study and understand syntax is:

    Correct Answer:

    To read, write, and understand more effective arguments by changing the sentence to emphasize certain parts.

  3. Questions 3 and 4 are based on the following four short sentences:

    Laura went downstairs.
    The stairs were wooden.
    The stairs led to the cellar.
    The cellar had been whitewashed.

    Which of the following includes all the information in the four short sentences above AND is a single complete sentence in standard American English?

    Correct Answer:

    The wooden stairs led Laura into the cellar, where the walls had been whitewashed.

    Answer Explanation:

    (b) - This sentence contains all the details mentioned in the four sentences, and it is also syntactically correct.

  4. Suppose you need to use the information in these four sentences in a paragraph that emphasizes the whitewashed cellar walls. Which of the following sentences uses all the information and emphasizes the whitewashing?

    Correct Answer:

    The whitewashed walls of the cellar greeted Laura as she came down the wooden stairs.

    Answer Explanation:

    (a) - By placing the detail about the whitewashed walls upfront, this sentence emphasizes the whitewashing.

  5. If you want to change your syntax by combining two complete sentences that express closely related ideas, the MOST useful punctuation mark is:

    Correct Answer:


    Answer Explanation:

    (a) - The other punctuation choices do not link sentences or ideas.

  6. One reason to put similar words, like a list of adjectives, into a series is:

    Correct Answer:

    To make the list easier for the reader to follow by making all the grammatical structures for each item the same.

    Answer Explanation:

    (c) - A list that uses words which have different grammatical structures can be confusing to follow.

  7. Why is it a good idea to vary the length of your sentences?

    Correct Answer:

    It keeps the reader interested.

    Answer Explanation:

    (d) - Sentences with the same lengths can get monotonous to follow.

  8. Which of the following items is NOT improved by paying attention to your syntax?

    Correct Answer:

    The amount of paper or screen space your work takes up.

    Answer Explanation:

    (c) - While syntax can’t help you with this one, editing can!

  9. Changing syntax to put a certain word or phrase at the beginning or end of a sentence is MOST useful when you are trying to do what?

    Correct Answer:

    Emphasize the word or phrase.

    Answer Explanation:

    (a) - The details that a reader reads first or last are often the ones they remember best.

  10. In addition to helping you write better poetry or rap lyrics, changing your syntax to improve the rhythm of your writing does what?

    Correct Answer:

    Creates a “flow” that helps strengthen the overall meaning of your writing.

    Answer Explanation:

    (b) - Sentences with awkward syntax can be difficult for your reader to follow.

Quiz 2 Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. Questions 1-3 are based on the following short sentences:

    A mirror hung on the wall.
    The mirror was in the living room.
    The mirror was long.
    The mirror was dirty.
    Clarissa could not see her face in the mirror.

    Which of the following sentences does NOT use all the information in the short sentences above?

    Correct Answer:

    Clarissa could not see her face in the mirror hanging on the living room wall.

    Answer Explanation:

    (b) - This sentence leaves out details about the mirror being long and dirty.

  2. If you wanted to combine the sentences above into a sentence that emphasized the fact that Clarissa was looking into the mirror, which of the following syntax tools would you be LEAST likely to use?

    Correct Answer:

    Leave Clarissa’s name out of the sentence(s) entirely.

    Answer Explanation:

    (e) - This would achieve the complete opposite effect -- rather than emphasizing that Clarissa was looking into the mirror, it would not reveal who was looking into the mirror.

  3. If you wanted to combine the sentences above into a sentence that included all the information, but was from the mirror’s point of view, which of the following syntax rules would you be MOST likely to use?

    Correct Answer:

    Make the mirror the subject of the sentence.

    Answer Explanation:

    (a) - This would emphasize the role the mirror plays rather than focusing on Clarissa.

  4. Which of the following tools will NOT help you change the syntax of your sentences?

    Correct Answer:

    Spelling rules, which standardize which letters make up which words.

    Answer Explanation:

    (d) - Spelling rules matter only to the words themselves, and not to the rules that link the words together.

  5. If you want to combine sentences by putting words into a series, which of the following punctuation marks will be MOST helpful?

    Correct Answer:


    Answer Explanation:

    (c) - These are most frequently used to separate the various items in a series.

  6. The word or phrase that describes how a sentence is put together is:

    Correct Answer:


    Answer Explanation:

    (d) - The other choices are either literary devices or parts of speech.

  7. Understanding how syntax works can help you:

    Correct Answer:

    All of the above are reasons to understand how syntax works.

    Answer Explanation:

    (e) - Yep! Syntax can do a lot!

  8. Keeping your sentences all the same length is NOT a good idea because:

    Correct Answer:

    It might bore your reader, who then will stop paying attention to what you have to say.

    Answer Explanation:

    (a) - A monotonous writing style will lead to bored readers; this can happen even if your ideas are good.

  9. Which of the following qualities can you improve by paying attention to syntax?

    Correct Answer:

    All of the above.

  10. Which of the following is a good reason to use syntax to improve the clarity of your writing?

    Correct Answer:

    Clear writing is easy for your audience to understand and makes them feel smarter, not more confused.

More standards from Grades 11-12 - Language