Friday, December 03, 2010

Joan Didion

When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again.

Joan Didion, "Goodbye to All That," Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

*

Here Joan Didion, justly famous for her paratactic writing style, lays down one phrase and clause after the other, with very little subordination, detailing the moment of her arrival in New York, a borderline between the author's past and her new life.

*

When I first saw New York I was twenty,
and it was summertime,
and I got off a DC-7
at the old Idlewild temporary terminal
in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento
but seemed less smart already,
even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal,
and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct,
programmed by all the movies I had ever seen
and all the songs I had ever heard sung
and all the stories I had ever read about New York,
informed me that it would never be quite the same again.

*

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Oliver Sacks

I am writing this with my left hand, although I am strongly right-handed. I had surgery to my right shoulder a month ago and am not permitted, not capable of, use of the right arm at this time. I write slowly, awkwardly -- but more easily, more naturally, with each passing day. I am adapting, learning, all the while -- not merely this left-handed writing, but a dozen other left-handed skills as well: I have become very adept, prehensile, with my toes, to compensate for having one arm in a sling. I was quite off balance for a few days when the arm was first immobilized, but now I walk differently, I have discovered a new balance. I am discovering different patterns, different habits . . . a different identity, one might say, at least in this particular sphere. There must be changes going on with some of the programs and circuits in my brain -- altering synaptic weights and connectivities and signals (though our methods of brain imaging are still too crude to show these).

Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars.

*

When you read this, doesn't it feel as though Oliver Sacks were sitting at a table just a few feet away from you, explaining to you what he's thinking in the pauses between setting pen to paper? How does he do that? First, his verb choices focus on the present: I am writing / I write slowly / I am discovering. It feels more like a diary entry than a formal preface to a collection of essays. Second, he employs repair strategies (self-repair, here) that we normally associate with spoken discourse:
not permitted, not capable of, / different patterns, different habits . . . a different identity / I write slowly, awkwardly -- but more easily, more naturally, with each passing day.
Sacks also uses a variety of punctuation marks to slow the rhythm down and separate ideas: parentheses, em-dashes, and ellipses, as though he's actually transcribing himself talking.

*

(1)
I am writing this with my left hand,
although I am strongly right-handed.

(2)
I had surgery to my right shoulder a month ago and am not permitted,
not capable of,
use of the right arm at this time.

(3)
I write slowly,
awkwardly --
but more easily,
more naturally,
with each passing day.

(4)
I am adapting,
learning,
all the while --
not merely this left-handed writing,
but a dozen other left-handed skills as well:
I have become very adept,
prehensile,
with my toes,
to compensate for having one arm in a sling.

(5)
I was quite off balance for a few days when the arm was first immobilized,
but now I walk differently,
I have discovered a new balance.

(6)
I am discovering different patterns,
different habits . . .
a different identity,
one might say,
at least in this particular sphere.

(7)
There must be changes going on with some of the programs and circuits in my brain --
altering synaptic weights and connectivities and signals
(though our methods of brain imaging are still too crude to show these).

*

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

William Golding

Jack, knowing this was the crisis, charged too. They met with a jolt and bounced apart. Jack swung with his fist at Ralph and caught him on the ear. Ralph hit Jack in the stomach and made him grunt. Then they were facing each other, panting and furious, but unnerved by each other's ferocity. They became aware of the noise that was the background to this fight, the steady shrill cheering of the tribe behind them.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies.

*

(1) Jack, knowing this was the crisis, charged too.
(2) They met with a jolt and bounced apart.
(3) Jack swung with his fist at Ralph and caught him on the ear.
(4) Ralph hit Jack in the stomach and made him grunt.
(5) Then they were facing each other, panting and furious, but unnerved by each other's ferocity.
(6) They became aware of the noise that was the background to this fight, the steady shrill cheering of the tribe behind them.

In Golding's novel, the narrator does not call much attention to himself. You will find economical descriptions of scene and action (example above) and a lot of dialogue between the boys on the island, Ralph, Jack, Piggy, Roger, and the others. Using mainly simple sentences, Golding creates a text that is easy for the eyes to scan and follow.

