Category Archives: screwy syntax

“On the Greek island of Lesbos…”

My Early World Literature students generally love Sappho, at least what of hers we read in the course. And I think some of what they love is her unknowability, if I can call it that, and the fact that much of the work we have by her is fragmentary. Her works were collected into volumes by admiring Greek and then Roman poets and others, but only papyrus scraps have come down to us, through various unusual pathways. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family and lived for a time in a community of young women on the island of Lesbos who wrote and sang poetry, danced to their songs…. the word “Lesbian” was attached to the female-to-female sexual attractions described in some of her work. The site The Poetry Foundation sums up what is known or at least seriously believed about her today: “In antiquity Sappho was regularly counted among the greatest of poets and was often referred to as ‘the Poetess,’ just as Homer was called ‘the Poet.’ Plato hailed her as ‘the tenth Muse,’ and she was honored on coins and with civic statuary.” Beyond that, most of what we “know” is custom, legend, speculation…or downright fiction. Readers tend to believe her first-person poems are autobiographical because of that “I” and the frank, intense description of deep emotions and suggestions of intimate experience—but we don’t know.

Anyway, as I said, her poems—what we have of them—are compelling. Poets of many centuries and cultures have translated them into their own languages, often padding them out to fit ideas of structure and poetics quite alien to the originals. (If that intrigues you, you ought to visit the site Bureau of Public Secrets, where “some of the many” translations of her “Poem of Jealousy” are collected.)

In my classes, attraction to a piece of writing pretty much means you’ll have to write about it; hence today’s horror. Through the murky sentences I think you will still feel the affection:

“On the Greek island of Lesbos Sappho’s works were written and compiled, into the classic poems they are today. Despite knowing not much about her, her poems speak volumes.”

Oh, the use of the passive voice, which denies Sappho agency in her own work (the poems were written on an island; who wrote them remains unspoken)! Oh, the strange notion that some “compilers” made them into classic poems—again, she doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with it! Were they immediately classic because they were written in the sixth century B.C.E., or are they classic now because they’re still around or because we call them so, or are they classic because someone compiled them “into…classic poems,” or what? The writer leaves us to ponder those questions. Perhaps the writer himself is unsure what “classic” means. They can certainly be referred to as “classical,” because they are writings from the long period of Greek and Roman civilization we call the “classical age.” Well, be that as it may. They’re classics today.

“Despite knowing not much about her,” besides being a remarkably awkward phrase, is a dangling modifier. Of course I knew what he meant to say: Despite the fact that we don’t know much about her…or despite our not knowing much about her. But the sentence as my student wrote it has no such nouns or pronouns to be described (modified) by the prepositional phrase: the only noun offered is “poems,” but surely he doesn’t mean to say her poems don’t know much about her. He goes on to say that the poems “speak volumes.” This in spite of not knowing much about their author, I guess.

Now, generally when we use the verb phrase “speak volumes” we mean “say a great deal (books’ worth, in fact) even without words.” As in “she said not a word when he said he loved her, but her quiet smile spoke volumes,” perhaps. Is that what my student means to say about the poems of Sappho—that the fragments we have still suggest books’ worth of thoughts? I’m not sure. In view of the introductory phrase about not knowing much about her, I have to consider that he may mean the poems suggest a lot about their author. What’s truly odd here is a coincidence of terminology, the juxtaposition of fragments and “volumes,” and the association of poems with books as well.

Most readers of Sappho feel that the fragments suggest deep and complex emotions, or evoke them in readers, although for many of the poems what we have is so small a piece of the probable original that we can’t be positive where the poem as a whole might have taken us. In fact, what we respond to for so many of what we call her “poems” is a single breathtaking image. And the trouble with that is the nagging fact that almost all of us are reading Sappho in a translation. Only the knowledge that her words have struck readers this way regardless of the passage of time and the vagaries of literary “style” and translation gives us the confidence to attribute our response to her artistry.

