English language teaching: A logical approach using 14 functional components

This is a basic exposition of a new method of teaching the English language, evolved over a period of at least 25 years. So there’s a personal story behind this, which I’m presenting first (Part 1), to give you the gist of it. But then, there’s also the technical side to it, which is what makes this method authentic, practically relatable, and reproduceable. These technical aspects—which help one to arrive at the same conclusions reached by a grammatical/linguistic approach—are the ones that make it an acceptable and refreshingly new method for teaching the English language. These aspects will be understandably long, and I'm presenting them in Part 2.

Part 1: The story in brief

I picked up the reading habit probably as a kid, when I began reading Enid Blyton. But my understanding of English was tested to the hilt when I began by PhD program. I remember lying on the terrace of a hostel, looking at the stars and crying, as I could not understand much of what I was reading in any of the clinical biochemistry journals that covered my field of interest. But by the time I was through with my PhD 7½ years later, I felt pretty sure that I could understand the gist of anything, as long as it was written in English.

I had to take charge of a team soon after I became a copyeditor, and this meant teaching and training the people reporting to me. In school and college, grammar was never a problem. We simply had to do give the correct answers, which I managed to with the English I had picked from my reading habit, without having to understand all the grammar. But when I had to teach people, I was asked questions like What is a predicate adjective? and What is an adverbial clause of time? and I felt quite handicapped. I tried to explain things is simple English, using whatever logic I could summon at the moment. I realized that I had to learn a lot more if I have to keep up with the barrage of questions that were constantly directed at me. But there were deeper issues: not only did I not know the meaning of those grammatical terms, I did not like them either—it was as if they took out the very charm of the English language that I enjoyed so much. Pondering over this problem, I felt that there must be some simple logic behind all these myriad grammatical terms. With that intuitive faith, I started reading as many books and styles manuals as possible. And no matter what grammatical term or concept I read about, I tried to understand them in terms of simple logical things I was doing while editing sentences. This was a challenging as well as enjoyable experience, and within a few years I had jotted down 55+ logical ways of editing sentences.

Time passed, and I was quite successful in training copyeditors and establishing departments wherever I worked. One night, Vivek, one of first students, nudged me to make a presentation at an upcoming international conference. (You can read more about Vivek here.) My spiritual guru insisted that I do it. And the company I was working in also agreed to finance the travel expenses of my foreign trip. Everything seemed to work in a direction I had never thought of.

It was June 2015. Among the many speakers at the conference, I was probably the odd man out: I was the only speaker from Asia at Editing Goes Global, the first international conference for editors, held at Toronto, Canada, by The Editors’ Association of Canada. It was still odder that the topic of my presentation was Precise and Uniform Definitions of Light, Standard, and Professional Editing—A Proposal. (You can see the entire presentation on my LinkedIn profile.) When even The Elements of Style (which I had studied for many years) had been described as "an overopinionated and underinformed little book," and its authors had been amusingly described as "a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten rules," where would I stand as a lone Asian voice? Jokes apart, I wasn't really frightened: I had sincerely lived through every line and concept in my presentation.

My presentation was a summary of some principles I had garnered while training people in copyediting for over 15 years. Almost every organization had a professional standards document, but all these were in terms of how the final product should be. The entire focus of my working life, however, had been to train people in copyediting and gradually make them better at it. This involved teaching of English and its nuances, as well as assessing how they understood concepts, applied them in live work, and became better at this over time. So my own documentation of things was quite different: it was geared toward indications of what a copyeditor should be capable of doing at different stages of editorial growth (and by extension, at different levels of editing).

My presentation was based on two things:

  • Over 200 principles of written English, condensed into 14 rules of writing (say, Column 1) and
  • What I expected a copyeditor to do on each of these rules (plus a few more copyediting parameters) at each of the three levels of editing (say, Columns 2–4).

My 14 "rules" of writing were (and still are) as follows:

Words and Sentences

1. Add an apostrophe followed by an s to indicate the possessive case of singular nouns.

2. Do not (physically or mentally) break sentences into two (or more) parts.

3. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

Grammar and Syntax

4. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.

5. Use parenthetic commas to set off nonrestrictive elements; do not, however, set off elements that are defining or essential for the meaning of the sentence.