*

Saturday, May 24, 2008

John Gregory Dunne

Shortly after two o'clock on the afternoon of May 16, 1967, Darryl F. Zanuck stepped out of an elevator on the eighteenth floor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. He was wearing sunglasses and smoking a large black cigar and in the lapel buttonhole of his well-tailored blue blazer was in the rosette of the Legion d'Honneur. In his wake, stopping when he stopped, walking when he walked, trailed a convoy of equally well-tailored men in the employ of the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, over whose annual stockholders' meeting Zanuck was scheduled to preside that afternoon in the Waldorf's Starlight Roof. Leading the convoy, but half a step behind his father, the dauphin to the king, was Zanuck's only son, Richard Darryl Zanuck, a member of the board of directors of the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and the Studio's Los Angeles-based executive in charge of world-wide production.

Opening paragraph from John Gregory Dunne's The Studio.

*

(1) Shortly after two o'clock on the afternoon of May 16, 1967, Darryl F. Zanuck stepped out of an elevator on the eighteenth floor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.

After a long prepositional phrase giving exact time and place, Dunne presents one of the main characters of his book-length examination of a Hollywood studio over the course of a year.

(2) He was wearing sunglasses and smoking a large black cigar and in the lapel buttonhole of his well-tailored blue blazer was in the rosette of the Legion d'Honneur.

The second sentence offers the reader a tripartite sunglasses-cigar-rosette thumbnail description of Mr. Zanuck.

(3) In his wake, stopping when he stopped, walking when he walked, trailed a convoy of equally well-tailored men in the employ of the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, over whose annual stockholders' meeting Zanuck was scheduled to preside that afternoon in the Waldorf's Starlight Roof.

This sentence begins with a boating metaphor -- "in his wake" -- followed by two participial phrases -- "stopping when he stopped, walking when he walked" -- that depict the deference accorded to Mr. Zanuck by his assistants.

(4) Leading the convoy, but half a step behind his father, the dauphin to the king, was Zanuck's only son, Richard Darryl Zanuck, a member of the board of directors of the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and the Studio's Los Angeles-based executive in charge of world-wide production.

This sentence describes Richard Zanuck, the boss's son. One notes the mock formality in Dunne's rhythm, a stately, decorous roll to the sentences, creating the ironic tension between the manner of presentation and the subject matter at hand, the exit from an elevator of a fairly loud-mouthed motion-picture executive, his son, and assorted flunkies and yes-men.

*

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Friday, July 09, 2004

James Boswell

The 'morbid melancholy,' which was lurking in his constitution, and to which we may ascribe those particularities, and that aversion to regular life, which, at a very early period, marked his character, gathered such strength in his twentieth year, as to afflict him in a dreadful manner.

James Boswell, Life of Johnson

*

The 'morbid melancholy,'
which was lurking in his constitution,
and to which we may ascribe those particularities,
and that aversion to regular life,
which,
at a very early period,
marked his character,

gathered such strength in his twentieth year,
as to afflict him in a dreadful manner.

*

Boswell forestalls the verb phrase with a series construction using relative clauses.



Wednesday, July 07, 2004

William Faulkner

From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that -- a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes filled with dust motes which Quentin thought of as being of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

*

From a little after two oclock until almost sundown
of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon
they
sat
in what Miss Coldfield still called the office
because her father had called it that --
a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler,
and which
(as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house)
became latticed with yellow slashes filled with dust motes
which Quentin thought of as being of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

*

This is the opening sentence of one of several Faulkner masterpieces. It's is hard to believe that there is only one main verb in that sentence. The basic sentence is:

They sat in the office.

Everything else is Faulkner setting the situation and offering both Miss Coldfield's and Quentin's views of the room and what it meant to them.


Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Virginia Woolf

"It's due west," said the atheist Tansley, holding his bony fingers spread so that the wind blew through them, for he was sharing Mr. Ramsey's evening walk up and down, walk up and down the terrace.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse.


*

"It's due west,"
said
the atheist Tansley,
holding his bony fingers spread so that the wind blew through them,
for he was sharing Mr. Ramsey's evening walk up and down, walk up and down the terrace.

*

The clause of quoted speech -- "It's due west" -- is fronted in this sentence, a very common practice. After this fronted element, the subject and verb are inverted.

The participial phrase -- holding his bony fingers ... -- modifies Tansley, offering us an image of him on the terrace, hand outstretched in the direction of the wind.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Andrew Bergman

A comic masterpiece, it was filled with cynicism about two treasured American institutions: the family and the frontier.

Andrew Bergman, "Some Anarcho-Nihilist Laff Riots," We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films.

*

A comic masterpiece,
it
was filled
with cynicism
about two treasured American institutions:
the family and the frontier.

*

Bergman is talking about W.C. Fields' The Fatal Glass of Beer. In this sentence Bergman uses a nominal appositive phrase -- a comic masterpiece -- at the beginning. This placement is not uncommon in written discourse, but rare to nonexistent in spoken English.

*

And here's the last paragraph from that chapter:
The most desperate years of our national experience produced our most desperate comedy, one that rang some hilarious and savage changes on a hundred conventions. The freewheeling nihilism of the early Marx and Fields films has not been approached since; the "screwball" comedy of the mid-thirties would stress goodheartedness and social unity. The screen anarchists entertained a bleak and heartsick civilization that expected the worst from everyone. What has been called "zaniness" was really the dark side of American irreverence, a wild response to an unprecedented shattering of confidence.

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Saturday, June 26, 2004

Samuel Beckett

Mr. Hackett turned the corner and saw, in the failing light, at some little distance, his seat.

Samuel Beckett, Watt

*

Mr. Hackett
turned
the corner
and
saw,
in the failing light,
at some little distance,
his seat.

*

This is the opening line of Sameul Beckett's novel. In the very first line Beckett violates one of the basic rules of English syntax. English, although once a synthetic language, is now thoroughly analytic and demands that objects follow immediately after the verb. Beckett, however, interposes two prepositional phrases between the verb and the object and this, to me, is an unambiguous warning shot for what the reader can expect in the rest of his novel.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

We finally come out of one alley to find ourselves face to face with three gunmen, their heads wrapped in keffiyehs, Kalashnikovs and RPGs in their hands (this is now considered the new Iraqi dress code, or the "muj style").

Ghaith Ahad, "'This is the only fun the kids get - shooting at the US sitting ducks'"

*

We finally come out of one alley
to find ourselves face to face with three gunmen,
their heads wrapped in keffiyehs,
Kalashnikovs and RPGs in their hands
(this is now considered the new Iraqi dress code, or the "muj style").

*

One of this month's themes has been the use of the nominative absolute in descriptive writing. Ghaith Ahad employs two of these phrases -- their heads wrapped in keffiyehs and Kalashnikovs and RPGs in their hands -- for quick, shorthand, and effective description.

Here is another example from the same article:

He leads us through a maze of alleyways which make up part of the old covered souks of Kerbala, the shops heavily barricaded with steel bars, the streets piled with weeks' old rubbish, fighters sitting in groups of three to five, smoking.

*

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Flannery O'Connor

"But nobody's killed," June Star said with disappointment as the grandmother limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side.

Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

*

"But nobody's killed,"
June Star
said
with disappointment
as the grandmother limped out of the car,
her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side.

*

Nobody writes with the same edge as Flannery O'Connor. In this story June Star is one of the two Uber-Brats along for the car ride.

O'Connor uses the nominative absolute -- her hat still pinned... -- to isolate the condition of the grandmother's hat after the car accident.

*

Here's the end of O'Conner's dark masterpiece:


Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.

Without his glasses, The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. "Take her off and thow her where you thown the others," he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.

"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

"Some fun!" Bobby Lee said.

"Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."

*

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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

David Galloway

To the right, his arm around the dog, stands a boy in a checked cap.

David Galloway, A Family Album

*

To the right,
his arm around the dog,
stands a boy in a checked cap.

*

Another example of the use of the nominative absolute: his arm around the dog. Here Galloway uses it to focus on the sign of friendship between the young boy and his pet.

We also find subject-verb inversion after an initial prepositional phrase. The verb, of course, is intransitive: stands a boy in a checked cap.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Thomas Browne

In a field of Old Walsingham, not many months past, were digged up between forty and fifty urns, deposited in a dry and sandy soil, not a yard deep, nor far from one another.

Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia; Urn Burial; or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk. (1658)

*

In a field of Old Walsingham,
not many months past,
were digged up between forty and fifty urns,
deposited in a dry and sandy soil,
not a yard deep,
nor far from one another.

