Category Archives: screwy syntax

“The only major factor in the case is Rod’s sexuality, which is just a result of ignorance on the part of the people of Virginia.”

Remember the divorcing Virginia couple, gay father, fighting for custody of their daughter? My student is writing here in defense of the father’s claim.

Briefly: still-smoking lung-cancer survivor (one lung removed) mother, homosexual father with live-in partner, 11-year-old daughter. Divorce five years prior. On the basis of “the best interests of the child” the original custody decision went to father as the more stable parent, the principal care-giver for most of the girl’s life, initially the one who wanted custody. After the mother recovers from surgery she appeals the decision; second judge awards custody to her because the father is gay and Virginia law forbids “homosexual conduct” ( the father was by then violating the first judge’s condition that the partner not be live-in). “He is breaking the laws of the state of Virginia every day,” says Judge Number Two, “and no child should be in the custody of a criminal.” (This is evidently still the policy, as a recent article indicates.)

In taking Rod’s side my student means to say that the laws of Virginia are ignorant laws, and anyone who would tease the daughter (as her dear little schoolmates did) is ignorant too. A fine position.

What my student says, however, is that Rod’s sexuality is the result of the ignorance of an entire stateful of people. Well, I say, shame on him for listening to a bunch of ignorant people! He should have thought out his sexual issues for himself!

Oh, that adjective clause. It really, really has to modify a noun that coexists in the same sentence—indeed, that immediately precedes it. The law of grammar says, inevitably, then, that Rod’s sexuality was a result of ignorance on the part of the people of Virginia. If only they had known better, they might have managed to get him a more legally-conforming sexuality, I guess.  How cruel that their ignorance has victimized Rod and his daughter in this way.

Well, their ignorance has victimized Rod and his daughter, by continuing to tolerate this law. The meaning of the sentence may not be accurate, but the consequences are six of one, as the saying goes.

And curing the ignorance of the people of Virginia would fix the problem in this case either way. Sounds like a plan.


“Othello felt like she was cheating on him because….”

Poor Othello. I have spent it-seems-like-a-lifetime trying to persuade students that Othello has no “tragic flaw,” and is not jealous until Iago has worked on him for more than three acts of the play. But they have read it—OTHELLO”S TRAGIC FLAW IS JEALOUSY—first in Cliff’s Notes and now in Spark Notes, and such impersonal voices of authority are stronger than mine.

I see Othello as a tragedy of innocence. Othello was no more suited to the intrigues of Venetian life than Desdemona, albeit for different reasons. Iago is the jealous one; but since Iago is also a very good student of psychology (even before it existed as a discipline), he knows how to create jealousy, and can work Othello into a virtuous murderous rage by way of it.

Othello has refused to believe ill of Desdemona without ocular proof. Iago has, conveniently enough, come by the handkerchief Othello gave Desdemona during their courtship, a handkerchief that had been given to his mother. The handkerchief is maneuvered into the hands of Cassio, someone Desdemona and Othello have both trusted and respected and Othello has promoted. Othello has quarreled with Cassio over some drunken behavior, and Desdemona has undertaken to get Cassio back into Othello’s good graces. But her advocacy irritates her husband, and when he sees that handkerchief in Cassio’s hand (and on the way into Cassio’s mistress’s hand) after many insinuations by Iago, he is indeed ready to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful.

The rest is tragic.

My student was trying to describe the handkerchief ploy. What he wrote is correct, but oh how awkward. This was a sentence ill begun and faithfully carried through to its disastrous end:

“Othello felt like she was cheating on him because he found a handkerchief in one of his friend’s hands that belonged to him.”

Can you sort it out? Perhaps “because he found his own handkerchief in the hands of one of his friends” would save it. But what got onto the paper seems to suggest that Othello has a collection of hands. Several of those hands belonged to his friend, but now they belong to him: it’s his very own hand collection. But one day he has evidently gone in to gaze upon his collection and, lo and behold, one of those hands has a handkerchief in it! Certainly his wife must be cheating on him! Has she been sneaking into the room, I wonder, and putting handkerchiefs into hands that don’t belong to her? That’s not playing fair…

Isn’t that how the modifiers have to play out? “That belonged to him” has to modify “hands,” doesn’t it? It’s an adjective clause, and as such has to modify the noun that immediately precedes the relative pronoun. That is “hands.” And the handkerchief is in one of those hands. The hands belong to his friend (note the singular possessive). Othello has a strange notion of friendship, expressing his fondness by removing his friend’s hands and taking possession of them.

