Grammar Lessons for Descriptive Writing

As much as I love marking, it can be one the quickest and most efficient ways to make me feel like a failure.  This sensation struck me in spades last term after I marked my classes’ efforts at descriptive writing coursework – part of the Cambridge iGCSE course. As I’m only able to give general comments about students’ work, much of the marking involves identifying trends across the set of drafts and adapting my planning accordingly.

What I’ve noticed recently, is that many of the problems with their descriptive writing seem to be linked to a lack of grammatical knowledge – and that perhaps a few grammar lessons might be the antidote to our descriptive difficulties. I’d like to share four of these short lessons.

1. Know your auxiliaries

I’m sure all teachers have encountered the curious phenomenon of the floating subordinate clause. Typically, these start with a subordinating conjunction, give you a piece of extra information, but never the main idea of the sentence. The grammatical equivalent of eating the sandwich filling without two slices of bread. For instance:

Wherever I lay my hat.

Of course, some students quickly realise that this sentence is unfinished. However, it can be useful to explain explicitly that words like ‘wherever’  do a special grammatical job of introducing subordinate clauses. Depending on your own preferences, you may refer to this type of clause as a ‘dependent clause’. In this case, the dependent clause ‘wherever I lay my hat’ only makes sense with the independent clause ‘that’s my home’.

I always expect some students to make this sort of error in their writing, but after reading the first wave of descriptive writing pieces, I noticed another strange occurrence. This example was typical for large chunks of some of my student’s extended descriptive writing:

Cars speeding along the streets at the speed of light. Pedestrians everywhere walking along the streets like shoals of fish. People looking around hoping to stay safe.*

I showed my students this example, which I’d written to mimic their style, and was surprised at how few of them noticed the issue independently. After this, I shared with my students the following list of auxiliary verbs:

  • be (amareiswaswerebeing),
  • do (diddoesdoing),
  • have (hadhashaving),
  • Modal Auxiliaries (maymightmustshallshouldwillwould, can, could)

What these verbs help us do is express when a certain action occurs. Take the verb ‘glancing’. Out of context, it’s difficult to say with certainty when the glancing happens. I asked students to experiment with auxiliary verbs, writing sentences with the glancing occurring at different times.

Armed with this list, students were then able to redraft and edit their writing, ensuring their were no odd timeless sentences.

(I hope at this point, that no-one who’s read the opening of Hard Times accuses me of discouraging any young Dickens!)

2. Verb Choices

One of the cornerstones of descriptive writing is how students evoke sensory imagery. However when attempting this, student’s writing can easily degenerate into bland lists of different sensations. I wrote this example to show my students, again as a result of reading their work:

He could smell the gorgeous baking smell of the pizza in the oven. The smell was absolutely delicious. Then, the oven beeped. As soon as he heard the beeping noise he leapt abruptly out of his seat, hurtling his way through the living room door. Through the window he saw the melting cheese and the delicious cooked chicken.

Even though this example tries to evoke the senses, the end result is a little dry and repetitive. Part of the reason for this is the lack of variety in the verb choices.

One the set texts during my undergraduate course was Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide. When deconstructing sentences, all verbs are described as ‘processes’. These processes can then be broken down into sub groups. For instance, processes like ‘was’, ‘are’ and ‘have’ can be deemed ‘relational’ processes, as they encode relationships about ‘having’ or ‘being’. Processes to do with thinking, emoting or sensing are defined as ‘mental processes’, and those to do with action / doing are ‘material processes’.

In the descriptive writing above, the following processes are used:

  • smell heard saw (Mental Processes)
  • was (Relational Processes)
  • leapt beeped hurtling (Material processes)

The problem with how students often write sensory descriptions, is that they rely heavily on mental and relational processes. Perhaps, this is because it’s with these processes and the accompanying words that we most clearly understand our own experiences. If I smell a pizza, I probably think that I am smelling a pizza – not that the smell of the pizza is drifting towards my nostrils. But, if students can rebel against their instincts and attempt to describe sensory events with material processes, their descriptive writing will reap the benefits.

Instead of: “He could smell the gorgeous baking smell of the pizza in the oven.”

They might write: “The gorgeous baking smell of the pizza invaded his defenseless nostrils.”

If we encourage students to be more aware of their verb choices and encourage them to use ‘doing’ verbs (or material processes), we might find their writing a little more inventive. This is also a neat way to get students to become familiar with the mechanics of personification.

In terms of making this clear to the students, I think the terminology explained by David Didau in his post on functional grammar might be more useful.

3. Effective Comparisons

After reading around 50 pieces of descriptive writing, I was just about ready to ban the use of all similes. Buildings as tall as giants, grass as green as carpets – I’d read them all. The problem is, I think students are so use to being told that similes are necessarily a good ‘descriptive writing technique’, that they include them unthinkingly, without questioning the nature of the two objects they compare. I’ve tried to counter this in two ways. Firstly, through explicit questioning of what similes are for.

Take this example beautiful example from Stoner:

Stoner tried to explain to his father what he intended to do, tried to evoke in him his own sense of significance and purpose. He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist.

After giving my students the context of this simile, we were able to question exactly what thoughts and feelings the comparison evokes. What can we infer about the father’s face if it’s like a stone? If words are like the repeated blows of a fist, what can we tell about these words? What impact are the having on the stone?

Using structured questions, the students then analysed their own choices of similes, cutting any that did not provide interesting enough comparisons.

The second activity we completed was designed to try and help students make subtle comparisons without resorting to simple similes. The first stage to this was asking students to list any vocabulary to do with a specific topic, such as the ocean, music, or wild animals. We then subdivided these words into classes. For instance, our list of verbs to do with the ocean may have included swept, sailed, glided and crashed. Once we’d shared ideas, and created a larger list of vocabulary, students were asked to use this language to describe another scene, like a city. By using the vocabulary from their ‘music’ or ‘ocean’ lists, the students were essentially writing extended metaphors – evoking comparisons without cliched similes.

4. The problem with pronouns

I think the problem of pronouns isn’t too dissimilar to the problem with verb choices. If students tend to use mental process when writing about senses, they also tend to use ‘I’ when writing descriptions, imagining themselves as the epicentre of their writing – describing experiences through their own viewpoint. Although some students can carry this off well, too often using first person pronouns can be limiting. If students are restricted to describing experiences through a single point of view, it can prevent them from the freedom allowed by the third person omniscient narrator. Also, descriptive writing can often degenerate into simple narratives, as students imagine how they’d behave in a given environment rather than bringing that environment to life.

I also noticed a strange tendency for some of my year 11s to lean towards using ‘you’ and ‘your’ in their descriptive writing. I always find this approach oddly direct and a little uncomfortable when reading. To counter this, I shared this table of personal pronouns. For some, I was strict and simply asked them to delete every ‘you’. For others, a little more consistency was needed, as they were drifting between first/second/third person in almost every paragraph.


Simply using only third person personal pronouns will not always solve this problem – repetitive use of any pronoun can harm a piece of writing. Like with the auxiliary verbs, my goal with introducing the table of personal pronouns was to increase students’ awareness of language, and get them to start questioning their choices.

I think this is the common theme with all these grammar lessons. Increasing my students’ grammatical awareness, I hope, will increase how much they think about their grammatical choices.

3 thoughts on “Grammar Lessons for Descriptive Writing

  1. Pingback: Explicit Grammar Lessons: Relative Clauses | mrbunkeredu

  2. Pingback: Rules for Novice Writers | mrbunkeredu

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