This isn’t a very funny post! My intention was to have a good time with my hapless student’s staggering couple of sentences and their inadequacies as praise of The Poetess. But it’s impossible to point out where my student went wrong, or at least limped through, without talking about the power and beauty of the words he was trying to respond to. Perhaps there’s a point at which we all become inarticulate.

Here’s someone else’s tribute to her. It’s described as “red-figure vase (hydria, or kalpis) by the Group of Polygnotos, ca. 440–430 BC. Seated, Sappho is reading one of her poems to a group of three student-friends. National Archaeological Museum in Athens….” This photographic image of the hydria is “by Μαρσύας (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons.” She’s writing so intently, and the other women form a group around and above her that seems simultaneously loving and blessing. Beautiful, isn’t it?

You'll notice that, like Sappho's poems, this jar was once broken in pieces. How fortunate we are that unlike so many of her poems, all the pieces were found and carefully reassembled. We respond to its original beauty.

You’ll notice that, like Sappho’s poems, this jar seems to have once been broken. How fortunate we are that all the pieces are here, carefully reassembled, so we can be sure we’re responding to its original beauty.

“Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia to like him…”

You may think at first that my student was writing about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but the character-name “Orinso” suggests something more in the soap-opera line…

All right, yes: she was writing about Twelfth Night.  And I’m willing to assume, because the other names are correct, that “Orinso” is merely an o’typo—although that play has been through a number of strange variations at the hands of students, including one who seems to have thought it was an episode from The Morte d’Arthur.

The student error this sentence really reminds me of is a lovely misuse of the word “gander” as a transitive verb—I invite you to read my discussion of it, which may persuade you, as it has persuaded me, to adopt the error as part of your own colorful verbal armory.

I think I would have liked the sentence here better if it had ended after the ninth word: “Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia.” “Swoon” can be a noun (“a partial or total loss of consciousness…a state of bewilderment or ecstasy…a state of suspended animation,” says Webster) or a verb (“to faint…to become enraptured…to float or fade”). But, as Webster assures us, “swoon” is an INtransitive verb; that is, it takes no object. I suppose a writer could get away with writing “She swooned a swoon of joy,” but I can’t think of anything else one could swoon. Still, picturing Cesario/Viola trying to swoon Olivia is rather charming; perhaps it would involve putting a swooning spell on her? In my student’s mind, perhaps there could have been a vision of the comely Viola-in-Cesario-disguise standing before an Olivia fainting with rapture. I’d be willing to buy that as an explanation for the first nine words.

But she goes on. “To swoon Olivia to like him”? What is in her mind? Does she mean Cesario is to try to put a spell on Olivia to like Orinso? (Really, I have to apologize. I should be calling him “Orsino,” since I have confessed that I believe “Orinso” was bad typing rather than bad thinking—but I’m really, really getting a kick out of pretending Shakespeare named a character “Orinso.”) Anyway, Cesario trying to put a spell on Olivia to like him: could that be the intention?

No way of knowing. And of course there’s a little more. Here’s the whole sentence:

“Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia to like him and that’s when it really starts.”

Is this statement a companion piece to another, long-ago, student’s comment that “In Adam and Eve this is the first time man and woman have been together and right away there is trouble”? So young they are, and so jaded.

Does she mean that the play really starts when Orinso makes this difficult request of Viola? Or does she mean the attraction of Olivia to Viola? or the fun starts? or the trouble? Well, something really starts, anyway.

Let it be a lesson to us all. When we try to swoon people into doing things, we start something. And there’s no predicting how it will all turn out.

Happy New Year!

“The question that is always wondered in everyone’s mind is…”

So the verb here is “to be wondered.” Do we have yet another inanimate agent? Not sure, because the question is wondered; that is, it is wondered by something, and that thing is the agent. The agent is certainly unclear, though: the wondering takes place in everyone’s mind, so the mind itself can’t be doing the wondering. Could the question be presenting itself to be wondered…by whatever else happens to be in the mind?