The image is grotesque and hilarious. WHY didn’t my student start over when he saw that the sentence was getting out of, um, hand? I’m afraid he just carried on because he didn’t really know that the sentence was grotesque or unmanageable. How could he not have known, though?

Ah well. My dear father had as a driving mantra “Never turn around.” If he missed a turn, or got lost, he pushed forward until he found an intersection that promised a chance to change direction. He did know, though, that he had missed the turning, or that he was lost. He found a way to correct the error, no matter how circuitous the correction. We had some interesting trips.

My student, I’m afraid, had no idea he was lost: he drove on because he thought he was on the right road. And by gum, he was! But the road is so rough that it must have been under construction. I wish he had looked for a detour.


“What if the motif behind the murder was bettering off the victim?”

This student is considering the “punishment” handed down to the killer-father, and trying to figure out what the judge might have been thinking.

We can see the problem with motif/motive. We might speculate that the student was suggesting a pattern of behavior in the father that preceded and included the murder, a recurrent concern or desire that had motivated other (less lethal) actions in the past. More likely, alas, is that the student either didn’t know how to spell “motive” or typed “motiv” and was “helped” by Spellcheck to choose “motif” as the correction. The error is merely a spelling mistake, or perhaps a bad word choice.

But the real interest in his sentence is the new phrase “bettering off.” In the case in question, evidently the father felt his son would be “better off dead” than addicted to drugs. “Better off” is a common phrase modifying so many choosers: You’d be better off saving your money. You’ll be better off without him. You’d be better off with a college degree. Etc.

In the sentence the student had already begun, though, “better off” doesn’t come in naturally. Unwilling to start the sentence over, he plows on, determined (like Cinderella’s sisters contemplating the glass slipper) to “make it fit.” He creates a verb, “to better off,” and then uses its present-participial form as a gerund. Why not?

With this new verb much becomes possible. Its superficial resemblance to “butter one up” is one step toward normalization. “When he gives you presents you think he’s trying to better you off, but he’s only buttering you up.”

This verb is going to enter my lexicon, as “to unfair against” already has. It’s a living language, after all, right?

“…the one thing Texas loves more than football…”

Here’s more on that son-killing case. It happened in Texas. The judge handed down a sentence of five years’ probation to the father, who, despite admitting he had shot his son, had at first entered a plea of Not Guilty to a second-degree murder charge and then, with a hung jury, changed his plea to Guilty of manslaughter. But even so: Probation for killing his son? What kind of sentence was that? the class wondered; and once they realized the case had taken place in Texas, they were even more surprised at the sentence.

This student tried to express this:

“With more people on death row than any other state, the one thing Texas loves more than football is exciting criminals.”

Of course he meant executing criminals: just a typo, or hasty fingers, or some such unintentional production of a spelling error.

But the presence of football in the sentence makes “exciting” comfortable in the sentence. The comparison forces us to consider execution a kind of sport, like football games. If executions ARE to be seen in the same light as football, then I suppose the more exciting the criminal, the better the entertainment. Are there tailgate parties? Special snacks? And are executions even involved, or do people just visit the prison and enjoy the closeness of all that excitement?

I like the fact that the state itself feels this appreciation—no need for the people of Texas to get excited if the state does it for them. Well, as James Thurber would say, “the container for the thing contained” (metonymy): the name of the state stands for the people in the state. But it is in fact the state of Texas “with more people on death row than any other state,” not the people of Texas; so maybe the metonymy is a little problematic. I’m not going to let it bother me, because I do know what the figure means.

But oh, those exciting criminals. Maybe the reason the judge didn’t push the death sentence for our killer-father (who, as it happens, had been a professional football player in his day!) was that the guy just wasn’t all that exciting. After killing his son he had sat outside and waited for the police; he admitted killing the young man but felt that his motive (saving his son from future addiction to drugs) made him blameless. All in all, not exciting; just tragic. Why put such a sad-sack on death row?

To be sure, this is all fantasy. The charge was never first-degree murder, so death row was never a possible destination. Still, the sentence (my student’s, not the judge’s) invites me to consider it, and to consider it in the context of exciting football games and comparable criminals. And so consider it I do, with a quick “Thank you!” to a hasty typing job and a lazy proofreading job for a laugh on the way to the grave.

“This isn’t a concept that most people aren’t familiar with.”

Oh, my. Read it again. It doesn’t get better, does it?

Now, I have nothing against double negatives. They come in very handy in expressing shades of meaning: “I don’t not like him; I just don’t want to date him”; “The sensation is not unpleasant.” More time in thought might produce other ways of making the point—other words, other structures—but those ways might not necessarily be better, especially for conveying attitude or establishing tone.

