Served up grammar style

Verb phrase, noun phrase, object, subject. How authors use grammar to build subtext into stories...

By: Clare Howdle,   2 minutes

Most people would start looking around for sharp implements if someone suggested spending a few hours on a Friday unpicking the grammatical structure of a sentence. Sane people. Normal people. Not me.

A debate in the office about which case should be used for sentence-ending prepositions in titles (still awake are you?) stimulated my hunger for a good, geeky grammar Feed. So, when the time to take a Day 10 rolled around I eagerly got out my dictionaries and grammar guides, teased a well-leaved read off my shelf and settled down for some Friday fun, grammar style.

Now, I did a spot of linguistics at university. I am still known to wax lyrical about the psychological effect of using epistemic verbs of modality in copy. But it turns out I am a charlatan. Most of my intricate grammar knowledge – the kind that comes from intensive sentence study – has thinned out, diluted through years of quick-paced copy deadlines, texting and social media. I’d expected to be able to take a whole page of expertly crafted prose (Helen Oyeyemi’s mind-blowing White is for Witching in this case) and pore over it, analysing the sentence structure, clausal relationships, and prepositional constructs until I emerged exultant, with some as-yet-undiscovered insight about how the author had used grammar to deepen the symbolism. meaning and effect of her text.

No such thing. I started by selecting one of Oyemi’s pages. Then a paragraph. Then a beautiful sentence. Then a well written, simple sentence.

‘Miranda moved Luc’s spectacles and notebook onto the nearby deckchair and climbed into the hammock that Luc had set up between the two trees.’

Deconstructing this simple sentence into its component parts and working out which was the subject, object, verb phrase and noun phrase took me a while. Breaking it down into clauses and sub-ordinate clauses (relative, adverbial or prepositional) took longer. Once I got it, I tried another and another. With each sentence I had to go back to the books to remind myself what was what, to confirm my suspicions about clause type, to be jogged into remembering just what elements could make up a noun phrase (that many words, really?).

For a while I felt like my mission was thwarted. In five hours I didn’t glean any new found knowledge about grammar in works of literary fiction and I didn’t discover a relationship between beautiful metaphor and adverbial clauses. What I did find out was that over and above the basics I need to write proficiently, I know nothing about linguistics.

Without my trusty Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar I would have been lost. But it didn’t matter that my lofty ambitions hadn’t been recognised, because the little journey I did take was still fascinating (to me at least). It took me out of my immediate, daily relationship with words and made me think about them in a different way – as a set of building blocks, a pattern, a science with rules and processes to build stable, effective lines of communication.

For a few hours I looked past the beauty of words’ meaning and into the beauty of how they can be structured. Of course the next step will be to do both. Though, I’ll have to be pretty much starving to tackle that grammar feast.

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