semantics

The Case of the Autonomous Body Parts

GrammarNazis_06

Prescriptive Rule: “Never use a body part as the subject of your sentence.”

E.g., “Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.” (This structure is deemed bad, according to this rule.)

I randomly encountered this piece of advice a few months ago and was baffled because—confession—I break this “rule” all the time. When the adviser could yield no information as to why this would even be a thing, I went ahead and dug around the Internets a bit to find some reasoning. (You’re welcome.)

And I found three main points:

  1. It leads to dangling participles.
  2. It detracts from the character (agent) who is actually performing the action.
  3. It creates a sense of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts.

#1: It leads to dangling participles.

“While talking, her fingers curled around the warm, comforting coffee mug.” (Amazing, these talking fingers.)

Initial Assessment: I’ll give #1 a halfhearted nod for effort. Dangling participles are a legitimate structural issue, and for writers who view a featured body part as representative of the character, this trap might be too easy to spring. However, it’s not the body-part-as-subject’s fault. Dangling participles are sloppy writing and easily corrected:

  • “While she was talking, her fingers curled around the warm coffee cup.”

In this example, the true subject reunites with its participle, and the fingers still get to curl. A prescriptivist might contend that a better fix would be,

  • “While talking, she curled her fingers around the warm coffee cup.”

That, however, is a matter of debate. “She curled her fingers” is redundant, unless you want to argue that she could as easily be curling someone else’s fingers around the cup (which is 90% nonsense, 10% possible if this is a murder scene, the other person is unconscious, the coffee cup is the murder weapon, and “she” is framing “her”). The redundancy also makes it less efficient, especially since the writer can easily emphasize this character with the proper subject in the participial phrase.

Personally, I’d go with, “Her fingers curled around the warm coffee cup as she talked,” and skip the participle altogether.

Point #1 Diagnosis: The possibility of dangling participles doesn’t give license to forbid an entire class of subjects from someone’s writing. Rather than saying, “Never use body parts as subjects, because they can lead to dangling participles,” a better rule would be, “When using a body part as a subject, beware of possible dangling participles.” Or, more tongue-in-cheek, “When using a body part as a subject, your writing should have no dangling participles.”

(You see what I did there? Participles can dangle without body-part subjects, too. So let’s stop talking about dangling and body parts, shall we?)

#2: It detracts from the character (agent) who is actually performing the action.

“Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage.” vs. “Roger jammed his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage.”

Initial Assessment: This point looks to sentence structure as well. In English, the beginning of any sentence carries a focus feature that inherently directs the reader or listener to where they should train their attention. If the subject is the first element we encounter, it draws that focus.

Theta-Roles

Syntax and semantics teach about theta-roles, particularly the Agent, Experiencer, and Theme. Because Point #2 is so concerned about the character getting displaced as an agent, this bears looking into.

  1. Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage.
  2. Roger jammed his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage.

These two sentences have a distinct rhetorical difference. In the second, Roger intentionally jams his elbow. In the first, the elbow is jammed, but whether Roger did it intentionally depends on context. If, for example, Roger and Sheryl are tumbling down a staircase together, Roger probably doesn’t intend to jam his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage. It happens due to gravity and physics and the chaos that results from two people colliding under those circumstances. Sentence #1 is, therefore, the correct description.

Even in the case where the elbow-jamming is intentional, however, sentence #1 has a good argument for use.

Say, for example, that Roger and Sheryl are listening to Peter rant about how someone spilled a can of paint all over his car. Roger knows that Sheryl did it. He jams his elbow into her ribcage to drive home the point. However, he does it surreptitiously, so that Peter won’t notice.

“Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage” carries both a narrower and a more removed sense to it. From Sheryl’s perspective, Roger is prodding her to speak, but he’s doing so in a secretive manner. Only the elbow moves. The narrowing of the agent from “Roger” to “Roger’s elbow” gives a minute rhetorical cue of this controlled gesture. Roger can still be fixed on Peter and his ranting while ribbing Sheryl.

Point #2 Diagnosis: Yes, using the body part instead of the person shifts the agent of the sentence. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Banning the structure all together is like telling all artists to get rid of their fan brush because some of their peers use it too much or improperly. It makes no sense, and it robs creators of a tool that could otherwise be used to good effect.

Better instruction would involve training in syntax and semantics, so that the author who starts a sentence with a body part does so wittingly, aware of its narrative effect.

(Education, what? Shock! Chagrin! /sarcasm)

#3: It creates a sense of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts.

“Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.” (All by themselves, halfway across the room from where she stood. It was bizarre.)

Initial Assessment: “Ohmigosh! A disembodied hand just jumped into the narrative!” ~No reader, ever.