*

Interesting example of subject-verb inversion after an initial prepositional phrase. We have seen contemporary writers use this structure with instransitive verbs. For example, Barbara Tuchman writes, "In the center of the front row rode the new king, George V, ..." Browne, however, inverts with a transitive verb in the passive voice: "In a field of Old Walsingham, not many months past, were digged up between forty and fifty urns, ..."

Someone today might write:

Between forty and fifty urns, deposited in a dry and sandy soil, not a yard deep and not far from one another, were dug up a few months ago in the field of Walsinghan.

Or:

A few months ago, in the field of Walsinghan, between forty and fifty urns were dug up which had been deposited in a dry and sandy soil, not a yard deep and not far from one another.

Or:

A few months ago, in the field of Walsinghan, between forty and fifty urns, deposited in a dry and sandy soil, not a yard deep and not far from one another, were dug up.

Of course, we would need to see these sentences in a specific stretch of discourse to decide which one to use.

However, I still like Browne's arrangement the best.

The other interesting point is Browne's use of the weak-form of the past of "dig" -- "digged" instead of the strong-form "dug."

Monday, June 21, 2004

Jonathan Raban

A wooded path, noisy with buzzings and rustlings and slitherings, led to a hilltop cemetery, and I sat on the fine granite tomb of Peter and Mary Ludovissy, looking down on the river.

Jonathan Raban, Old Glory

*

A wooded path,
noisy with buzzings and rustlings and slitherings,
led to a hilltop cemetery,
and
I sat on the fine granite tomb of Peter and Mary Ludovissy,
looking down on the river.

*

Raban uses an adjectival appositive phrase -- "noisy with buzzings and rustlings and slitherings" -- to describe the path in the first clause. In the second clause he uses a present participial phrase -- "looking down on the river" -- to add another touch to the scene.

North Buena Vista, the small town in Iowa along the Mississippi River that Raban is writing about, is very familiar to me. Relatives from my mother's side of the family farmed near North Buena Vista.

Here are the sentences that lead up to the one I isolated for analysis:

At North Buena Vista, I stopped to fill my gas tanks and make the long steep walk up to the village. Old Glory flew over the wooden post office and the brick schoolhouse, but in other respects the place might have belonged to another continent. A painted statue of the Virgin stood in a grotto cut into the rock face, surrounded by dead flowers, candle stubs and colored stones. A wooded path, ...

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Tobias Wolff

*

He leaned into the corner and drove with one hand, his eyes hooded and vaguely yellow in the weak light slanting across the paddies.

Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh's Army

*

He
leaned
into the corner
and
drove
with one hand,
his eyes hooded and vaguely yellow in the weak light slanting across the paddies.

*

The phrase "his eyes hooded ..." is another example of the nominative absolute, an essential tool for descriptive English prose. It has rightly been called the zoom lens of sentence options. Here Wolff isolates Sargeant Benet's eyes, giving us a close-up view, and then cuts to to a long shot over the open field.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Colin Thubron

*

The boyish hair and tobacco-stained teeth of a million factory workers bobbed and grimaced from jam-packed trams and buses, while sallow girls, their plaits and pony-tails bound in elastic bands, bicycled solemnly all together down special lanes in regimental shoals.

Colin Thubron, Behind the Wall

*

The boyish hair and tobacco-stained teeth of a million factory workers
bobbed
and
grimaced

from jam-packed trams and buses,
while sallow girls,
their plaits and pony-tails bound in elastic bands,
bicycled solemnly all together down special lanes in regimental shoals.

*

In the main clause the main verbs are "bobbed and grimaced." The oddity in the main clause is the fact that the subject is "boyish hair and tobacco-stained teeth." The subject offers us a double synecdoche, the hair and teeth of the factory workers isolated and focused on.

In the subordinate clause the main verb is "bicycled." The subject is "sallow girls," but the real descriptive work is performed by the nominative absolute phrase -- "their plaits and pony-tails bound in elastic bands" -- and in the manner adverb "solemnly" and finally in the last prepositional (and metaphorical) phrase, "in regimental shoals."

*

Friday, June 18, 2004

Sebastian Junger

*

The power vacuum that followed the 1989 Soviet withdrawal was finally filled by the Taliban, the creation of fundamentalist lunatics recruited by the ISI from the refugee camps on the Afghan border.

Sebastian Junger, "Massoud's Last Conquest"

*

The power vacuum that followed the 1989 Soviet withdrawal
was finally filled
by the Taliban,
the creation of fundamentalist lunatics recruited by the ISI from the refugee camps on the Afghan border.

*

Many writing instructors, parroting textbook advice, have warned their students about the sins associated with the passive voice. The passive voice, however, has many uses in English and remains an essential tool for a mature writer.

Here, in Junger's sentence, we see just one example of passive usage that is appropriate. First was the power vacuum and then came the Taliban. If "the Taliban" were in the subject slot, this order would be reversed: The Taliban filled the power vacuum. The use of passive voice allows Junger to maintain both temporal fidelity and sentential felicity.

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Thursday, June 17, 2004

James Joyce

*

She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door.

James Joyce, "Araby," Dubliners

*

She was waiting for us,
her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door.

*

In this sentence Joyce is describing Mangan's sister in the story "Araby." I first came across this sentence as an undergraduate reading Joyce's collection of stories for the first time. What focused my eye was the structure "her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door."

What kind of structure was that? I was an English and Classics major and I thought in some ways it resembled the Latin "ablative absolute" structure because of its loose and implied relationship to the main clause.

I spent the next few days searching through the big English grammars by the likes of Jesperson and Curme until I finally located the structure. It was indeed an absolute structure, called the nominative absolute because the noun "her figure" was considered by them to be in the nominative case. Anyway, once I learned about this structure, I began to notice it everywhere in good descriptive, evocative English, used by authors as different as Hemingway and Faulkner.

*

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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

David Hume

*

But before I launch out into those immense depths of philosophy, which lie before me, I find myself inclin'd to stop a moment in my present station, and to ponder that voyage, which I have undertaken, and which undoubtedly requires the utmost art and industry to be brought to a happy conclusion.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

*

But
before I launch out into those immense depths of philosophy,
which lie before me,
I
find
myself inclin'd to stop a moment

in my present station,
and to ponder that voyage,
which I have undertaken,
and which undoubtedly requires the utmost art and industry to be brought to a happy conclusion.

*

The two short nonrestrictive relative clauses -- "which lie before me" and "which I have undertaken" -- seem to work almost more for the sake of cadence and rhythm than for adding clarity.

*

Monday, June 14, 2004

Donald Kagan

*

From the perspective of fifth-century Greeks the Peloponnesian War was legitimately perceived as a world war, causing enormous destruction of life and property, intensifying factional and class hostility, and dividing the Greek states internally and destabilizing their relationship to one another, which untimately weakened their capacity to resist conquest from outside.

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War

*

From the perspective of fifth-century Greeks
the Peloponnesian War
was legitimately perceived
as a world war,

causing enormous destruction of life and property,
intensifying factional and class hostility,
and dividing the Greek states internally and destabilizing their relationship to one another,
which untimately weakened their capacity to resist conquest from outside.


After the passive verb structure sets up the theme, most of the work done in this sentence comes from the adverbial participial phrases:

causing . . . destruction
intensifying . . . class hositility
dividing . . . states
destabilizing . . . relationships

The capper comes in the nonrestrictive relative clause at the end with its main verb:

weakened . . . conquest



Sunday, June 13, 2004

David Hackett Fischer

*

In our mind's eye we tend to see Paul Revere at a distance, mounted on horseback, galloping through the dark of night.

David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride.

*

In our mind's eye
we
tend
to see Paul Revere

at a distance,
mounted on horseback,
galloping through the dark of night.

*

This is the opening line of David Hackett Fischer's fascinating book on the history (and some historiography on) Paul Revere's famous middle-of-the-night alarm at the beginning of our American story.

For us, we notice the use of two postnominal participial phrases to modify and particularize the figure of Paul Revere.

*

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Richard Fernandez

*

Today Arthur Schlesinger's assessment of Reagan, written with such serious and deluded assurance, has something of the air of those scratchy old newsreels showing a turkey-necked Neville Chamberlain fluttering a paper bearing Herr Hitler's signature.

Richard Fernandez (Belmont Club), "Once I was blind, now I see."

*

Today
Arthur Schlesinger's assessment of Reagan,
written with such serious and deluded assurance,
has
something of the air of those scratchy old newsreels showing a turkey-necked Neville Chamberlain fluttering a paper bearing Herr Hitler's signature.