In informal, vernacular, or dialogue writing they can also be great for emphasis: “I don’t NEVER want to see your face NO MORE.”

I think, though, that my student wasn’t actually purposeful when he wrote his sentence. I think he just got lost.

He was commenting on an entry in Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals. She observed that although she herself noted and appreciated the small changes in the countryside from one day to the next, people for whom the landscape was merely the environment—people like the postman, for instance, who walked the same route every day in the course of working—were often oblivious to the changing life around them. But what his comment is meant to convey I cannot with any certitude say. Therefore I couldn’t even suggest changes to help him convey it.

If we assume that “two negatives make a positive” (which outside of arithmetic they often don’t, but let that go), does he mean most people ARE familiar with Wordsworth’s idea—it’s a concept that most people are familiar with? If his point was that her observation is nothing new, then why did he dedicate his own Journal entry to it?

But if we try to read the two negatives as somehow introducing subtlety or attitude, we can’t come up with much. “This isn’t a concept that most people aren’t familiar with, but it’s a concept that some people aren’t familiar with”? Why not say that, then?

That leaves the explanation I believe to be THE explanation: He started off wanting to say that this concept (presumably that people overly accustomed to a thing don’t really notice it anymore) is probably new to most people, and therefore wrote “This isn’t a concept that most people….” Not a great beginning: wordy and clumsy. I generally advise student writers to try to avoid negating the verb with “not,” but instead to make the sentence negative through vocabulary choice, and this sentence is one example of why. Couldn’t he have written “This is a concept that few people…,” or even “Few people are familiar with this concept”? Be that as it may, this student ignored that advice as he began his sentence. So far, so (kind of) good.

But then something happened. Did some friend text him, or phone him, or email him, or otherwise intrude into his concentration? Did he fall asleep? Did he suddenly realize he was hungry, and leave his computer to get a snack or go to dinner? Did he have a moment of insanity?

Whatever it was, when he brought his mind back to the screen he didn’t really read what he had already written; he just went forward with his intention to point out the originality of Wordsworth’s insight. “Most people aren’t familiar with” it. Hang that “aren’t familiar with” on, type another vaguely enthusiastic sentence or two, and so to bed.

People who take pleasure in putting the language through its paces sometimes decide to violate a “rule of grammar” to say what they mean with precision and effect. People who don’t really pay attention to what they’re writing—like postmen trudging down the spring lane intent only on reaching the end of their route—miss all the fun, and sometimes don’t even wind up where they meant to go.

And I ain’t got NO patience with them!

“John the carpenter has had a fool made out of him.”

This is a reference to the gullible and jealous husband in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.” My student is right: the point of the Tale is the cleverness with which his young wife Alisoun and Alisoun’s inamorato, “hende [clever, courteous] Nicholas,” trick John into not only ignoring but also actually facilitating their tryst. There’s a lot more to the tale, some comic moments that amaze modern students (who assume scatological jokes were invented shortly after their own birth), but the subplots involve making fools out of others—the vain and randy cleric Absolom and then Nicholas himself.

If you haven’t read “The Miller’s Tale” lately, you should. If Middle English scares you, just read it with a German accent and you’ll understand almost every word. Otherwise, there are numerous modern-English translations online of this great and witty tale.

Anyway, the meaning of my student’s sentence is accurate.

But some verbs play better in the active voice: to make a fool of would be one of those. And the intrusion of “out” into the proper phrase “to make a fool of” makes the sentence even odder, because when you make something out of something else you are usually constructing it using something else that already exists. My student’s sentence would then imply that John isn’t actually a fool: Alisoun used John as raw material to make something new, a fool, out of.

Okay, to begin: Alisoun made a fool of John. But my student says Alisoun made a fool out of John.

So, similarly, thus: I am making a braided rug out of old blue jeans.

The blanket was made out of yarn she spun out of her dog’s shed undercoat.

Scarlett O’Hara made an impressive visiting gown out of the old velvet drapes.

He’s trying to make something out of nothing.

Now, if we grant my student permission to use the “out” and make John into something else, we run into more problems, because the other sentences above, similarly constructed, really cannot be made passive:

The old blue jeans have had a braided rug made out of them.

The dog’s shed undercoat has had yarn spun out of it, and the yarn has had a blanket made out of it.

The old velvet drapes have had an impressive visiting gown made out of them by Scarlett O’Hara.

Nothing has been tried to be made something out of.

These sentences are absurd because, for one thing, the raw material has no agency. A sentence such as “I have had a rug made for me out of old blue jeans” works because when I had this done, I had it done by somebody at my behest. John was made a fool of by somebody, but not at his behest, and so the “has had” works in a completely different manner because “has” means something else.