I suppose if my student had included a preposition—”the question that is always wondered about“—the phrase wouldn’t seem quite so bizarre, although the matter of agent would still be up for grabs, or for gropes in the dim recesses of the mind. Wondered about by whom or what?

Perhaps one of my readers more thoroughly informed in grammatical terminology can name this error. I throw up my hands, then put them down again and grab a pen so I can write “awkward and unclear” in the margin and move on.

And so, on to the question itself:

“The question that is always wondered in everyone’s mind is ‘Whose fault is obesity?'”

I had assigned five essays on the “American obesity epidemic” for the week’s reading. Apparently my student generalized from those examples and assumed that everyone was thinking about the issue, all the time. Now, as a perennially-dieting person from the age of eleven on, I probably think about obesity more than a lot of other people do—and I don’t think about it all that much, at least compared to the other things I think about. I especially don’t spend a lot of time wondering whose fault it is. Two or three of the assigned readings did place blame: one accused the weak-willed or perverse individual; one accused pleasure-pushing fast-food joints; a third accused a hurried and thoughtless society that offered few convenient alternatives to junk food. It’s tempting here to echo a wonderful song by Jo Carol Pierce (Bad Girls Upset with the Truth) and add “I blame GOD!” But none of the readings did that…

So my student wasn’t really far off the mark, and an effort at more precise diction would have produced a more effective opening to a (probably accurate-enough) essay of his own. The quarrel I have with him is that he spawned that horribly awkward and unclear noun clause and then went blithely on with his verb of being and ill-defined predicate-nominative question. And that’s the sentence he used to launch an essay that staggered its way through a similarly awkward and ill-defined discussion.

I really, really believe that taking more time on that first sentence would have given him some control as he went forward.

Did he read what he had written? In the small draft-reading circles, did any of his partners object to, or ask about, this sentence? Or, horrible to contemplate, was this phrasing the result of polishing something even rougher as he finalized his paper to turn in?

All these speculations are too depressing as the second week of the semester chugs along and my brand-new first-years toil over Essay Number One, Draft One.

Many years ago, a professor on whom I had a blinding, suffocating crush came into class the day after, we later learned, his wife had left him and commented à propos of nothing that “Hope was the last thing released from Pandora’s Box…the last evil, and the worst.” I tell myself this characterization was as wrong as it was unorthodox, as I gaze hopefully at my students.

“Organization is key to achievement…”

Yet another inanimate-object-as-agent example, and I promise I will try to move on to something else (at least for the time being).


“Organization is key to achievement and it pertains to almost everything trying to be accomplished.”

Presumably, the notion that organization is key to achievement is what pertains to almost everything.

So we will turn our attention to the participle “trying.” What does it modify? “Everything”—or rather, “everything trying to be accomplished.” Where, oh where in this sentence is there any suggestion that accomplishment takes some kind of worker, some person exerting effort, some individual or group with an idea or dream? The things themselves, the ideas and dreams, are responsible for getting themselves accomplished here. And if those things want to have a chance of succeeding in their efforts, they must have organization, the key to achievement. Lacking hands, how will they ply this key? That’s anybody’s guess.

Is it that students really, really want to move ever forward in their sentences, never going back to try alternatives for the sake of clarity, accuracy, or style? Or, in the case of this particular sentence, do we have an example of a student who should have stopped earlier but felt the need for a grander ending? Put a period after “everything” and you have a perfectly viable sentence. WHY GO ON? I don’t know, but I do know this isn’t the only student who has erred in this way.

Whatever her reason, she left me with a vision of a roomful of things, looking for the organization key, strenuously aspiring to achieve…something, somehow.

“Instead of limiting choices…”

Just one more in the inanimate-object-as-agent series.

This sentence came from an essay on fast-food consumption and obesity. My student was arguing that fast-food restaurants shouldn’t have to offer “healthy” choices and cut back on the burgers; individuals should exercise control over their eating choices.

But in her sentence, people aren’t really doing much; it’s an intangible force that has to make an effort:

“Instead of limiting choices, a sense of responsibility should try to be instilled into people’s minds for their own health.”