6. Keep related words together.

7. An introductory element must be logically connected with the main clause.

8. Ensure that every pronoun (a) has an unambiguous antecedent, (b) takes the appropriate case, and (c) follows subject–verb agreement norms.

Punctuation Marks

9. To join two independent clauses, use (a) a comma followed by a conjunction, (b) a semicolon, or (c) a semicolon followed by a sentence modifier.

10. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.

11. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.

Beyond Grammar: Power of Expression

12. Express coordinate ideas in similar form.

13. Omit needless words.

14. Be judicious in the use of active and passive voice.

I explained the application of these rules using a flowchart called Logic-Based Sentence Editing. The flowchart had such a great appeal that people took snaps and posted them on social media.

I gave examples of the application of these rules at different levels of editing. The complete set of ideas, I said, could be used for

  • teaching and training
  • live editing
  • assessing the work done by an editor
  • defining levels of editing
  • helping editors to move from one level to another

And the last line of my presentation had a question: Can this be used as a method of teaching English at a certain (higher/collegiate) level?

At that time, this question was just an intuition. I felt I had something there in my approach to writing and editing, but I myself was not sure what it was. I just knew that my entire approach to understanding and explaining the English language was different, although I could not explain it even to myself. At the end of my session, there were quite some questions from the audience—I had condensed almost 600 pages of my writings to just one hour of presentation—but no one asked me anything about what I meant by a new method. I assume many got carried away by the flowchart.

Four years passed. Toward the end of 2019, I was teaching the basics of copyediting to a batch of 20 people in a company. Right from the beginning, I had my apprehensions about the group, and my fears were confirmed when we moved from reference styling to the language-editing sessions. The group confessed that they did not have much of a reading habit. I was at a loss: all through my years in the field, I've had some copyeditors who did not have a good reading habit, but I'd never had to teach an entire batch that did not have an inclination for reading.

In desperation, I reasoned within myself: These were people who could see the words, understand what I was saying, but were still not able to make the connections mentally—the connections that I was trying to indicate verbally. It then struck me that if I could use different colors for different sets of words, I could probably help them see the connections that I was trying to explain. It was like trying to use bright colors to attract the attention of children. I started by using Word highlights, and it was soon apparent to me that the method was helpful for many of the learners. I managed to complete my training in a decent manner.

But there was still a basic question for which I did not have a complete answer. What are the types of words I have to highlight—and quite naturally, how many colors would I have to use? Initially, I simply added new highlight colors as and when necessary. But I explored this in greater detail during the pandemic (2020–2021), while teaching some editors online. I also replaced the highlights with shading (for practical reasons), and I created a Word template with character styles (and simple keyboard shortcuts) for applying these colors. Everyone agreed that the color-coding was helpful in understanding concepts, but no one seemed to think much beyond that.

But deep within me, I saw many things simply falling into place. With more teaching and training over the years, things became crystal clear. I felt I had not invented a new method; I had simply discovered certain things that had always been there in plain sight and were now revealed by the color-coding. I am summarizing my insights below.

The method

  • My method worked unfailingly on any sentence, no matter how strange or difficult the sentence, and no matter how it was structured.
  • I was able to see that I had a complete and visual system for teaching the English language.
  • I knew that my approach was very different from the way English was taught all over the globe. I had used Hornby’s Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary extensively during my college years, and the stamp of Hornby’s basic approach—explaining everything in terms of somebody or something—was still there, but I had still developed an entirely new system of my own.
  • The color-coding method is like a walking stick; we use it only as a learner—when we need some support to strengthen our understanding of the (many) basic principles. Once the concepts and understanding are clear, it becomes redundant (except perhaps when we want to analyze a tricky sentence).

Outcome and effect

  • The method is complete and self-contained: I have a logical method of proving whether something—anything—is right or wrong. Every sentence has its own signature, which indicates the number of subjects and actions, the parts, as well as their relationships with each other.
  • The method is so powerful that one could have a clear understanding of any sentence, and also explain it to anybody else, no matter how complex the sentence.
  • Earlier, I used to repeatedly tell my copyeditors to look at the dictionary for the most common words. The present system induced copyeditors to use the dictionary for these day-to-day words, and thus their understanding also improved quickly.