The only way my student’s statement can stand, I’m afraid, is if it means that John the carpenter hired someone to make a fool using him as raw material.

But, dupe though he was, facilitator though he proved, it was all without his intent; in fact, it was completely contrary to his intent, the jealous old cuckold.

Alisoun and Nicholas made a fool of him, sure enough. But my student has made a fool of himself with a sentence that should have adjusted its garb before venturing into the light of day.

“She and Candide were destined to be together in both their eyes.”

My student is referring here to Cunégonde, the lovely aristocratic inamorata of the eponymous character in Voltaire’s extraordinary satire Candide. They carom around the globe like balls on a warped billiards table, meeting, glancing off each other, spinning away, colliding…. Their adventures are bizarre and darkly hilarious; and, yes, through it all, Candide longs for Cunégonde and Cunégonde knows she loves Candide.

In Candide’s eyes—”eyes” in the sense of “view,” or “belief,” or “opinion”—Cunégonde is his destiny. In Cunégonde’s eyes—again, “eyes” in the sense of “view” etc.—Candide is her destiny.

So what’s so wrong with my student’s sentence?

First of all we have an unfortunately placed adverbial prepositional phrase. Moved to the beginning of the sentence, “in both their eyes” would more clearly modify the sentence as a whole via its verb “were destined”: in their opinions, they were destined to be together. At the end of the sentence, though, the phrase can seem to be answering “where?” about “be together,” just as “in Peoria” would work in the sentence “She and Harold were destined to be together in Peoria.” They are destined to be together in their eyes. If such a thing is possible. Eeuuw.

And then we have that unlikely but very real student-writing Waterloo, “both.” Students stick it in all sorts of places in all sorts of sentences, trying to signify a unanimity of purpose, feeling, experience, or what-have-you. Most often they wind up suggesting collaboration or conjunction where there is none and never was any. I could give examples here, but the examples I have are interesting in their own right and deserve separate treatment. Something to look forward to!

Meanwhile, the fact that most eyes come in sets of two adds further confusion to the phrase “in both their eyes.” Do they have only two together, as the Fates shared but one when they wanted to see the future? In Candide, two one-eyed lovers would be no more surprising than the Old Woman With One Buttock. Voltaire may have missed a really good idea there….

Les yeux (tous les deux) de Voltaire

“Women had held their feelings of unjust for far too long and felt that it was time to let it out.”

Feelings of unjust are always hard to express.

I remember when I was teaching at a university that I suppose I shouldn’t name, but it was a place where I was tenured and important awhile ago, there was an “activities fair” at the beginning of the fall term so that students could get acquainted with the available extracurricular activities, student services, and social opportunities. The Counseling office had this sign hanging from its table: “Students: Do You Feel Lonely? Depressed? Unfaired Against?”

I know not who made that sign, but I have an uncomfortable feeling that it was somebody on the STAFF of the Counseling office, not some well-meaning but sketchily prepared passerby.

AND I confess that since then, I have from time to time referred to myself as feeling “unfaired against.” But I wouldn’t let it get by me in a student paper!

This student was writing about the women’s-rights writers of the nineteenth century in the U.S. She was writing in approval and agreement. I suppose I should have appreciated the phrase “feelings of unjust,” considering that it could have been “feelings of unfaired against.” Why, oh why, did she not think of “INJUSTICE”? The writers whose work she was discussing certainly used that term.

Well, at any rate, these women, having held these feelings way past their expiration date, had a new and presumably shared feeling: “Time to let it out!” In the sentence, at least, they seem to have simultaneously and collectively felt that.

What is the “it” they decided to let out, though? FeelingS? The same thing their brothers and sisters in the latter twentieth century wanted to let hang out? or the “it” that counselors encourage upset students to let out, there in the Counseling office?

Maybe just that collective breath freighted with unjust. We do understand from the sentence that they had held those feelings in, even though my writer doesn’t exactly say that. The words tell us only that they had “held” them. In their hands? In their arms? In some “holding tank”? Well, then, out like a held breath or out like opening those clenched fists, or opening those arms, or releasing the gate on the holding tank. Let “it” out.

Better late than never. Hurry up, please: it’s time!

“Yellowstone’s great beauty has led itself to become…”

This is the greatest explanation I have ever seen for the concept of the call of the wild:

“Yellowstone’s great beauty has led itself to become the subject of various literary sources such as poems, short stories, plays, essays, and novels.”

The sentence is by a student who really does love Yellowstone National Park and chose to write about it. Why, then, the awkward sentence full of tepid language and absolutely devoid of energy?