That sense of responsibility has to try to be instilled in these people, or rather in their minds. So far, it evidently isn’t succeeding, but that doesn’t mean it should give up, I’m sure. Maybe the minds are closed, and being instilled is therefore difficult—my student doesn’t explain. She does note, however, that something is “for their own health.” The position of this modifying prepositional phrase makes its application ambiguous: Does she mean that for their own health, a sense of responsibility has to be instilled? Or does she mean that a sense of responsibility for their own health has to be instilled? Or is it the act of being instilled that is for their own health? I would imagine that if the sense of responsibility isn’t sure what the modifier modifies, instillation (I just looked that up, and it IS a word!) cannot be accomplished, regardless of effort.

She doesn’t say how the sense of responsibility is to accomplish its mission, either. It has to do the trying, but something else must do the actual instilling (“try to be instilled”…by what or whom?). Can it instill itself?

If people made the effort, they might develop a sense of responsibility. But for my student, they’re just lying there, waiting for that s. of r. to get some gumption and try to get instilled in their minds!

Hmm. Fast food plus lying around…probably not a good combination for anybody’s own health.

“An estimated 1.7 million to 3.4 million American women once were or are now married…”

In celebration of today’s dumping of DOMA by the Supremes (5-4), this garbled statement. It begins so authoritatively, with its statistics and alternatives (“once were or are now married”…); then it loses its grip entirely and falls into chaos:

“An estimated 1.7 million to 3.4 million American women once were or are now married to men who have found that their husbands have homosexual tendencies.”

According to this student, then, gay marriage has been going on for quite some time, and has been quite widespread, and some of the men in those marriages have also had bigamous marriages (not sure “bigamous” is quite the word, but I don’t know what would be better) to American women. Evidently those men were not originally aware that the men they had married had “homosexual tendencies,” either; they’ve just found that out. I’ve never met anyone in this complex situation, but I should be reassured by those statistics that such ménages à trois exist somewhere.

The problem is, of course, the relative pronoun “who.” If she had gone directly from “who” to “have,” she would have been fine. Or if she had written “and” instead of “who,” she’d be okay, although not very graceful. But in her sentence the “who” must modify its direct antecedent, which is “men,” and “their” should refer to the nearest appropriate noun, which again has to be “men.” The husbands of the men married to the women.

I’ve written before about sentences that invite the reader to imagine the writer deeply engrossed in a thought and then unexpectedly interrupted—perhaps by suppertime, perhaps by an alien invasion, perhaps by a fit of despair, perhaps by a bothersome roommate—to resume the sentence upon returning without rereading it. This is that kind of sentence.

I can’t recall where my student took the essay from this amazing statement; I’m not even sure what the assigned topic was.

I’ll just be grateful that, going forward in our nation, men “with homosexual tendencies” will not have to enter into complicated relationships, including heterosexual marriages, for the sake of social acceptance or insurance benefits. No matter what strange sentences my students write on various subjects hereafter, this is one sentence that will not appear again.

“There are millions of McDonald’s, Taco Bells, and Wendy’s that are continually being caught…”

Alert! We are again in the wonderful world of freshman comp, where inanimate objects are agents. But before I reveal the agent of today’s Horror, I must pause to pick two nits:

Writing instructors at the middle- and high-school levels deploy several nonce-rules that students clutch permanently to their bosoms: for example, “Never start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But'”; “NEVER start a sentence with ‘Because'”; “Never say ‘I'”…. Persuading students that these were temporary rules meant to break habits rather than three of the Ten Commandments of Writing is nearly impossible.

