Unpacking the Grey Owl

A colleague – Adrienne Montgomerie – was recently reading to her child from a story by Grey Owl when she came across this rather large sentence (From the second-last paragraph of “How the Queen and I spent the Winter” as published in the collection Great Canadian Animal Stories,
Whitaker, 1978):

This creature comported itself as a person, of a kind, and she busied herself at tasks that I could, without loss of dignity, have occupied myself at; she made camp, procured and carried in supplies, could lay plans and carry them out and stood robustly and resolutely on her own hind legs, metaphorically and actually, and had an independence of spirit that measured up well with my own, seeming to look on me as a contemporary, accepting me as an equal and no more.

We certainly don’t write like that so much anymore. I must say that I enjoyed reading that sentence, but some people may wonder whether all those commas are necessary and whether the whole thing is even grammatical.

So let’s have some fun and take it apart.

This is really two independent clauses joined by a semicolon. Now let’s start by finding the main subject, verb, and object for each clause. The first sentence has two actions joined by “and”; the second has several actions, joined by “and”s; I’ll list them all out:

1a.
S: This creature
v: comported
O: itself

1b.
S: she
V: busied
O: herself

2a.
S: she
V: made
O: camp

2b.
S: [she]
V: procured
O: [supplies]

2c.
S: [she]
V: carried in
O: supplies

2d.
S: [she]
V: could lay
O: plans

2e.
S: [she]
V: [could] carry out
O: them

2f.
S: [she]
V: stood
O: [intransitive — no direct object] [indirect object:] on legs

2g.
S: [she]
V: had
O: an independence

So we’ll stick all that together without modifiers:

This creature comported itself, and she busied herself; she made camp, procured and carried in supplies, could lay plans and carry them out and stood on legs, and had an independence.

Obviously that doesn’t capture all the content, but it’s the framework on which the rest of the structure hangs. You can see that it’s acceptable syntax.

Now let’s indicate where the modifiers go:

This creature comported itself [how?], and she busied herself [at what?]; she made camp, procured and carried in supplies, could lay plans and carry them out and stood [how?] on [which?] legs [how?], and had an independence [of what?].

Fill in some:

This creature comported itself [as a person, of sorts,] and she busied herself [at tasks [more?]]; she made camp, procured and carried in supplies, could lay plans and carry them out and stood [robustly and resolutely] on [her own hind] legs, [metaphorically and actually,] and had an independence [of spirit [more?]] [more to modify “had”?].

Now we still have two subordinate clauses that modify “tasks” and “spirit”:

A. that I could […] have occupied myself at

B. that measured up well with my own

There’s also a pair of present participle phrases that modify “had an independence” at the end:

i. seeming to look on me […]

ii. accepting me […]

I don’t think I need to spell out the full construction of all those. We can just slip them in, complete:

This creature comported itself [as a person, of sorts,] and she busied herself [at tasks [that I could, without loss of dignity, have occupied myself at]]; she made camp, procured and carried in supplies, could lay plans and carry them out and stood [robustly and resolutely] on [her own hind] legs, [metaphorically and actually,] and had an independence [of spirit [that measured up well with my own]], [seeming to look on me as a contemporary, accepting me as an equal and no more].

You actually couldn’t write that sentence without all the commas. You could of course write the same general idea differently, in shorter sentences, but it wouldn’t be presented as one big thought then, which this does.

Now, wasn’t that fun?

One response to “Unpacking the Grey Owl

  1. Yes, it was fun.

    I like that sentence too, with the exception of the sudden change of … not tense, it’s more subtle than that, in phrase 2d. It went from things she did do to things she could do.

    I’m not arguing that it’s incorrect, just that it jarred me and made me have to start that bit over again, which I would argue is not a desirable quality of good writing.

    (On another topic: I just went back and removed all the extra spaces I had put after periods. And then the ones at the beginning and end of this sentence. It’s a really hard habit to break!)

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