How to explain grammar

Presented at the 31st annual Editors’ Association of Canada conference, Montréal, May 29, 2010

Handout (PDF, 440 KB)

So OK. You look at the manuscript you’re editing, and you see… this:

Adding the ingredients in this order ensures failed chiffon cakes made at home is not an option.

OK, what’s the first thing you do? After sending a “seen in the wild” email to the EAC email list, I mean.

Well, yeah, you correct it, or humbly suggest a correction to the exalted author, depending on the project. But, ah, right then, what is going on here? And what if you make a correction and the author says, “No, it was fine the way I had it. It makes perfect sense to me, and it’s grammatical”?

Well…

[song: Putting It Together]

Bit by bit, spelling out the grammar…

Word by word, knowing just what constitutes a phrase

Taking it apart for the explaining,

Analyzing in so many ways,

Try to stop the client from complaining,

Trying not to leave them in a daze,

Spelling out the grammar… so let’s go…

[/song]

So, OK, first of all, what’s the subject of this sentence? And what’s the main verb? One word! What’s the one word that’s the subject, and what’s the one word that’s the main verb?

There are two inflected verbs here – inflected is another way of saying conjugated: ensures and is. One of them is the main verb and the other has to be in a subordinate clause. Unfortunately, there’s no complementizer – that – to clearly signal where the subordinate clause starts, which is actually part of the problem here. But there’s no reason not to think the subordinate clause is after the main clause, as they normally are. So ensures is the main verb and the subject is what is before it, and the head of the noun phrase that is the subject is the gerund adding. You see that in this order and the ingredients modify adding. So adding … ensures. Ensures what?

And that’s where the reader will go off the rails first. You will always read with the expectation that the current phrase will continue rather than that a new phrase will start until you have evidence to think otherwise. This strategy is known as late closure, and when you get a sentence that leads you down the garden path because your assumption is wrong, linguists call it a… wait for it… garden path sentence.

So at first you expect adding … ensures failed chiffon cakes. And then you read made at home, and that works OK, because it just modifies cakes. And then you get this is and it all falls apart!

And the is, as we have already concluded, tells you there is a subordinate clause, and that means two things: first, there must be a complementizer – that – that has been dropped; second, there needs to be a subject. And the subject of the subordinate clause can’t be the complementizer, because you couldn’t drop it then. Can’t drop a subject! (Well, except in special cases.) So what’s the subject? Look before the is. One word. What is it? Cakes. It’s modified by failed and chiffon on one side and by made at home on the other side. You know that the subject isn’t home because that’s in a prepositional phrase (at home), and that phrase modifies an adjective (made), which modifies cakes.

Which means we’ve found our other problem. Should be cakes … are. The author, distracted by the presence of the nearer noun, conjugated for it.

So. Your fix, if you want to change as little as possible, will look like this:

Adding the ingredients in this order ensures that failed chiffon cakes made at home are not an option.

You could change more, of course. But now you need to explain it to the author.

Exactly how you do that will depend on your estimation of the author and on the effect you wish to produce. And it will also depend some on your personality.

You might want to give parallel examples to press your point. Actually, you might want to give two, since there are two points, and it helps to simplify and isolate the problems.

Bit by bit… spelling out the grammar!

For an example for the first problem, you’d need another verb that can take a noun or a subordinate clause as a complement, or you could use the same verb. And part of the problem is that the subordinate clause takes some time to get to the verb. You want something that will surprise or make laugh if you can.

I made the cake in the kitchen with the green icing on top explode.

If you can read it out with misleading intonation, so much the better! Of course, you may come up with something different. This is a place where you can exercise your creativity and wit.

For the second one, you just want to show that the verb goes with the head noun, not something in a modifier. Again, if you can make the alternative look a little silly, that may help.

One good steak covered in bad-smelling flowers are a very surprising main dish.

And perhaps give the good alternative:

One good steak covered in bad-smelling flowers is a very surprising main dish.

You might also want to use a metaphor to explain what’s going on. Well, you already are using one when you talk about the garden path. And, for the second part, you could talk about cakes and are being like a married couple at a dinner party with some people seated between them: they still have to wear corresponding rings and not go home with someone else who just happens to be closer.