On the other hand, MY nonce-rules, announced as such, don’t stick at all. One of them is “When writing for my class, do NOT begin a sentence with ‘There is’ or ‘There are.'” I have a brief demo where I first lay out the non-content quality of “there” and the static nature of “is,” writing two sentences on the board that say basically the same thing: for example, There is a murderer behind the curtain and A murderer is hiding behind the curtain. Students tend to agree that the second version gets the important information out in front. Then I talk briefly about the most common structure in English: Subject, verb, object. John hit the ball. And I point out that the first two words carry the main action and the main energy of the sentence in this structure. Then I go to the door of the classroom, exit, and come back in backward, saying “There was a ball that was hit by John.” And then I ask them if they really want their sentences to back into the room, blowing all the energy on a pronoun and a verb of being. And then I say again, “PLEASE do not begin any sentences with ‘There is’ or ‘There are’ while writing for my class!”

But then the next set of papers comes in, and quite often the very first sentence of half the papers begins with “There is…” Ah well.

I also have a problem with “every day person.” For that word cluster to function as an adjective, it should be either fused or hyphenated. But in this case it still wouldn’t serve—”everyday” and “ordinary” may be in the same realm of meaning, but they aren’t straight synonyms that can be plugged with equal ease into any old sentence.

And now let’s move on, with those two nits lying dead on the sink edge, little feet in the air.

Well, the sentence for today began an essay on fast-food restaurants and obesity in America. My student’s point was that NOT going into a fast-food restaurant is very hard.

So here’s the whole sentence:

“There are millions of McDonald’s, Taco Bells, and Wendy’s that are continually being caught by the eye of an every day person.”

A sudden vision of an eye being used as a fishing lure suddenly crosses my mind. Enough to kill my appetite! I don’t know who the “every day person” who uses such a disgusting method of catching things might be, but I certainly don’t want to meet him or her.

But do you see what I mean about agency? Here, the eye is the active agent, busily out there catching millions of restaurants. And here the muckamucks of the fast-food managements thought the garish paint jobs on their buildings and signs would catch people’s eyes, and those people would follow their eyes directly into the eatery. But my student seems to think that the paint jobs, signage, play spaces, unfunny clowns, plastic toys, and easy parking all just sit there…until that eye is cast their way and catches them, continually, perhaps to bring them home to the every day person.

It’s not the eaters being hooked by those Whoppers; the Whopper-providers are being hooked by the eaters, wily anglers with very strange bait on their hooks.

“There are many laws that are trying to be passed…”

Another post on agency.

In the world of the student writer, people have curiously little power. Frequently, in fact, they seem to be standing in the way of abstractions that are struggling to achieve something.

Considering the current Congress, I’m tempted to agree with this student: there are laws the passage of which is being actively impeded by people who have decided to block them. Many of these hopeful laws have the support of a substantial majority of the American people, so in this sense they are trying to be passed. But grammatically and logically, no, laws can make no effort of their own.

My student has more than this in mind, too:

There are many laws that are trying to be passed that go on behind the scenes that people are not aware of.”

Do the laws go on behind the scenes, busily looking, perhaps, for a chink in the Congressional defensive line through which they can be passed? The first “that” seems to be referring to the laws.

The second “that” evidently refers to “scenes”: people are not aware of these scenes. Scenes where? The scenes of the defensive line? People are not aware of these scenes, but the struggling laws going on are?

I think my student meant that in committees and in congressional offices, unnoticed by CNN’s eye on the congressional floor and by other reporters, legislators are drafting laws; and that is true.

It’s not nearly as entertaining, though, as the picture of those laws—a whole multitude of them—busily but fruitlessly looking for a chink in the stonewall (sorry for the new metaphor!) between themselves and victorious passage out there in the light of day.

I hope they keep trying. Well, at least I hope the ones that have broad public support keep trying. If at first you don’t succeed….

“It took 1 year for Gawain to live before he had to die.”

This is our dear Sir Gawain again. His story isn’t all that complicated, but students get into all sorts of contorted sentence postures trying to summarize it.