*

This sentence from Belmont Club shows us a few ways to successfully modify nouns in English.

Let's look at the complete subject noun phrase:

Arthur Schlesinger's assessment of Reagan, written with such serious and deluded assurance,

He modifies "assessment" with the nonrestrictive participial phrase "written with such serious and deluded assurance." Which assessment? Arthur Schlesinger's about Reagan. The subject noun phrase has already been indentified, so the participial phrase --"written with such serious and deluded assurance" -- adds extra information.

The juxtaposition of "serious" and "deluded" gives us a nice contrast.

*

And here's how he modifies the word "newsreels":

"those scratchy old newsreels showing a turkey-necked Neville Chamberlian fluttering a paper bearing Herr Hitler's signature."

Here the present participial phrase -- "showing ..." is restrictive. It identifies the newsreels to which Belmont Club refers. Which newsreels? You know, those old newsreels of Neville Chamberlain saying that Hitler is not a threat.

"Scratchy" and "turkey-necked" evoke very particular images. "Turkey-necked" is an example of a compound adjective. One day we'll talk about compounding in English, a vast field indeed.

*

Here's the next line by Belmont Club:

Funny now but nobody was laughing in 1938, and Chamberlain waved his paper to the cheers of the crowd.

*

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Friday, June 11, 2004

Richard Steele

*

Being a Person of insatiable Curiosity, I could not forbear going on Wednesday last to a Place of no small Renown for the Gallantry of the lower Order of Britons, namely, to the Bear-Garden at Hockley in the Hole; where (as a whitish brown Paper, put into my Hands in the Street, inform'd me) there was to be a Tryal of Skill to be exhibited between two Masters of the Noble Science of Defence, at two of the Clock precisely.

Richard Steele (1672-1729), "A Prize Fight."

*

Being a Person of insatiable Curiosity,
I could not forbear going
on Wednesday last
to a Place of no small Renown for the Gallantry of the lower Order of Britons,
namely,
to the Bear-Garden at Hockley in the Hole;
where
(as a whitish brown Paper,
put into my Hands in the Street,
inform'd me)
there was to be a Tryal of Skill
to be exhibited between two Masters of the Noble Science of Defence,
at two of the Clock precisely.

*

This is the opening sentence of Richard Steele's essay. It has much to recommend it. I like particularly the fact that we hear two voices, the first being Steele's own and the second the voice of advertising in the early 18th century, coming from what we would call a flyer, announcing a "Tryal of Skill" between "two Masters of the Noble Science of Defence."

Reading the essays of Addison and Steele conjures up the best of cosmopolitan living, including the best among the "lower order of Britons."

*

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Charles Lamb

*


I confess that I do feel the differences of mankind, national or individual, to an unhealthy excess.

Charles Lamb, "Imperfect Sympathies."

*

I
confess
that I do feel the differences of mankind, national or individual,
to an unhealthy excess.


Lamb lies in wait, hidden behind the bushes, as we amble down his sentence-path. We round the corner of the appositive adjectives -- "national or individual" -- when Dear Lamb jumps out and reveals an innocent-looking prepositional phrase: "to an unhealthy excess."

*

Okay, one more line from Lamb you just might enjoy:

I have been trying all my life to like Scotsmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Salman Rushdie

*

Dorothy, stepping into colour, framed by exotic foliage with a cluster of dwarfy cottages behind her and looking like a blue-smocked Snow White, no princess but a good demotic American gal, is clearly struck by the absence of her familiar homey grey.

Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz.

*

Dorothy,
stepping into colour,
framed by exotic foliage with a cluster of dwarfy cottages behind her
and looking like a blue-smocked Snow White,
no princess but a good demotic American gal,
is clearly struck by the absence of her familiar homey grey.

*

Rushie places "Dorothy" in the subject slot at the very beginning and then paints the scene using present and past participial phrases and a perfect-pitch appositive noun phrase -- "no princess but a good demotic American gal."


Here's Rushdie's next sentence:

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more, she says, and that camp classic of a line has detached itself from the movie to become a great American catchphrase, endlessly recycled, even turning up as one of the epigraphs to Thomas Pynchon's mammoth paranoid fantasy of World War II, Gravity's Rainbow, whose characters' destiny lies not 'Behind the moon, beyond the rain', but 'beyond the zero' of consciousness, where lies a land at least as bizarre as Oz.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Donald Richie

*

Sitting in the sunny Hiroshima station, a freshly bought paperback copy of Persuasion in my pocket, I understood what I had guessed earlier.

