A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Accidents in Syntax
English, being a weakly inflected language, places a burden on syntax for insuring that what we write and say makes sense, and that we convey the meaning that we intend. In the absence of inflections, location is everything for determining what a word is doing in a particular sentence. As we speak, we limit to some degree what may follow if we are to meet the semantic expectations of our listeners, and the syntactic demands of sentence structure. The path of grammaticality is straight and often narrow.
Think of yourself, the speaker, as the tour guide of a large and richly appointed stately home. Your listeners are the tour participants. As you walk from room to room, you reveal the noteworthy features in each one, imparting points of interest at every step while also, in an unobtrusive way, indicating to the flock where they are to go next so that the tour may continue in an orderly fashion. While there may be several possible exits from each room, your competence as a guide will leave no confusion as to where everyone is to proceed, until the tour reaches its end. Just so, you the speaker move from phrase to phrase, clause to clause, sentence to sentence, and at each step of the way you clue your audience, by your choice and placement of words, where the discourse will be traveling next.
Accidents occur when you fail to fulfill the syntactic requirements of a clause or sentence element that has already been placed into the flow of speech. It is as if the tour guide, while giving every indication of exiting through the Moorish arch at the end of the great hallway, makes a sudden detour through a hidden door behind a bookcase – or worse, as if the tour guide hurtles headlong towards a wall, apparently unaware that there is no exit there. On impact, the listeners are suddenly aghast at the sentence fragments lying about and must take pains to parse them as they may.
When done intentionally and with all inherent hazards fully in mind, this sort of maneuver can rise to the lofty heights of rhetorical figure – it goes by the name of anacoluthon: the signal abandonment of an incomplete syntactic structure by the beginning a new one. Anacoluthon is properly distinguished from aposiopesis, another rhetorical device used, or error committed, when the speaker simply stops in midstream, without completing a sentence or structure. It's pretty hard to carry off either of these figures effectively in writing, since written text is often expected to be subjected to the rigors of editing. A recently published book that collects worthy examples of rhetorical figures, Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric, catalogs several instances of aposiopesis (many of which represent speech), but none of anacoluthon.
In most cases that we hear today, abandonment of a syntactic requirement that arises in the flow of words is not anacoluthon. Most of these abandonments are merely gaffes – usually unintentional, and perhaps often unconscious.
Here, for example, is Congressional Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, responding to a question from an interviewer on C-SPAN. At about minute 1:23 in the video he remarks
And I think, uh, uh, you know, the bills that passed and became law, uh, we passed an, uh, uh, an energy policy act that was comprehensive, we passed the first, uh, reform act of the National Institute [sic] of Health in probably 30 years, we reauthorized the Ryan White AIDS Act – we just did a lot of, uh, what I thought were very positive things and we did it in a bipartisan fashion.
The italicized text might, with the proper cleanup work, have become a predicate of an earlier sentence, or the subject of a new one; but in the end it is neither, because the Congressman begins a new structure with "we passed ...." which he properly predicates, and this leaves "the bills that passed and became law" syntactically homeless. As a lesser and merely grammatical quibble, the Congressman's last "it" seems to have the antecedent "a lot of, uh, what I thought were very positive things" – which has better credentials as a plural noun phrase than a singular one and so probably would have been better referenced anaphorically with "them" than with "it."
Real-time sports commentary provides golden opportunities for the proper use of anacoluthon and aposiopesis; the fast-changing nature of play often makes it desirable for the speaker to abandon a construction in progress and drop its syntactic requirements for the more important job of describing what is happening in the moment. Here, for example, is a YouTube video entitled "Ovechkin's incredible goal" in which, between seconds 4 and 8 of the video, the commentator seems to begin one or two sentences that go nowhere between when he says "Now picked up by Ovechkin and here he comes!" and "He scored!" In a case like this, there is no bone to pick: who would insist that the speaker properly finish his phrases, clauses, and sentences for the sake of correctness, rather than provide the play-by-play?
An opposite problem occurs when the speaker lets so much material intervene between related parts of a sentence that listeners may not be quite sure what a sentence element belongs to when it comes to light. It is as if the tour guide, ever tilting his head towards the door to the room where he will complete the story he has begun, keeps stopping at small statuary along the way and commenting upon it: tour participants forget where it is they're going by the time they get there.
In this video, between minutes 5:26 and 6:10, author Derek Leebaert, being interviewed about his book Magic and Mayhem, unpacks his term "emergency men."
In the American notion of emergency men, it is oftentimes the academics, think-tankers, professors, political appointees, who are enthused by national security policy, more so than any other aspect of public policy, but national security policy with all the excitements of striker brigades, and nuclear deterrents and special ops and so forth, and who for reasons of good citizenship, patriotism, personal enthusiasm, work and try to influence national security policy.
We have underscored the sine qua non bits of Mr. Leebaert's sentence, which is a cleft sentence to begin with and therefore may already call upon the listener to appropriate supplementary short-term memory locations to track subject and predicate. But much intervenes between the first subordinate clause and the second, and then again between the second subordinate clause subject and its predicate. It taxes most modern listeners, with their allegedly impaired attention spans, to retain all the required elements of such a sentence in memory in order to parse it correctly in a single hearing.
We imply no criticism of the very learned and articulate Mr. Leebaert for his speech, and only note, with some lament, that there is little demand these days to speak like Henry James wrote. Modern listeners are probably better served by shorter sentences that carry their exegesis in accompanying sentences, rather than longer sentences that provide the package all-inclusively.
There's a simple take-home message in all this: for most purposes, the English-trained listener assimilates information most efficiently in the form of speech that follows the rules of grammar and arrives in fully-formed sentences of short or moderate length. In order to move us all towards a state of felicity where this happens more often than not, there is no better medicine than the study and teaching of English – so banish your doubts, students, about the utility of the activity, and take heart, teachers, that your task, though occasionally tiresome, serves an important purpose!