Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ye Olde Grammarian

       I'm sure you know that "Ye" in the above title isn't pronounced "ye" as in the archaic familiar plural for "you."  It's simply a very old way to write "the."  The "y" is a corruption of the ancient thorn letter, þ, which represented the sound that is spelled "th" in all modern languages except Icelandic, which still uses the thorn.  If you're interested in how its use evolved in early modern English, go to Wikipedia, article entitled Thorn (letter).  I was going to copy a table from that article here, but the attempt blew my computer's mind!

       Now, down to the intended business.  When I was in grade and high school (way back in the Dark Ages, although we had discontinued using the thorn letter by that time!), I was pretty much taught prescriptive grammar.  I know that's a no-no among trained linguists -- one is supposed to study how the living language functions and evolves rather than being told, do it this way or else.  But that approach is a bit sophisticated for youngsters struggling to learn the meaning of arcane terms like subject, predicate, number, and case.  There are rules involved and if you study them as a basis of knowledge, you can always adjust your approach after you learn the ropes.
       I've mentioned that my mother was a Romance language major in college and taught in high school, mostly Spanish and English .  She absolutely loved grammar.  She liked the literature part of teaching English, also (particularly Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Beowulf), but her real love was grammar.  I happened to have my sophomore and senior English classes with my mother and I credit her with giving me the kind of foundation one needs to be a writer.
       We diagrammed sentences.  I'll bet a lot of today's young people don't even know what that means.  It's supposed to be old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy stuff -- busy work.  I can't remember exactly how to do it -- it's been (gad!) somthing like 55 years since I graduated from high school! -- but as I recall ...  No!  I don't need to recall!  Wikipedia comes to the rescue again!  We did the Reed-Kellog System of diagramming -- see the article "Sentence Diagramming."  The various components of the sentence are separated out and hooked onto the parts they belong with -- a bit like shaking pottery shards through a sieve and then piecing them together.  Lots of people in my classes, I recall, found this tedious and useless and even difficult to the point of being incomprehensible.  I never found it that way.  I enjoyed it, even though I got a little bored with it at times because it was so easy!  Easy for my mother and me, at least!
       When you've practiced diagramming for a while, you come away with a picture of how a sentence works -- how it's structured, how elements modify one another.  You get a feel for how a sentence should flow, how to avoid awkward constructions and ambiguities -- how to put the elements together so the sentence makes the best sense.  Isn't that kind of knowledge a great foundation for becoming a writer?
       One thing diagramming teaches is how clauses and phrases can function as adjectives and adverbs.  And that leads me to a discussion of what actually started me down this path today -- an error you see occasionally in many writers.  It's called the dangling modifier.  What got me started on this topic was a sentence in a book I'm  currently reading; I won't quote it exactly, but I'll paraphrase it.  The setting is the 12th century. "Never having learned the art of writing, a scribe penned some words for me to send to my father." Strange that the scribe had never learned the art of writing! The author might better have written: "Never having learned the art of writing, I asked a scribe to pen some words for me to send ... etc." Or, "Since I had never learned the art of writing, I asked a scribe, etc."

       The basic rule for this situation is this: a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence always modifies the subject.  If you were diagramming this sentence, you would be forced to think, what does this clause or phrase really modify?  And you would quickly realize that it modifies the scribe, a condition that just doesn't make sense. 

       Sometimes these kinds of errors can be really funny.  Here are some examples, some of which are adapted from Wikipedia (article: Dangling modifiers -- sources of the quotations are cited there).

The dangling prepositional phrase:
"After years of being lost under a pile of dust, Walter P. Stanley found all the old records of the Bangor Lions Club."  (Wow, I'll bet that man sneezed a lot!)  If you diagrammed that sentence, you would realize that "after years" should modify the verb "found" because it tells when he found the items -- it's an adverbial usage, and a pretty awkward one at that.  When it's dangled at the beginning of the sentence, it appears to modify Mr. Stanley.

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know." – Groucho Marx.  (Needs no comment!)

"As a mother of five, and with another on the way, my ironing board is always up." (A new phenomenon!  A pregnant ironing board!)

And then there is the always illustrative old chestnut: "For sale, chest of drawers, by lady with Hepplewhite legs."  

The dangling participial phrase:
"Walking down Main Street, the trees were beautiful."
"Reaching the station, the sun came out."  (In both of these, the item to be modified isn't even present in the sentence.)

"I saw the trailor peeking through the window." (A voyeristic trailor! How paranormal can you get?)  In this case, all you need to do is move the participial phrase to the beginning of the sentence. 

And one more, which illustrates another point I wanted to make:
"Roaring down the track at seventy miles an hour, the stalled car was smashed by the train."
Obviously, it wasn't the car that was roaring down the track.  This demonstrates how easy it is to make this error when the passive voice is involved.  All you have to do is change the main clause of the sentence to active voice: "the train smashed the stalled car."

       Why don't you try rewriting some of these examples so they make sense and flow smoothly?  Visit the Wikipedia article cited if you should be interested in reading more examples.  And sensitize yourself to the connections between modifiers and the thing modified.


  1. Sentence diagramming! Now there's a blast from the past! I remember spending lots of time at that enterprise -- 5th and 6th grades, I believe. Mr. Patton (I had the same teacher for both grades) would send us to the blackboard, dictate a long and complex sentence, and then set us to the task of diagramming it. I loved the process. As you say, it was a great way to learn how a sentence works.

  2. Hi, Jack! Happy to find another Olde Grammarian! Three cheers for old-fashioned methods!

  3. I diagrammed sentences, though I'm not sure that my son--who graduated in '10--ever did. I can't say that I particularly enjoyed it, but I do agree that it was a useful foundation. To this day, family and friends still use me as an editor for their important written things. I can't quote rules and regulations quite as easily as I could back in high school, or remember exactly *why* something is a rule, but I can still *use* those rules pretty easily, which is the important part, right?

  4. Thanks for commenting, Cheri! You're right - the important thing is to know how to speak and write correct English, even if you can't parrot the rules!

  5. This reminds me so much of my grammar lessons before. I may not remember all but I'm thankful to all my teachers as they help me a lot today.

    Thanks for commenting on my blog and for the follow. Following you now too.

  6. Thanks, Anne, for returning the follow! I'm always happy to make the acquaintance a teacher, since I'm the daughter of one!

  7. Great post; takes me back to school and my love for grammar and for diagramming sentences. I was a big fan of James J. Kilpatrick and looked forward to his column in the Sunday newspaper!

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think I'm going to turn this into a series of posts, dealing with my pet peeves in the area of grammar - that is, if I find the time!