Donald Richie, The Inland Sea.

*

Sitting in the sunny Hiroshima station,

a freshly bought paperback copy of Persuasion in my pocket,

I understood what I had guessed earlier.


Richie places modifiers at the beginning of his sentence. The first one is a participial phrase and the second is a nominative absolute.

Years ago I noticed a structure that turned out to be the nominative absolute in one of the stories in James Joyce's Dubliners.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Barbara Tuchman

*

In the center of the front row rode the new king, George V, flanked on his left by the Duke of Connaught, the late king's only surviving brother, and on his right by a personage to whom, acknowledged by The Times, "belongs the first place among all the foreign mourners," who "even when relations are most strained has never lost his popularity amongst us" -- William II, the German Emperor.

Mounted on a gray horse, wearing the scarlet uniform of a British Field Marshal, carrying the baton of that rank, the Kaiser had composed his features behind the famous upturned mustache in an expression "grave even to severity."

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August.

*

In the center of the front row
rode
the new king,
George V,
flanked on his left by the Duke of Connaught,
the late king's only surviving brother,
and on his right by a personage to whom,
acknowledged by The Times,
"belongs the first place among all the foreign mourners,"
who "even when relations are most strained has never lost his popularity amongst us" --
William II, the German Emperor.

The key to this sentence is the intransitive verb "rode." After sentence-initial prepositional phrases we are allowed to invert the subject and the verb if and only if the verb is intransitive, so instead of writing "the new king ... rode" we can invert and then add any number of modifiers to the subject noun phrase, "the new king."

Tuchman is a master at presenting a complex scene with economy and rich details.

*

Mounted on a gray horse,
wearing the scarlet uniform of a British Field Marshal,
carrying the baton of that rank,
the Kaiser had composed his features
behind the famous upturned mustache in an expression "grave even to severity."

I could not resist adding the next sentence in that passage. Again, the participial phrases that precede the subject and predicate, along with the prepositional phrase that follows the predicate, allow us to re-create in our mind's eye a sharp image of William II astride his horse that day in 1914, riding with all of Europe's crowned heads assembled in King Edward VII's funeral procession.

"The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace," Tuchman wrote, "but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again."


UPDATE: Reader JohnL said that the last sentence by Tuchman was "like the ocean rolling in." I think this is an appropriate analogy. Here's why.

The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace,
but on history's clock it was sunset,
and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Notice that she begins with a long clause followed by a short clause and then again an even longer clause. JohnL, you have a very good eye and ear.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Richard J. Evans

*

While both Elton and Carr are still very much worth reading, there is, however, as critics have remarked, something rather strange about two books written more than thirty years ago still serving as basic introductions to a scholarly discipline.

Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History

*

While both Elton and Carr are still very much worth reading,
there is,
however,
as critics have remarked,
something rather strange about two books written more than thirty years ago still serving as basic introductions to a scholarly discipline.

*

Evans signals contrast in this sentence by using a "while"-subordinate clause in initial position. The subordinating conjunction "while" may be used to indicate a simultaneous action, but in this sentence its meaning is not temporal, but contrastive.

Evans reinforces the contrast by employing the conjunctive adverbial "however."

The use of the expletive/existential there is structure allows Evans to keep the weight of the new information to the right, in its usual position. The "while"-subordiante clause is fronted, I imagine, because he wants to keep the old, assumed information at the beginning and against which he will draw his contrast.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

John Burns

*

Mr. Hussein, looking heavier than in years past, with gray flecking his mustache, watched impassively as the encomiums flowed, gesturing now and then to still the praises.

John Burns, NYTimes

*

Mr. Hussein,
looking heavier than in years past,
with gray flecking his mustache,
watched
impassively
as the encomiums flowed
,
gesturing now and then to still the praises.

*

The parallel participial phrases -- "looking ... gesturing ..." -- create balance and rhythm.

In one sentence, John Burns is able to focus our eyes on Saddam's appearance at the ceremony -- heavier now, gray in trade-mark moustache -- and, at the same time, combine two actions of Saddam's, "watched ... gesturing," adding that his face was impassive "as the encomiums flowed."