The Land of Grammar

Fairy tales are not just for children, nor sometimes is their language for the grammatically innocent. Here’s a fantastic sentence from “The Wise Woman,” a short tale of fancy by the Scottish novelist George MacDonald. See what you can make of it and ask yourself how you would explain its structure to someone else who might have stepped into the mysterious grammatical forest with you. A king and queen have appealed to an old woman famous for her wisdom to take and discipline their unruly child. The little girl, one day to be a princess, is not happy yet: “All she knew of the world being derived from nursery-tales, she concluded that the wise woman was an ogress, carrying her home to eat her.”

One way never to begin analyzing a sentence is to begin randomly with a word you recognize and hope it will lead you to the understanding you seek. Too many hazards lie on the road that way. You might have begun to analyze MacDonald’s sentence, for example, by recognizing the word knew as a verb, or even the two words she knew as a clause, whereupon you would remember that a sentence, of course, has a subject and a verb, and so you would be sure that she knew must be the royal road to follow. That, though, would lead to a dead end (as we’ll see in a moment), because you would soon come upon another verb in concluded, maybe another in carrying, and even one more, perhaps, in to eat. What to do now?

You would have no choice but to trace your steps back to the very first word, read the sentence again in its entirety, and gather up all the clauses that will present themselves, not just the first to appear. Clauses, remember, are of two kinds, independent and subordinate, and only the former, only an independent clause, can point the sure way to what a sentence is about. Of all those words you first thought might be verbs—knew and concluded and carrying and eat (along with a few others too)—only concluded, with its subject she, can stand in the center of the sentence as its ruling independent clause. She, the little girl, concluded something, and only from that sure and secure place can we now discover the surrounding lands of this misty sentence.

Many, many verbs, and concluded is one of them, demand an answer to the question what? What did she, the subject, conclude? Read the sentence again (always the method to follow so that you don’t lose the forest for the trees) and you will see that the only answer you could possibly give would be all the thirteen words (not an auspicious number for a fairy tale, I’ll admit) that follow: that the wise woman was an ogress, carrying her home to eat her. All of those words together comprise the direct object of the transitive verb concluded. The direct object, it seems, has come here in the form of a subordinate clause (wise woman the subject and was its verb), and that clause has appended to it the participial phrase carrying her home, which in turn has attached to it the infinitive phrase to eat her. In other words, a main road leads out of the center of the sentence, and then branches off once and once again.

But what of how the sentence began? The secret there lies with the word being, a present participle which, together with the pronoun all, make up a nominative absolute phrase. Such phrases are not complete in their own right, but they succeed in conjuring up the world within which the action of the independent verb unfolds: she concluded that the wise woman was an ogress because or in light of the fact that all she knew of the world was derived from fairy-tales—but not was derived but being derived, that is to say, not a verb but a participle, which is exactly how we know that this opening part of the sentence gives us nothing more than a vision of the independent clause, the thought, to come.

And if you object that she knew is certainly a clause, we have only to see that this opening nominative absolute phrase includes what so often is a part of world of fantasy: something invisible is working behind the scenes. All she knew means really all that she knew, and that that, omitted by ellipsis, reveals that knew is the verb of a relative clause which modifies the pronoun all. That, then, brings us right back to where we were: looking at the center of the sentence, she concluded, to understand the fantastic grammatical lands that surround it, mysteriously but intelligibly.


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion