Monday, September 22, 2008

Grammar Unflummoxed

First, I'm thinking of getting a cat. Don't know if I should. That's her in the picture. She's six months, a major lap cat, she's been fostered not kenneled so she's clean and clear on the disease front ... and there's someone else vying for her! Yikes! Do I really want a cat?

Grammar stuff:
Thank you to everyone who tackled the yucky sentence that typifies what I'm seeing in freshmen writing.

It seemed chilly after the jacuzzi.

Turns out, thanks to Jes making me look it up, that Jacuzzi is a trademarked proper noun so for starters Jacuzzi should be capitalized. I argue that jacuzzi's trademark is going the way of Kleenex though.

Thronesquest was absolutely right identifying the first style error: "the main problem I see with this is that I don't know who is feeling chilly or who was in the jacuzzi." Right on TQ.

I asked my students what is "it" in this sentence. Some of them scoffed and said "the air" but at the same time someone else opened her mouth and said "the weather" and that set them off listing all the possible its. It could have been the water of a pool or lake, it could have been the speaker's skin. My favorite suggestion from my students: "the mood."

Point being that unless the sentence directly proceeding this one makes reference to the air or the mood, the reader is left to guess as to what that "it" could be.

The second style point Jes hit on: "But wait. 'Seemed'? Well, was it or wasn't it? Surely the narrator knows. I think this might be a bogus attempt to avoid the dreaded 'was.'"

"To seem," or "seemed" in this case, is one of those wimp out verbs. We already understand that "chilly" is an approximation, that there is no standard for what is chilly and what is not save the opinion of the speaker so saying "it seemed chilly" is a wimpy approximation of an approximation.

Using phrases like it seemed I was right, it felt like dancing with a bear, there were like two police cars, or we were rather upset, just dance around the actual emotion or action. Jes brought up avoiding using "was" too frequently, but honestly, sometimes the narrator just needs to step up and take control of the situation, build his or her authority and say this is exactly how it was. Go for the jugular. Say "it was chilly." Come on, take that sentence and shake it until it tells you it believes that what you say is what is really going on.

There's a reason we use the phrase tell it like it is with so passion in our culture.

The actual grammar mistake in the sentence no one specifically IDed however everyone fixed it in their rewrites.

It is physically impossible to after the Jacuzzi. You can't after the Jacuzzi. That clause, phrase, chunk (whatever) needs a verb! There has to be an action.

Something can come after the Jacuzzi physically, but that's a spatial relation not a temporal relation as the sentence implies. We muddy the waters of "come after" by using it to refer to to-do lists or agendas ... which makes it seem like one event is coming after another time-wise, but really the reference is to the next physical item on the list not the time doing or discussing that item will take.

In the original sentence we assume "to be" in that second phrase simply because we're trying to make sense of the sentence. "It was chilly after being in the Jacuzzi." We're used to making these assumptions because in spoken English the speaker rarely gets things right the first time and we're very forgiving of that -- particularly if they have hand gestures and a physical context to go with the sentence -- but in writing you have to give the reader everything in the words themselves without any external help, which, when you think about it from a learner's stance, is extremely difficult because our first learned communication has all sorts of props available to us to use. Goodness, how many times in France did I point to an object and say comme ca simply because I had no idea what the word was?

Highly Recommended