“Beauty…has led itself to become” is grammatical enough but puts me in mind of Noam Chomsky’s exemplary sentence that is grammatically correct but conceptually impossible (the famous “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” so famous indeed that it has its own Wikipedia entry—and if you go to the Wikipedia page be sure to look at the “related and similar examples” too, if you want some fun). Up until encountering the Yellowstone sentence, I thought only dogs carrying their own leashes in their mouths on walks could lead themselves anywhere. And leading oneself into becoming the subject of a source of something is very hard to get the mind around—a young woman talking herself into having unprotected sex might fit the sentence, but only by a willing suspension of disbelief well honed by immersion in Theatre of the Absurd.

That’s the most fascinating, or bizarre, aspect of my student’s sentence, but not the only stumbling block on the Yellowstone hiking trail. The beauty has led itself to become the subject of various literary sources. A little grammar punning is tempting here: If it’s leading itself, then itself is an object, not a subject—the object of the verb “to lead.”

But puns aside, the beauty has led itself to become a subject. My student shows that repetition does eventually communicate in his choice of “various”: he and many another student can be relied on generally to write “different” when they mean “various,” and I suggest this word change again and again in their academic essays. (They’re free to write “I like different kinds of candy” as often as they wish on Facebook, but saying that Dylan Thomas wrote “different kinds of literature” is misleading in most senses no matter how experimental some of his forms were, especially since students who write that will follow with a clarifying list: “poems, essays, stories, and plays.”)

Please notice that nowhere in this process does authorial choice intrude. Evidently various literary sources find their own subjects, or the subjects lead themselves into these sources. Perhaps the author just holds a notebook up to trap them when they arrive? Or do the subjects intrude on literary sources already written, shouldering aside the original subjects to make room for themselves once they have led themselves there, overpowering any feeble attempts on the author’s part to repel the invasion?

And then, to drain the sentence of any vestiges of interest, he feels compelled to give some examples of those “literary sources”—”poems, short stories, plays, essays, and novels.” Perhaps if he had begun his list with “in other words” he could have gotten away with this; but he begins with “such as,” implying that he could name several others if he wanted to tell all. He has, however, really hit pretty much every literary genre, unless we want to get obscure. So why “such as”? I’m afraid he probably was hedging his bets in case he had left any out, not telling me “there are more literary sources in heaven and earth, Prof. Horatio, than are dreamed of in your English 12 class.”

Finally, when I hear the phrase “literary source” I usually assume it refers to a source of literature, not a source that is literature—or if the latter, a source of literature that is itself literature, as Beowulf is the literary source of John Gardner’s novel Grendel. But in my student’s sentence the literature is a source that has a subject, and that subject is, by dint of its own sheer determination, the beauty of Yellowstone. The Wild calls unto itself and heeds the Call.

Because the components of this sentence aren’t identical, I can’t reasonably compare the experience of reading it to Matryoshka dolls, or Quaker’s Oats boxes; but it does give the sense of tumbling through oddly nested concepts into some black (but boring) hole.

Not a hole into Wonderland, alas, but definitely not a hole that can be found in Yellowstone National Park, either.

“Burns participated in many love affairs, which produced fourteen children out of wedlock.”

Talk about delicate.

Were these ongoing love affairs that Burns managed to get himself included in, the way a child can participate in a Youth Soccer program? English major or math major, you can get lost in those possible permutations and combinations, can’t you just?

Without a comma the sentence would be saying that there were many love affairs that produced fourteen children out of wedlock; with the comma, that Burns’ participation produced fourteen children out of wedlock. Does that mean that he was the father of fourteen illegitimate children, or merely that his participation was the catalyst that brought forth said children? Was he such fun, warbling “Comin’ Through the Rye,” that everyone relaxed and conceived?

How many affairs were there? Fourteen? Twenty-something, not all producing children? Four or five really active ones?

My student prefers to leave things ambiguous. Burns participated in “many” love affairs, but was not necessarily responsible for starting, and was not necessarily one of the essential participants, or even one of the direct participants. The fact that he participated produced fourteen children, but according to the language of the sentence he may not have been directly responsible for those children.

The rather Victorian phrase “out of wedlock” frosts this cake: the sentence is very polite. It makes no accusations, lays no blame, specifies no particular acts. There is participation; children are produced (out of wedlock) by the affairs. Don’t think of Burns as a philanderer, a party guy, an irresponsible sperm-spewer, a randy Scottish poet; he’s on the fringe of this sentence, looking on. That is, in fact, the extent of his participation in the sentence.

He seems to be an absent father even at the moment of procreation.