“Hamlet is deeply distraught by the untimely death of his paternal father.”

Somebody (maybe I, had there been any way I could have foreseen the need!) should have taught my student that “taught” may be the past tense of “teach,” “thought” may be the past tense of “think,” and “wrought” may be the past tense of “work” (I just found this out. In Middle English it was: the past tense of “work” in the sense of “manipulate in order to make”! We use “wrought” today as an adjective, and as a kind of past participle with helping verbs—”what God has wrought”—despite having no present stem), but “distraught” is not the past tense of “distress.” Now that I think about it, I’m tempted to start a movement to MAKE it the past tense of “distress,” instead of “distressed.”

Thinking “distraught” is a verb is the only way to follow it with “by” instead of “at” or “as a consequence of.” So either my student didn’t know it isn’t a verb, or she doesn’t know that preposition usage has some restrictions. The latter is common among student writers; the former, not so much, so we probably don’t have a linguistic historian on our hands so much as a young writer.

Of course it’s that “paternal father” that got this sentence into my book.

“Paternal” sometimes shows up as a typo for “parental,” but here that can’t have been what happened: feeling the need to specify that a father is also a parent is unlikely.

Has “paternal” entered the sentence because my student is looking for more weight in her sentence, more gravitas, for Hamlet’s sake, or for the sake of the College Paper? It didn’t do the trick. In fact, reading the sentence aloud, I think it would have more dignity, more sonority, without the “paternal.” Try reading the line without the word: the rhythm is reminiscent of Longfellow! THIS is the FORest primEVal, the MURmuring PINES and the HEMlocks. HAMlet is DEEPly disTRAUGHT by th’ unTIMEly DEATH of his FATHer! So, if she was using “paternal” for rhythmic effect, she achieved the opposite of her intentions.

Maybe she was following the model of “paternal grandfather,” which is a perfectly useful phrase. It’s useful because in the general scheme of things people have two grandfathers—the father of their mother and the father of their father. “Paternal” and “maternal” are good ways of sorting out the relatives in the two parental factions, kind of like church seating at a wedding.

But for those of us who have just the one father, or one father at a time, he IS the paternal unit; there is no “maternal father”…

…Wait a minute! no “maternal father” at least until NOW, when gay unions and gay parenting are finally legal, at least in places of enlightenment. At this point “paternal father” and “maternal father” might be useful concepts as we rearrange and expand our vocabulary to reflect changing times.

Hamlet’s father and mother, though, have always been considered to conform with the parental unit of modern western tradition, even in Shakespeare’s day when the role of Gertrude was of necessity played by a man. No need to specify that Hamlet Sr. was Hamlet Jr.’s father on his father’s side. All my student achieved with “paternal father” was to send me into a giggling contemplation of maternal mothers, paternal mothers, maternal fathers, paternal fathers—a parental arrangement subject to permutations and combinations better suited to Theatre of the Absurd than Elizabethan Drama.

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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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