Implications of the method

  • We now have a logical and interesting method of teaching the English language—literally making it a joy to learn. Not only that; it makes use of a simple questioning method and the bare minimum of grammatical terms to explain the structure and meaning of sentences.
  • The editorial world, educators, and native speakers of the English language may find this approach refreshingly new. I will not be surprised if this approach finds its way into English textbooks in the future, as it will also be of help to anyone whose native tongue is not English.
  • The method serves to teach written English first at a basic level and then at a professional (editorial) level. We all know that everyone cannot edit—and those who opt to learn by this method in stages will automatically know whether general communication or editorial communication is their forte. That way, this method will serve as an automatic filter to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • This approach will also serve to raise the level of Indian editing to international standards—something that has required attention for over two decades.

Part 2: The technical details

The four stages

The overall approach can be broken down into four stages (4 courses, currently offered as the Foundational Skills for Employability and Earning program). The first three courses were developed quite early. The last course, as indicated in Part 1, was added much later.

  • Essentials of Written English. This, as mentioned earlier, covers over 200 principles of writing, gathered together in the form of 14 rules laid out in a certain order, each rule literally leading to the next.
  • Sentence Patterns 1 (SP1)—The restrictive–nonrestrictive conundrum. This outlines 21 basic patterns or ways in which restrictive and nonrestrictive elements present themselves in sentences. There is probably no book or website on the planet that talks of these patterns that are observable in formal writing.
  • Sentence Patterns 2 (SP2)—The number of subjects and number of associated actions. This outlines 37 structural patterns of sentences that may be observed after one understands the principles of writing expounded in the first course and observes the way they play out in practical writing.
  • Sentence Component Analysis and Identification. This outlines 14 components to be identified in sentences, using principles outlined in the first three courses.

As the Foundational Skills program is offered as a training and mentoring program, editors are taught to identify sentence components right from the first mentoring sessions. Color-coding of these components is introduced in the second course, when one begins an in-depth discussion of restrictive and nonrestrictive elements.

Components identified by color-coding

The Art of Copyediting approach to teaching English identifies (via shading) 14 functional components in sentences, as outlined below:

Some parts of speech

  • subject, object (nouns, pronouns) {Items 1 and 2}
  • verb, linking verb (verbs distinguished as two types) {Items 3 and 4}
  • conjunction {Item 5}
  • Other parts of speech that are NOT used in the identification
    • articles, adjectives (these are taken along with subjects/objects)
    • adverb (this is taken along with whatever component it modifies or whatever component it is closest to, even if modifies something else)
    • interjection (this component is not used/identified in academic editing; it may be used if one is color-coding sentences in fiction)

Functional building blocks

  • prepositional phrase [preposition + sth] {Item 6}
  • infinitive phrase (infinitive [to + verb] w/ or w/o an object/adjective) {Item 7}


  • Restrictive and nonrestrictive elements {Items 8 and 9}

Other components that give rise to various structural patterns (common in sentences that do not begin with the subject)

  • introductory element {Item 10}
  • attribution {Item 11}
  • expletive (It is/There is constructs) {Item 12}
  • expletive attribution (combination of expletive and attribution) {Item 13}
  • question {Item 14}
Principles of color-coding

I give below some principles of color-coding and some examples of color-coded sentences to explain them. Below each sentence is an abbreviated indication of the components identified.

  • The adjective is identified only when it stands alone (without an object) after the verb; to accommodate this variability, the object component is called object/adjective.


  • The linking verb indicates a state of existence. It is identified to alert one to “not-so-common” possibilities on either side of the verb (e.g., when the verb links a singular subject with a plural object and vice versa).

  •  An infinitive is still a phrase in a general sense; so the term infinitive phrase is used to identify any infinitive with or without a following noun or noun phrase.

  • Prepositional phrases and infinitive phrases are the only "building blocks" in sentences.

  •  Although prepositional phrases generally serve as building blocks, they can occasionally serve as restrictive elements.

  •  A sentence that does not begin with the subject is said to have an introductory element; even prepositional phrases or infinitive phrases at the beginning of sentences are identified only as introductory elements.

