Tuesday, December 18, 2018


in the 8th grade taught by Miss Agnes Carter, classes memorized the linking/intransitive verbs. Be, am, is, are, been, have, has had, shall, will, may, can, etc.  Then we memorized the prepositions.  In, into, to, around, down, between, before, beside, between, etc.  These were our can openers.

To mix metaphors, we learned to eviscerate sentences, as neatly as a hunter's prey, by first finding the verb, the heart.  One can have a sentence with only a verb:  "Go! " Then ask for the subject. (The liver?), which is a noun:  "You?  Mabel?  Horse race?"  (Lungs?) Then the object and indirect object or the predicate word, depending on whether the verb is intransitive or transitive.  A lot of people can't do this.  

They cannot distinguish between a "thing" and an "action".  In fact, many have learned by rote that a noun is "a person, place or thing."  A noun is a word, a name.  It CANNOT be someone, someplace, something. It's marks on paper or sounds spoken.

At no point as a student or a teacher have I gotten to the reason for all this folderol, which is the use of the concepts in the framing of sentences..  The farthest we got and the farthest the textbook got was participles, gerunds, and appositives.  We never found out why or what good it was.  In fact, not until my old age did I really get the point of it all.  It's sentence management:  being able to convert a bit of information among prepositions, participles, gerunds, appositives, in order to make better sense. SENTENCE.  SENSE.  SENTIENCE.

In English word order is significant.  They should be presented to the reader in the order that the reader can assimilate them.  Some things must be preceded by other information or else held in the mind until it is useful.  This can be small and specific to languages: in English adjectives are ahead of the nouns, in French they are after.  In German they may be inside the noun.  The same is true of sentences.  In English adjectives are always ahead of the noun they describe, unless they are phrases.  (Participles and prepositional phrases may be used as units equivalent to an adjective.)  

We are accustomed to looking at the structure of a document or even of a paragraph.  For instance, structuring a description of a room by giving information left to right or top to bottom, or another description as from the inside out or vice versa, or according to the sequence of time: beginning towards end or vice versa.  Sometimes the sequence of information is manipulated by flashbacks or the reader is directed to a footnote.  But sentences are not generally looked at this way and their organization is often provided subconsciously, as it is in the writer's mind.  

In fact, many people feel that studying grammar raises so many questions that their own unconscious becomes inoperable, overwhelmed by rational issues of sequence or whatever.  This is a kind of writer's block when rational or emotional issues -- like whether the work will make them look good and reap rewards -- interfere with whatever goes on deep in the mind behind the scenes.  These people are likely to have never come to terms with "embodied cognition" so still believe that rationality and the brain take priority over everything else.  To them the senses are "animal."

Another interference comes from confusing grammar with questions of standard usage/best practice which are defined by the larger community, usually one shaped by higher education.  Grammar in the sense I use it here is a thinking issue that considers conceptual matters like managing perception and sequence or whether something can be spoke of in some aspect that makes it a thing or an action, transitive or intransitive, and the like.

Sometimes these "philosophical" questions impinge on usage, for instance, distinguishing between lie as something the subject does passively -- "lie there," -- or actively "lay the thing there."  But most of them are simply arbitrary practice that distinguish among classes of speakers or writers.  Excellent thinkers with bad usage habits are discredited.  Foreign language speakers can be discredited.  Some people find all this illegitimate and a killer of creativity.  In a world where the book buyers (not necessarily the readers) are attracted by the author rather than the writing, bad usage can either attract or repel.

Much of propriety in the written world is about punctuation, not even words.  Little squiggles that help a person make sense are not grammar, but thought about the kinds and sequences of words can use grammar to be clear.  Again, it becomes a matter of propriety and whole writers' workshops can be paralyzed by arguing over a comma.

Very often questions of usage hinge on true grammar, the concepts behind the choice and arrangement of words, but they are rarely addressed, or even rise to the awareness of the editor, even if he or she composed the words.  This is too bad, because often the best remedy is to rethink the sentence entirely and possibly rewrite it in quite a different way.  If one is simply transcribing what is dictated by the subconscious this might be impossible, particularly if what is rising out of the black box of creativity is propelled by intense emotion, unresolved questions, shocking insight -- all of which can be rewarding to the reader, but maybe slow down comprehension by having to reread and do some sorting as a receiver.  That can be justified by the quality or impact of the content.

Two contemporary considerations complicate these issues.  One is "coding" as in a computer which draws in math to complicate grammar and introduces concepts that have no equivalent in reality, arising from a "meta" level of grouping or convention.  Words slip back and forth between noun and verb.  

The other is the political dimension.  One of the most difficult is predication, which leads the reader by keeping gender and number consistent or by maintaining a sequence of words parallel, that is, in the same mode of part of speech -- all gerunds or all prepositional phrases.  Subject and verb need to be in the same gender, number and so on.  That's not easy when culture interferes and there is no word available.  

It's not propriety but intelligibility that is relevant to grammar.  Ironically, there is also a place in reading and writing that is deliberately unintelligible -- a rant, an outcry, a suggestive tumble through near-sense.  Sometimes all mimsy are the borogroves.

No comments: