William I. Atkinson
Notes From a Grammar Werewolf
My middle son coined this term for me when he was seventeen: Once a month, he says, I lift my snout to the full moon and howl whommmm!
I admit it: I’m in love with English grammar. As a science writer I earn my bread by explaining technical stuff – theories and machinery, the concept of the independent variable, how science winnows objective fact from subjective experience.
Grammar is just this sort of thing. Grammar comprises the gears and pistons of that central human invention, language. Grammar is the technology of language. Grammar is how speech works.
Sample statement: I breathe air. Subject: I. Nature of subject: Noun, subcategory pronoun. Definition of noun: A word denoting a person, place, or thing. Definition of the general pronoun: A word denoting a person not specifically named. Attributes of this particular pronoun: First person, singular number, nominative case. Other possible cases for the singular number [not used here]: Objective [me], possessive [my/mine]. Other possible numbers, not used here: Plural [we, us, our/ours]. Particular verb used here: breathe.
There’s more. General definition of verb: A word denoting action or being. Definition of verb denoting action: Transitive [i.e. taking a direct object]. Definition of verb denoting being: Intransitive [i.e. taking only an indirect object].
Definition of i.e.: Abbreviation of Latin statement Id est, meaning That is: Usually announces a definition. Infinitive of this particular verb: To breathe. That’s transitive: one breathes air, nitrogen, hydrogen sulphide, or some other physical gas or vapor. Alternatively, the direct object one breathes may be metaphorical: the air of freedom, the poison of hate.
2010 December 17: In most of the world’s languages, a noun changes its form, usually its ending, according to how it’s used – in formal terms, its part of speech. A noun is pronounced and spelled differently when something’s done to it [object] than when it’s doing something [subject].
This process of change is called inflection. In Latin, for example, the noun for ‘door’ is porta. ‘Of the door’ is portae. ‘To the door’ (the noun being in dative case, denoting an indirect object) is also portae; but woe betide the scholar who confuses the two cases – they’re identical only in the singular. ‘He/she sees the door’ is portam videt – portam being the objective singular inflection of the noun. And so on. It’s beyond complicated.
One of the beauties of English, and a big reason why it’s used so widely, is its lack of inflections: door is door is door. You have, see, approach, open, close, guard, hack, smash, burn, or consider the exact same word. The inflections that English does have involve mostly pronouns – Who is there, Whom do you see, Whose fault is it.
But grammar, even in a little-inflected tongue like English, gets complex fast. Get through stuff like copula verbs [which are intransitive, right?] and subordinate conjunctions, and there’s yet more trouble – apposite nouns and chiasmic [quasi-parallel] verb constructions. English goes forever. There ain’t no end.
At this point a writer has two choices. One: Despair. Take the vow of silence, certain it’s the only way to avoid linguistic sin. Two: Study grammar as much as you like – and then laugh it off. Internalize it, then ignore it. Write and speak from the heart.
I’d go with the latter. Speech and writing – even the best of them – are in a strange way independent of grammar. Grammar comes afterward: It’s the mop-up crew. It provides a formal understanding: Hey, that was pretty effective! So what’d I do? Robertson Davies, a writer I admire immensely, said that writers create language; scholarly grammarians embalm it.
Here’s a close analogy. Most of us have little or no idea how our bodies work: what enzymes operate, how, and when; how adenosine triphosphate produces energy from the breakdown of glucose; how phosphorylation cascades and ion-gated ligand channels work. None of our massive ignorance gets in the way of our playing, praying, making love, and in general living. We turn our bodies over to the automatic processes that command them, and all’s well.
So with speech. Shakespeare is so good a writer that some critics say he invented the modern mind. He knew not just English but also Latin, French, Italian, and a smattering of ancient Greek. But he wasn’t a grammatical analyst: I doubt that he could have stated the difference between the subjunctive and a pineapple. What matters is that he used the subjunctive [a verb mood indicating doubt or uncertainty] with watertight precision. If it be, / Why seems it so particular with thee?
More to come on grammar, writers, and writing.