Let’s review a confusion in English grammar more common than it need be. Do I say keep this between you and me or keep this between you and I? The question before us is not why should I care; that’s a concern that would take us into the reaches of the philosophy of art. Let’s assume we do care, that we take the proprieties of craft to be important. What, then, is the difference between these two sentences? What is at issue here is a department of grammar called case. It’s an odd word with an interesting derivation, but case
H. H. Munro’s short story “The Schartz-Metterklume Method” has an interesting sentence worth examining for its grammar. A young woman is standing on a platform, waiting for her train to depart, when she is approached by someone who quickly takes her for the new governess she is there to meet. The young woman decides such a game of mistaken identity might be worth the fun of it, and so the tale unfolds. Munro, who also wrote under the pen name Saki, was an acclaimed British writer of the late nineteenth-century, known for his intelligently disdainful and witty style. The mistaken
It is often the case that the commonest of sentences in English pose a challenge when we try to understand how they work grammatically. Imagine, for example, two friends arguing, one a bit impatient with the other: I don’t know what you’re talking about. He did what you told him to do. How do these two sentences convey their ideas? Or to ask the same question another way, what’s what doing? Finding the answer can sharpen our analytical skills. The first step in analysis is always to identify the number of clauses a sentence has. Every clause, every combination of
We have looked in the past at what is called a balanced sentence (see an earlier post entitled Balanced and Parallel), and I recently came upon an example of one that can remind us about an important use of the semicolon. Here are two sentences from Percy W. Blandford’s The Art of Sailing (St. Martin’s Press, 1972). I have included the first sentence for context, but it’s the second one, with that comma before the conjunction but, which is of interest to us here: It is possible to get very scientific about sailing and there are books devoted to the
Think for a moment where we find ourselves when we want to explain something to someone else. If we set out to do this in writing, we are composing what is called expository prose, sentences and paragraphs designed to expound a subject cleanly and clearly to a particular reader for a particular purpose. A good explanation involves organization, grouping facts and ordering the groups, and that is the role punctuation plays. The three chief marks of punctuation are the comma, semicolon, and period, each in this order having a degree more strength than the mark before it: the weakest of
Let’s keep to the topic of punctuation and consider how parentheses differ from commas. In another post (Punctuating the Parentheses), we saw that parentheses enclose words that can be meant to stand with, but not directly on, the loadbearing grammatical foundation of a sentence. The parentheses in the sentence I just wrote, for example, created space for something else I wanted to tell you (namely, the title of the earlier post), but by using parentheses instead of commas, I was suggesting that, oh, by the way, here is the actionable information you might need should you wish to consult the
Good writers are good for a reason, and part of the interest literature holds lies in understanding how an author shapes and orders sentences to produce an effect. Here is what I think is a beautifully drawn moment of sudden wonder, all the more arresting for the character in whom it arises. The passage is from the opening pages of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. A hard-bitten soldier on horseback is chasing a deer up a slope of hills and is himself suddenly captured by the unexpected: In a few minutes he arrived at the top of the ridge,
One would think that sentences which are fairly simple in idea are also fairly simple in grammatical construction. One would think—and be surprised how often that is just not the case. Take this straightforward statement, for example: The speaker’s opening remarks were compelling. We understand the idea readily enough: someone began to speak and what he had to say caught and kept our attention. But if we look at how that meaning is built into the original sentence, we’ll find ourselves in grammatical bramble by the third word. The word opening, like the last word compelling, is called a participle,
We took up the topic of participles recently (What Is a Participle?), and of course there’s more to be said about this intricate linguistic device. A participle, we reminded ourselves, is an adjective built from a verb, so in the example we looked at, The speaker’s opening remarks were compelling, the participle opening is describing the noun remarks. So far so good, because that’s what all adjectives do, modify a noun in some way. But because the participle opening derives from the verb to open, it is pointing to a characteristic that is present in the remarks by virtue of