  • Restrictive and nonrestrictive elements are identified anywhere in a sentence (even in introductory elements). But within a restrictive or nonrestrictive element, only other restrictive or nonrestrictive elements are identified.

  • Conjunctions are identified only when they separate independent clauses or predicates.

  • Identifying attributions, expletive constructs, and expletive attributions help us to set apart these as specific parts and continue with our color-coding in the usual manner. A typical attribution (think of John reported that) will be followed by a clear independent clause, but not all attribution-like structures may be followed by an independent thought (compare the first two examples).


  • In questions, the word order may often be different. In simple questions, there will be only the question mark (and no extra word) that can serve as the question.



Questioning is the essence of the entire method.

  • The primary questions for any sentence are What is the subject? and What about the subject (i.e., what is the action associated with the subject)?
    • These two questions help in identifying the subject and the verb (and any possible s–v agreement issues). So anyone following this method will not make s–v agreement mistakes.
  • Anyone using his method will not also identify participles, gerunds, or infinitives as verbs even by mistake.
    • In this method, infinitive phrases are identified as such, gerunds are identified as nouns (either as such or as objects of prepositions or infinitives), and participles are identified as part of restrictive/nonrestrictive elements or nouns.
  • Questions are asked against every successive component and thus the sentence is reconstructed in a logical way.
    • For example, asking a question against the subject can let us know the verb and its correct form; asking a question against the verb can let us know about the subject (and whether it is singular or plural) or the object.
    • The questioning/reconstruction process basically uses the principle of keeping related words together, although it also takes into account variations in word order for various reasons.
    • The questioning process itself reveals any problems that may be present in a sentence.
  • The AOC questioning method also serves to set right article use.
    • When we ask questions against any component of a sentence (subject, verb, object, preposition, infinitive), the first word we utter in answer to that question will let us know whether an article is required or not.
Understanding the connections between the various parts of sentences
  • Prepositional phrases and infinitive phrases are the only building blocks in sentences. This has many implications.
  • A sentence plus a conjunction may be followed by
    • an independent clause or
    • a phrase or dependent clause
  • In the latter case, the phrase or clause will have a noun or verb at its beginning.
  • When the phrase or clause begins with a noun clause or a noun (with or without article/adjective), it has to be linked to a preposition (in a prepositional phrase) in the main clause.


  • When the phrase or clause begins with a verb, it may be linked to the to of an infinitive (in an infinitive phrase) in the main clause. And sometimes, this link may have to be repeated.


  • When the phrase or clause begins with a verb, it may also be linked to an auxiliary verb in the main clause.

  • Sometimes, the verb may simply serve as the second verb in a compound sentence where the subject is given only once (and the two predicates may or may not be separated by a comma).


Relevance of each of the four stages

Each of the stages has its own relevance in the teaching and learning process.

  • The first stage, as mentioned earlier, covers the basic principles of written English. This introductory course (Essentials of Written English), which covers over 200 principles, will help any person understand the basics of written communication, and it will help one to do well in day-to-day communication. The course also indicates almost 100 catchwords (commonly used words that you "catch hold of" and examine) that can be routinely checked to ensure that the writing is reasonably good.
  • The second and third stages (covered by Sentence Patterns 1 and 2) are for people who want to take their understanding to the professional (editorial) level. One cannot aspire to become an editor without an understanding of restrictive and nonrestrictive elements—this can be challenging even for a native speaker of the language—as well as the structural aspects of sentences, which in turn can be strengthened by punctuation. These are important for a copyeditor, simply because the copyeditor is the guardian of quality, and therefore requires various methods of validating the correctness or incorrectness of sentences.
  • The fourth stage is, logically speaking, the color-coding stage. But for all practical reasons, the sentence components are introduced in the first stage and the color-coding is introduced in the second stage. The second and third stages can be quite challenging, and that is where the color-coding will be seen as the greatest help in mastering the concepts. The second part of the fourth course has extensive discussions on many grammatical concepts, which may seem quite redundant at this stage of the learning! I'll talk about this in another section below. 
Sentence signature

The most powerful result of the color-coding process is that every sentence has its professionally validated signature.

The signature of a sentence is made up of two parts:

  • One or more of the 37 SP2 pattern types, which basically indicate a specific structural pattern, identifiable as containing specific parts that are connected or separated in appropriate ways (e.g., simple sentence with short intro that has no comma after it; simple sentence with an expletive attribution; compound sentence with a contrastive conjunction with or without a preceding comma; compound sentence in which the subject is given only once; compound sentence with semicolon and an elliptical construct).
  • One or more of the 21 SP1 pattern types, which indicate the number and type of restrictive and nonrestrictive elements in the sentence (e.g., a single nonrestrictive element at the end; two nonrestrictive elements at the end, both modifying the main clause; restrictive element of a specific type; two nonrestrictive elements modifying the same noun; restrictive element with a single prepositional phrase within it).

The signature of a sentence is typically given as ({SP2 types}, [SP1 types]) (e.g., {3c, 5b}, [3b, 3a]). Together, these indicate the basic structure of the sentence, the various parts within it, as well as their relationships. Routinely identifying the signature of a sentence will help an editor master every possible structure and relationship that is possible in written English. 

Grammar as an explanation rather than a starting point
  • As mentioned earlier, the second part of last course has detailed sections on verbs (finite and nonfinite verbs (participles, infinitives, and gerunds), helping verbs; tenses, active and passive voice, primary auxiliary verbs, their role in the formation of tenses; affirmative, negative, and interrogative sentences; modal auxiliary verbs, semimodals)
  • But as mentioned earlier, all these will seem totally superfluous or redundant, as these will now be seen as basically explanations and links to logical concepts that have already been learned in the three courses.
  • That way, these sections do not form the starting point for learning English, as may be seen in most approaches to teaching English.
Why this method may be important

One may pore over many books and styles manuals, and perhaps go through different chunks of Q&As of CMOS and other websites to understand the various scenarios and possibilities. But the essence of what we may use daily (200+ principles) is presented as so many CONNECTED parts in the first stage itself. And this is further strengthened by the color-coding process in the subsequent stages. With this method of teaching/learning, one may be able to generally edit with confidence, using simple logical principles (without that feeling of uncertainty and the need for constant confirmation from some authority), and consult manuals and specialized websites only when we encounter strange and difficult scenarios.

The training and mentoring program also has many summary documents (almost a little book), which can serve as a wonderful takeaway for a lifetime of editing.

Concluding thoughts

It is possible to teach simple as well as professional (editorial-level) English using just 14 functional components. And it is possible to teach this to people with mature minds (capable of reasoning) who have just a school/college-level understanding of English and then take them gradually to a professional understanding of the language.

I assume there may be some grammar or linguistic experts who may not be appreciative of another “outrageous” method (by another bumbler) in an already divided world where the writer and editor do not see eye to eye. To all of you, I would say: I have seen it all, over many years; this method works—and is here to stay. Did not Joan Didion say Grammar is a piano I play by ear? My color-coding method may be some understandable notes to that nice music. Many people have already enjoyed this approach to learning English.

There may also be a lot of enthusiasts who may have a hundred questions about this method. To all of you, I would say: Rome was not built in a day. This method will test your understanding a lot—the very way you understand what you read—but it will make you a clear-headed person. After you learn to throw away the walking stick (the color-coding), you may look at writers with compassion, and perhaps enjoy your daily editing even more. And there’s a possibility that you may see your mind and its workings objectively—something other than yourself. (Yes, copyediting can lead to spirituality!)

Feel free to comment here (see below) or repost on social media with your thoughts.



The Foundational Skills for Employability and Earning (FSEE) training and mentoring program

Right now, the FSEE training and mentoring program offered by The Art of Copyediting is available only for resident Indians (via the Indian website) because of the time-zone differences.

It is now a popular program for editors. You can see many testimonials of the program here: https://www.theartofcopyediting.com/ri-testimonials.

The program has multiple payment options, including 3, 6, and 9 EMI options. For details, see https://www.theartofcopyediting.com/ri-sp-foundational-skills-for-employability-and-earning/#3-m_paymnt_options.

It can also be taken as graded programs (Basic, Intermediate, and Consolidation programs), and there are EMI options for these too. For details, see https://www.theartofcopyediting.com/ri-sp-foundational-skills-for-employability-and-earning#1-MonthTrainingPrograms.



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