Well, now! I’ve just covered all these key points, and it’s only ten minutes in. But not to fear – that was just the opening car chase. Now I’m going to talk about some mechanics. We’re going to get down and dirty into the form that allows the content to come through. I’m going to tell you how linguists look at these things. It’s going to be maybe a little dry for a little bit, but then I promise you some fun.

A lot of the confusion that people have with grammar comes from thinking that form follows content. It comes from simplistic things they learned in elementary school, for instance. But syntax is about form, formal relations, not content. Always remember the difference between form and content.

For instance, what’s a sentence? Here’s what people are taught: “One thing (subject) does something (verb) to another thing (object).” But then where does that leave us with this sentence:

Cars like this are dreamed of by teenage boys.

Who’s doing what to what? Is dreaming of something doing something to it? And even if it is, who’s doing the action of dreaming? But what’s the subject of this sentence? Don’t let the semantics mislead you… it’s the syntax that matters!

[song: It’s a Sin]

When you make sense of what you read,

You do it without hesitation

Thanks to grammatical relation…

For all the games that language plays

Make order from the verbal maze

Thanks to the order of the phrase…

It’s the, it’s the, it’s the… It’s the syntax.

[/song]

The structure has its own rules and roles. Everyone who uses English has some knowledge of its rules and roles, but only in the same way as they have a knowledge of how to walk – but not of the physiology of walking, how the muscles move. We editors, we need to know how the muscles move. And sometimes, the bits are different from what they communicate. Sometimes it’s a bit of a MacGyver, in fact.

Just as an illustration: how many tenses can an English verb have?

Are you sure?

We have a variety of means available for expressing a variety of verbal states, but we only have two basic tenses: past and non-past.

That’s right. Everything we do with verbs in English is done with two simple tenses and three basic moods as well as two participles and several auxiliaries. Those combine to communicate several tenses, aspects, and moods.

We know what the past is. He cooked. He saw. Those verbs, used in the indicative mood – what many linguists call realis, meaning it’s referring to our actual reality – can only speak about the past.

Now, if I say He cooks, what point in time is that? This is Jenny. She edits. This is John. He cooks. Right now? Or as a habit? John? You won’t find him in the kitchen now. He cooks tomorrow. Does that sound forced? Look, I go back to Toronto tomorrow. I go back to Toronto tomorrow. Is that the present tense? I just talked about the future! So cooks and go are non-past.

On your handouts I have a quick run-down of the different forms and some of the auxiliaries. You’re familiar with a lot of this. With those bits, we can express rather complex forms such as

If he were to have been going to the conference, he would have done best to have considered the train.

Subjunctive – also known as irrealis, because it’s talking about something not considered a part of our reality. Infinitive. Past participle. Present participle. (Together they make an infinitive perfective active.) Past tense of an auxiliary to express the conditional. Present. Past participle. Infinitive. Past participle.

Incidentally, the subjunctive past and present could actually be called the subjunctive present and future. I say this because we use the past for present considerations:

I wish I were famous.

and the present for future outcomes:

It is my desire that I become famous.

It is the order of this court that you be hanged by the neck.

You can tell a subjunctive present clause from an infinitive clause because it has a nominative pronoun:

I want her to want me.

It is my desire that she want me.

You see: I want her – accusative. That she want me: subject of the subordinate clause, so nominative.

Likewise, the ordering of words in sentences involves some mechanical facts of phrase structure. And I think it’s very useful to have a basic sense of how linguists look at it. Now, I’m not going to give you too much detail, because it can start to make people dizzy past a certain point. Also, you’ve all just had lunch, and I don’t really dig hearing snoring from the audience. Nor do I think you need to spell out even as much as I’m showing you to your clients. But you’re the language mechanics. You need to know how the valves and pistons and crankshaft work together.

So I’m going to cover some stuff that may seem fairly basic and familiar, but it’s in service of demonstrating the way linguists analyze syntax. And that is with XP – or X phrase – and X-bar.

[song: Rock the Casbah]

‘Cause when you make a sentence,

When you make a clause,

It’s logically ordered, like

Effect proceeds from cause.