Not hard. At the Yule feast, King Arthur wishes for a game or diverting story. In rides a knight and horse, both entirely green, to challenge Arthur to a beheading game: Arthur may strike off the knight’s head, but in a year must seek him out and submit to a similar stroke. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, seeks to spare his king the hazard and at the same time earn some fame for himself; he beheads the green knight and so is committed to the exchange. A year passes, and he sets out to find the Green Chapel; he chances on a castle where he may hear Christmas mass and gather his strength for the coming ordeal. The lord of the castle is going hunting and offers to exchange prizes each day: he, a bit of the animal killed; Gawain, whatever benefit he has found in the castle. But the lady of the castle is up to her own game, and tries each day to seduce Gawain. Day One: a deer steak, a kiss; Day Two: a boar steak, a kiss; Day Three: the fox tail, a kiss. But Gawain has held back the green sash the lady has given him to protect him from harm. Then he sets out to find the Green Knight on the appointed day. The Green Knight needs three attempts at Gawain’s head: on the first try Gawain flinches; on the second, the knight feints; on the third, the knight nicks Gawain, and the game is revealed—Morgan le Fay, attempting to discredit the Round Table, has created Knight, Castle, lady, sash, and all. The Knight therefore knows of Gawain’s dishonesty with the sash. But he acknowledges Gawain’s essential purity, which means Morgan le Fay has failed. Gawain swears to wear the sash forevermore, as an admission of his shame; but when he returns to Camelot everyone else dons a green sash too, in honor of Gawain. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

More or less.

In today’s Horror, my student has essayed to summarize the story. This sentence bridges the space between the beheading of the Green Knight and the due date for Gawain’s pledge.

WHAT “took one year”? “It,” of course–the same “it” that comes in so handy to tell us “it’s hard to leave you,” “it’s a sin to tell a lie,” and “it takes a village to raise a child.” In this way, it took a year–sorry, 1 year. Now generally in this structure we understand the “it” by moving deeper into the sentence, to an infinitive. To leave you is hard. To tell a lie is a sin. To raise a child takes a village. Thus, to live took 1 year. You see the problem.

It took him a year to live before he had to die. It takes most people seventy or more years before they have to do this, but Gawain is in a magic story and perhaps we have to try to look past the idea of a one-year-old Knight of the Round Table. We will allow my student to be claiming that it took him one MORE year to live.

We can also allow “he had to die” to mean “he was appointed to meet death,” rather than the more generalized fact of mortality—because, like it or not, we all have to die, and that becomes true at birth, not at some later date.

By the time we’ve allowed all this, we’ve run out of sentence. The only solution for the hapless grader is to note “awkward” or “unidiomatic” in the margin, take a deep breath, and plunge into the next narrative thicket, just as Gawain made his way through the wintry landscape in quest of the Green Chapel.

Gawain wasn’t laughing, though, and I have to confess that I was.

“Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs…”

“Both” is a troublesome word for student writers. They join all sorts of people in collaborations never intended by the people themselves. Carping about it in this example may seem extreme—after all, “both” doesn’t necessarily mean “together” or “simultaneously.” But trouble arises before the sentence is over:

“Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs in a manner that differs greatly.”

See? The word comes into sentences that are merely talking about two people, not necessarily about two people who are doing similar things. In fact here, they are doing something together that differs. Now, if my student were going on to add a third party—”Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs in a manner that differs greatly from Cotton Mather’s,” for example—she might be working on an imaginable idea. But she has no such plans.

Actually Anne Bradstreet’s beliefs and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s differ greatly. So do their manners of presentation—Bradstreet’s in poetry and letters and private meditations, Emerson’s in poetry and essays and sermons. In this survey course students read some of each, so it’s hard to be sure what “manner” is in this student’s mind.

The paper itself was looking at religion in Bradstreet and Emerson and pointing out that they had different ideas about it—not surprisingly, considering their separation in time, denominations, and societal roles. But in this sentence, they’re presenting their beliefs, both of them, in a single manner (we deduce from its singular form), and that single manner differs. From what, we do not know.

One of the words I sometimes want to outlaw for student writers is “both.” In “both-and” sentences the parallelism is almost never achieved; in other sentences we get these unintended partnerships. In other words, its use is both ungrammatical and imprecise. Is this another lost cause in the great battle over English as she is spoke?