“A true artist has the ability to make us…”

This sentence opening, while perhaps wordy (why “has the ability to” rather than “can”?), seems benign enough. The problem with the sentence is that the student believes a true artist has more than one ability, or that the ability is multifaceted. With this idea to express, she ventures into the rocky territory of the series.

“A true artist has the ability to make us feel a sea breeze, enjoy the colors of the fall, and reveal the beauty of the human form.”

She did not intend to talk about art as an interactive form, but she has done that—not merely spiritually or imaginatively interactive, but physically so. The items in a series must be expressed in the same grammatical structure.

That rule, of course, is what Noam Chomsky sent up in a sentence he wrote that went something like this: “He took the jewels, his time, and a taxi.” Although this series is grammatically parallel, it isn’t conceptually parallel, because each of the things “he took” depends on a different sense of the verb “to take.” Because we don’t take our time in the same way that we take a cab or purloin a jewel, the series is still not parallel.

This is where my student comes in, more or less. What she has done is silently change actors, so that even though “feel a sea breeze,” “enjoy the colors,” and “reveal the beauty” are all phrases containing a verb and its direct object, the “artist” of the sentence is doing the main verb (“has”), and that main verb has as its object the infinitive “to make”…so far so good…but the main verb also may have as a second object another infinitive, “[to] reveal.” Unfortunately, “reveal” follows the only “and” in the sentence, and therefore seems to be the third element in the series that includes “feel” and “enjoy.” But this series is controlled by “make us,” with each verb being something the artist can make us do. Thus the artist has the ability to make us reveal the beauty of the human form.

For anyone tempted to refer to museums and art galleries as quiet places, dignified places, or even dull places, my student offers a vision of a much livelier scene: art lovers stand around gazing at paintings and statuary, feeling and enjoying, and then suddenly begin ripping off their clothes—or seductively peeling them off—in response to the artist’s silent call. If a guard should remonstrate with them, they would turn helplessly to him and explain, “The artist made me do it!”

Now, that’s a true artist.

Beware the series, either in a sentence or as a list. Make sure the requisite symmetry of structure and thought is there. Otherwise you may find yourself stripping in public, revealing perhaps the beauty of your human form but more certainly the imperfections of your grammatical makeup.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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