There’s specifier and complement,

Modifiers many ways,

But you have to keep your head on if

You wanna have a phra-a-a-a-a-a-ase…

You start out with the X-phrase,

Add the X-bar, add the X-bar;

At every lower level,

Rock the X-bar, rock the X-bar!

[/song]

Ahem. I’ll explain.

Thing one: every sentence – every clause, in fact – has a subject and a predicate. Exhibit A: a sentence:

I helped her.

Normally, the two things you’ll identify first are the word that is the subject and the word that is the main verb. The common linguistic terminology for all this is: an inflectional phrase contains a noun phrase as a specifier and a verb phrase as a head.

Everything in syntax is made up of phrases. Everything. And every phrase has the same basic structure. Have a look at your handouts. The one thing it has to have is a head – that’s the word that is the heart of it. It quite likely also has a specifier, which can be a definite or indefinite article or some other modifier. There is a split between the specifier and the rest of the phrase; the remainder of the phrase is a subphrase that is indicated with a bar or prime sign. If it’s a noun phrase, or NP, then the subphrase that includes everything but the specifier is the N-bar. In the subphrase – the X-bar, as linguists call it when they haven’t indicated what kind of phrase it is – there is the head and there may be a complement. There may also be nested levels of subphrase – modifier on modifier leading to X-bar within X-bar.

A phrase can be very complex, or it can be quite simple, even a single word. A whole sentence can be one word, after all: Go! That’s the head of the verb phrase that is the head of the inflectional phrase – the sentence. Go! In the example we have here, I is the noun phrase that’s the specifier for the inflectional phrase, which means it’s the subject of the sentence; helped is the head of the verb phrase, which means it’s the finite verb – the inflected verb – of the sentence. And in this case the verb is transitive, which means it requires a noun phrase complement. That noun phrase complement is her.

Helped can also take a verb phrase complement, but remember that there is only one verb inflection per clause in English – only one place where it carries the information about the specific time and actor. One finite verb, finite as in pinned down to a specific moment and person. Other verbs in the same inflectional phrase have to be non-finite – either participle or infinitive. So, for instance:

There we have a verb phrase complement with its own head and complement. Since it’s an infinitive phrase, the noun phrase at the head remains in the accusative case. But that her is at the head of the infinitive phrase. Compare these two phrases, one of which has the object noun at the head of the infinitive phrase and the other of which has the infinitive phrase as a separate complement with an implied subject:

I don’t need [you [to do it]].

I don’t need [you] [to do it].

The first one says “You could do it, but I don’t need you to”; the second one says “I can do it without you.”

By the way, if you miss any details of this, I’ll be posting it all on my website, www.harbeck.ca/James, and my blog, sesquiotic.wordpress.com.

So we have a clause, which is an inflectional phrase, and we have noun phrases and verb phrases. There are also other kinds of phrases: adjective phrases, prepositional phrases, adverb phrases, and complement phrases – which are phrases that start with a complementizer; they can actually be adjuncts rather than complements (an adjunct is dispensable; a complement is required). Let’s add some examples of different kinds of phrase, and show how this all works in a more complex way:

I’m not marking every last detail here; I’m not showing most of the X-bars, for instance, but they’re in there between the X phrases and the Xes. So: subject: I. Inflected verb: helped. Complement: the infinitive verb phrase. Object – the noun phrase receiving the action, which is here the specifier to the infinitive verb phrase – the pretty lady. That has a specifier, the, and it has an adjective, pretty, which is its own little adjective phrase. And the head is lady.

Now right away we have a little bit of an issue, and something that demonstrates the value of picking these things apart. Is the infinitive pick or pick up? Is it followed by a prepositional phrase up her groceries or a noun phrase her groceries? And this is where we use little tests. If I say

The cat climbed up the tree.

then I can ask a question that splits the preposition from the verb:

Where did the cat climb?

and get the answer

Up the tree.

Now let’s try that with

She picked up her groceries.

What did she pick? Up her groceries.

We see, from the question test, that pick up is a phrasal verb, because it doesn’t split. So we can divide the sentence accordingly.

Now, we could add a prepositional phrase:

I helped the damsel in distress pick up her groceries.

Again, though, is damsel in distress really a noun plus a prepositional phrase? Or is it really a compound? Well, a compound is something that behaves like a single word in that its internal bits aren’t modified. Let’s take son of a bitch for an example. If it’s a noun phrase plus a prepositional phrase, the noun is son and if I pluralize it I will get sons:

I can’t believe what those sons of bitches did.

But, you know, a lot of people don’t use it like that anymore. I generally don’t, for instance. I’m more likely to say

I can’t believe what those sonofabitches did.

So the whole thing is the noun. Now, if I see two girls with dropped groceries, am I seeing two damsel-in-distresses? Or two damsels in distress? Yeah, I’d say the latter. So we have a noun plus a prepositional phrase.

We can also have a complement phrase, which is also called a subordinate clause, which, because it is a clause, has its own subject and inflected verb. I’ll trim it back to make it easy:

You see it modifies groceries. There’s actually a bit of underlying structure that makes the clause she spilled as it is. Its underlying structure would be

she spilled them

Since it’s a complement phrase, it needs a complementizer:

that she spilled them

But this is modifying a noun, groceries, and so that them is redundant, so we delete it.

Some similar interesting stuff happens with questions, by the way. The underlying form matches the declarative structure:

I will meet her.

I will meet whom

English questions use inversion, and two things move: the question moves to the front, and the verb inflection moves to right after it. But with most verbs we leave the main verb where it is and put the inflection on an auxiliary.

It gets a lot crazier than that, but those are the basics.

Do I think you should always diagram every sentence out?

Hell, no! Make your head spin, so it would. But it’s very useful to have this basic sense of structure in mind. It can help sort out some of the stranger tangles you get into. Such as the sentence we started with. As in our opening grammar chase, what you want to do in a live grammar situation is find the basic skeleton of the sentence – the subject, the predicate – and the specific bits of whatever part is in question. And it really helps to know this stuff.

Rock the X-bar! Rock the X-bar!

Of course, most or all of us would probably rather never have to explain grammar. It’s so much easier when the client simply accepts our edits unquestioningly, with a look of awe and gratitude. But, sigh, it’s just not always that way. Sometimes they want us to explain why our grammar trumps theirs. Sometimes they even argue with us!

And the really annoying thing is that “It looks funny” just doesn’t cut it with some of these people. “It doesn’t look funny to me.” So you have to convince them you’re right. You have to persuade them to accept your edits.

And what’s really annoying is when you’re not sure why it’s right yourself, you just know it is. This does not make it any easier to explain!

What’s more, sometimes the arguments are actually not with a client but with yourself. You look at something, and it sounds right, but you seem to recall a rule that says it’s wrong. So arrgh! Now you have to explain it to yourself, and, man, you just try arguing down a professional editor!

The first thing to remember, when you get to a situation where your ear says one thing and your client – or your understanding of the rules – says another, is that you are a well-educated, highly literate person with a solid sense of this weird and wonderful language of ours. Always start with the assumption that there is a very good reason something sounds right or wrong to you. It may turn out not to be the right thing for that specific document’s tone and style, but these senses of yours don’t come out of nowhere. It’s like the Karate Kid. Without knowing it, you have built up the right reflexes that kick in when you need them.

But! (There’s always a but.) Sometimes things are very ambiguous, and sometimes your sense is a bit iffy. You also want to be sure that what seems right to you at the moment is the same thing that would seem right to you at another time. So you need to analyze it and think about it. You need to figure out why it sounds right or wrong to you – and also why it sounds the opposite to your client or your doubting brain.

Hit your reference books. I do. And I’ll often change my mind in the middle of an analysis, too. (That’s before I hit “send.”) Because the next thing to do after identifying the bits and looking to see if the reference books have some guidance is to play around. Test it. Try out apparently resemblant constructions. You want to try to argue yourself down so that when you present your explanation to anyone else, it will be ironclad and you will have anticipated the objections.

Go in and replace nouns with pronouns, and replace complex noun phrases with simple ones. Change number, change tense, to identify parts. I have a number of tests and techniques on your handouts under “How to identify sentence parts.” I’ll leave it to you to look over them all – and refer to them all – at your leisure; this handout is meant for you to keep and use for reference.

But add one thing I forgot to put on your handout. Under “The main points.” After “Come up with parallel cases and counterexamples,” write: “Try some metaphors for explaining it.” Like saying that maintaining parallelism – for instance, in coordinating phrases – is like making sure your socks are matching. Talk about noun and verb being married, and making sure that they conjugate with each other and, if they’re separated, still get their conjugal visits. If the author is a sports fan, you can talk about incomplete passes; if a railway buff, about being stuck on a siding; and so on. It seldom hurts to be picturesque.

Now let’s have some fun. Let’s put this all into practice. Look at page three of your handouts, “Some cases.” We’ve already sorted out the first one. This next one’s not too hard:

It’s very important for you and I to stay in touch.

But how are we going to explain why this is wrong? We say, “Let’s simplify that second noun phrase there:”

It’s very important for I to stay in touch.

Whatever is the case for two people is the case for each one of them, after all: if you throw a married couple in jail, they’re both in jail as individuals. That’s the rule, even though obviously it doesn’t come automatically to many, perhaps most, English speakers. Easy enough. Now try this one, similar but it screws up a lot of people who think about it too hard but not hard enough:

I must agree with whomever wrote this.

So we start with the parts. Subject: I. Verb: must agree. Verb complement: a prepositional phrase. Complement of the preposition: that phrase there, whomever wrote this. If we used a pronoun, it would be

I must agree with him.

So does that mean that the whomever belongs in the accusative case, as it is? It’s right after a preposition, after all. But what’s this?

I must agree with whomever wrote this.

It’s a verb. It’s not an infinitive. It’s an inflected verb. This is a relative clause. The whole clause replaces him. What does a clause need? A subject and a predicate. Its underlying structure:

he wrote this

To make it a relative clause – a complement phrase – we replace the pronoun with a relative pronoun:

who wrote this

And then add the ever:

whoever wrote this

So the sentence should be

I [VPmust agree [PPwith [CPwhoever wrote this]]].

(You see a simpler way of indicating phrase structure there.) Now, how do we explain this? We want to drive home the idea that the whole subordinate clause is the object, and that within it we have to have a subject to go with the verb. The explanation we just worked out may work for some people. We can also try moving bits around to display the parts:

Whoever wrote this, I must agree with them.

Or a more common colloquial example:

There’s a beer here for whoever wants it.

Or just trim off the ever to highlight the mismatch in the original:

I must agree with whom wrote this.

Keep going until the author acquiesces! A sentence that has relative clauses is like a boat with a race track on it. The boat – the whole sentence – may be moving, but each car on the track – each clause – still needs a driver – a subject.

Isn’t this fun? Now here’s a sentence most of us will agree with:

Comments on YouTube are generally written by adolescents, most of who are grossly immature and barely coherent.

We’ll agree with the sentiment, I mean. Will we agree with the form? What’s the point of dispute here? Should it be of who or of whom?

Zero in on the problem spot. You may see this:

who are grossly immature

But zoom out just a little:

of who are grossly immature

Of. We have a preposition. And every preposition is the head of a prepositional phrase. You know that what follows it is a complement. An object. And you know that it modifies what comes before it. So what comes before it? Most. That’s the subject of the clause.

most … are grossly immature

most of them are grossly immature

How many of the commenters are grossly immature?
Most of them.

Since it’s a relative clause, the them is replaced with the equivalent relative pronoun whom:

most of whom are grossly immature

In a case like this, the key thing is to focus on the essential bits: most … are, and the of whom modifies most, and whom is the entire object of the preposition of. So we have two couples, one couple sitting between the other couple, and we don’t want any mixing and matching going on!

One more fun pronoun case one, and this one has flummoxed some noteworthy people:

Let she who is without error make the first correction.

OK, what’s the main verb here? There are three verbs: let, is, and make. We can see that is is conjugated. But it’s also part of a relative clause. How do you know? Because of the relative pronoun:

who is without error

That’s transformed from

she is without error

The who replaces the she. Now, relative clauses are modifiers. This clause modifies a noun – or, in this sentence, a pronoun:

she who is without error

It modifies she. That means it’s a cul-de-sac off the main drag of the sentence. Sentences are modular! You can lift out these modifying bits! Let’s take it out to cut to the essentials:

Let she make the first correction.

Does that sound right? Which verb is the main verb here? If she is the subject, it needs a verb conjugated to match:

Let she makes the first correction.

Oh yuck. No, no, it’s the let. Where’s its subject? Dude, it’s an imperative. The subject is implied. In English, we only have second-person imperatives. This let construction is a way of expressing a third-person imperative when we lack the inflectional means to do so. It’s the, it’s the, it’s the… it’s the syntax! So let is short for you let. You let whom? Her.

Let her make the first correction.

Stuff the rest back in:

Let her who is without error make the first correction.

Are we getting the hang of this? Bit by bit, spelling out the grammar… A lot, a lot, a lot of fixing grammar comes down to making sure the bits all match. You need your sentences to hit the streets with their socks matching. Having things that are in the wrong form or the wrong place is like having mismatched socks – say one grey one and one white one. I was thinking of wearing mismatched socks today to demonstrate, but that could be distracting, and anyway, my wife vets my apparel before she allows me to face the world.

Now here’s a fun one. I found this in a newspaper, and it’s the product of the kind of error you get from overly local judgments:

The Green Party and the Bloc Québécois each has nine percent.

You see what they did here. They saw each and said, “each is singular so it must be a singular conjugation.” What they didn’t do was open their dictionaries to see that each is not always a pronoun. (Remember point two: Look it up!) It can be an adjective or adverb, too. An example of its adverbial use is Lunch cost us ten bucks each. If it’s an adverb, it can move to the end of the sentence:

The Green Party and the Bloc Québécois has nine percent each.

So what looks wrong here? Well, what’s the subject, really? What’s this noun phrase doing here?

The Green Party and the Bloc Québécois has nine percent each.

It’s a compound coordinated noun phrase. So let’s replace it with a pronoun:

They has nine percent each.

Clearly we have the wrong verb form. Let’s make it right:

They have nine percent each.

They each have nine percent.

The Green Party and the Bloc Québécois each have nine percent.

Another way we could come at this is by replacing those two noun phrases with pronouns:

You and I each has nine percent.

That really cuts to the chase, doesn’t it? And if your client says, “Well, you and I take have, whereas the Green Party and the Bloc Québecois each take has,” then you say, “Exactly! You’ve just proven that each is not the subject. Also, you just said each take rather than each takes.”

But then what’s the problem with the next example?

The aim is for each waffle and every pancake to taste as though they were made of dreams.

Well, what’s each here? And every? We see them in each waffle and every pancake, so they have nouns after them, so they’re modifying the nouns, so they’re adjectives. Now, if we hit the dictionary for inspiration and examples, we are reminded that each distributes over a set of objects to take them all individually. So does every. So does each and every. We can say

each and every waffle

but can we say

each and every waffle and pancake

Since each and every means each, that would reduce to

each waffle and pancake

So are we eating them together, or one at a time? Let’s try some parallel examples.

We hope each man and each woman live happily in their home.

In this case, we’re looking at man-woman pairs. Can we make an example where it’s singular?

We hope each cobra and each mongoose lives happily in its cage.

You don’t stick cobras and mongeese in the same cage. So you know that you can have a sentence with a singular. But are waffles and pancakes man and woman, or are they cobra and mongoose? Well, do you eat them in pairs? Is it

each and every waffle and pancake

or is it

each and every waffle or pancake

If you’re me, you might have one of each, so waffle and pancake. Normal eaters will most likely prefer one or the other, and we can assume that’s what’s intended here: waffle or pancake.

The aim is for each waffle and every pancake to taste as though it were made of dreams.

Note that it’s still it were because we’re using the irrealis – the subjunctive. We know the aim is, not was, so it’s present, and the subjunctive forms really use the past to talk about the present and the present to talk about the future, since these are postulated states and postulation is always forward-looking. And even if we considered it possible to make breakfast food with dreams, the as though says it isn’t so, not this time anyway. And that’s the distinction with the subjunctive: it doesn’t have to be impossible, but you know it’s not the case. If there’s a cat here, I’ll demonstrate. I mean… If there were a cat here, I would demonstrate. There’s your proof:

If there’s a cat here, I’ll demonstrate.

If there were a cat here, I would demonstrate.

You may have noticed, by the way, that I like to use food illustrations and other similarly pleasant examples most of the time. When linguists come up with examples, they’re kind of notorious for coming up with violent examples. It seems that when you want to come up with an example of a sentence structure, your mind tends to reach for words that really just jump out to fill the spots. And violent words can jump out. But I don’t think that violent sentences make such good examples for clients, do you?

We hope each man and each woman stab each other to death.

Really, don’t you think a client will prefer something with food?

We hope each man and each woman feed each other strawberries.

Food, glorious food… It’s hard to be unintentionally nasty with food, though of course you do have to be careful not to use steak examples with vegans. Food is also concrete. It produces a positive response, especially if it’s dessert. You want to make your clients smile, right? So if you’re trying to explain the let she who is without error one, you could present something like this:

Let her eat the last chocolate.

Mmmmm… chocolate. It’s really hard to go wrong with comfort food.

Exlpanations will vary according to the client, naturally. An important thing you should ask yourself in any “explaining grammar” situation is, “What effect am I trying to produce with this?”

What I mean by that is, do you want the client to come away with a full understanding of the issue so that he or she will do things your way hereafter? Do you think the client is capable of, or interested in, grasping that level of explanation? Do you want to give a good explanation that they’ll get the main points of – they might not quite fully assimilate it, but they’ll calm down? Or do you just want to bludgeon the person into silence with big words and a display of authority?

If you just want to do the last, then I recommend citing reference books and using the highest-level terminology you can muster. But only use terms you’re fully comfortable with! Only say things you’ll be able to explain if the client says, “What does that mean?” No bluffing!

But it’s not usually the best approach just to try to bludgeon them. Often it takes longer than you expect to render them senseless. And sometimes the problem is that they’re already senseless, and they obviously can remain functional while senseless, so bludgeoning won’t do any good.

So I really do recommend using examples. Cut the sentence down to the part in question, and start swapping things in. Put in pronouns. Change number and tense if that will help. Use some of the other tests on your handouts. And keep coming back to food.

Cut to the chase, too. Gauge just how much information the person wants, and how much he or she can handle. Most people don’t like having to hold complex images in their heads. It’s like expecting them to take the stairs – and they don’t get enough exercise, so they’re out of breath in no time… it’s good for them, but a lot of them will just sit at the bottom and complain about the lack of an elevator. This is another reason you explain it to yourself first: so you’ve done all the rough work and you can just focus in on the crux of the matter.

I’ve left you with some more fun exercises on the sheet. Some of them are less clear-cut. You might find it diverting to do tree diagrams of one or two of them while you have some free time, for instance while sitting in the annual general meeting. And remember:

[song: It’s a Sin]

When you make sense of what you read,

You do it without hesitation

Thanks to grammatical relation…

For all the games that language plays

Make order from the verbal maze

Thanks to the order of the phrase…

Every phrase you ever use,

Every head and complement,

Every word you ever choose,

Every meaning that you’ve meant…

It’s the syntax.

[/song]

I promised I would post discussion of the remaining examples on the handout, so watch this space for that.

3 responses to “How to explain grammar

  1. I should say that the syntax trees above are, in general, somewhat simplified – there are more empty branches and a lot more intermediate levels in the actual ones that are used in syntactic analysis in linguistics. I brought them in just to illustrate a useful way of analyzing sentences. In retrospect, it may have been simultaneously too little and too much…

    • To be fair, on the other hand, many syntax texts do just the same, and it’s arguable whether all of the intermediate levels really exist or whether they’re just there in potential. One thing I probably should have done is show an IP nested in each CP, though…

  2. Pingback: Presenting the future | Sesquiotica

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