Pardon me for going off the rails here, but this excuse of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts is the MOST RIDICULOUS PIECE OF FREAKING GRAMMAR-NAZI DRIVEL THAT I HAVE EVER COME ACROSS IN THE WHOLE OF MY EXISTENCE. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??

  • “Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.”

No reader in their right mind is going to take that sentence as indicating that a pair of shoulders unattached to a body somehow magically appeared on scene and are moving of their own accord. The same goes for the following:

  • “His foot tapped a staccato rhythm against the floor.”
  • “Her fingers danced across the piano keys.”
  • “His eyes darted around the room.”

Body parts! Body parts everywhere!

EXCEPT NO.

See, there’s this thing about words. They have several layers of meaning built into them, layers beyond a simple dictionary definition. And when it comes to body parts, one of those layers dictates that the default condition for a body part is that it’s ATTACHED TO A BODY. That default remains in place unless specified otherwise.

So yeah, if you’re writing a zombie horror novel or graphic crime-scene thriller where disembodied parts are common and described in depth as being severed from their origin point, your reader might misunderstand a sentence that starts with a body part.

Might.

But probably not. Because readers aren’t stupid. (Or, at least, mine aren’t. *wink*)

Semantics—the layers of meaning that take in denotation, connotation, and sense for any given word and for the language as a whole—governs our understanding of language use. 99.9% of readers will never have that disembodied image enter their mind; the other 0.1% have heard this rule and had their mental process hijacked. (Thanks, prescriptivists!)

Or, worse, they’re being intentionally obtuse. “Look at this arm lurching across the page by itself, hur-de-hur-hurr!”

Point #3 Diagnosis: This is stupid. Quit using it as an excuse for telling people how to write.

The Eyes Have It

“Oh, but you should never have eyes darting, Kate. Eyes can’t dart, because they’re stuck in your head.”

Yes, exactly. They are stuck in your head, and everyone knows this. That’s why “darting eyes” works, actually. The minute the literal meaning comes up lacking, our brains switch over to a metaphorical one instead.

Don’t pretend you don’t know what darting eyes look like. I know you do.

A person’s eyes have long been synonymous with the scope of what they can see, but modern prescriptivists would have us believe that we should restrict the use of “eyes” in favor of “gaze.” And don’t even think about eyes doing anything beyond looking at other people.

I mean, unless you’re Shakespeare, that is.

Sonnet 137:

Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold, and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be.
If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchor’d in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot,
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
Or mine eyes, seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
In things right true my heart and eyes have err’d,
And to this false plague are they now transferr’d.

William? Have you been ignoring prescritivist advice again, hmm? But surely that was a fluke, right?

Sonnet 5:

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell

Sonnet 14:

Mine eyes have drawn thy shape

Sonnet 78:

Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned’s wing
And given grace a double majesty.

Sonnet 121:

For why should others’ false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?

But it’s only in the sonnets, right? He can take poetic license in a sonnet.

Haha.

All’s Well That Ends Well, Act V Scene 3:

KING. Now, pray you, let me see it; for mine eye,
While I was speaking, oft was fasten’d to’t.

and later,

LAFEU. Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon.

Yep! Eyes playing tricks TWICE IN THE SAME SCENE! Now try this next one.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act III, Scene 10:

ENOBARBUS. That I beheld;
Mine eyes did sicken at the sight and could not
Endure a further view.

Shall I continue? If you go to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare over on Project Gutenberg, you’ll find hundreds of “eyes.” Shakespeare’s eyes draw, eat, smell, and speak. They are anchored and fastened. They sicken and stay and bend and turn. They are, in short, horrendously active in ways that their physical limitations might proscribe.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

Can “eyes” be overused in a text? Unequivocally, yes. But insofar as restrictions upon what task the eyes might or might not be capable of performing? CAN IT, GRAMMAR-BOTS.

You know what the author means when they reference someone’s eyes darting around the room. Quit straining at gnats.

/soapbox

7 Things Every Writer Should Know about Linguistics

It’s a big, complicated word, “linguistics,” stuffed with technical concepts and broad theories. If writing is your craft, though, this particular study could well be your best friend.

1. Linguistics is the study of language structure and use. It is not full language acquisition.

Don’t ask a linguist how many languages he or she speaks, because you’ll get the stink-eye in return. The purpose of linguistics is not to learn multiple languages. It is to study and define the patterns that occur within a language and across multiple language families. This makes it is the perfect discipline for any writer who wants to get elbow-deep into the craft.

2. Linguistics is a descriptive discipline, not a prescriptive one.

It never ceases to amaze me how prescriptive “creative writing” can be: Don’t use this. Don’t do that. Write this way, not that way. These days, creative writing instruction seems to focus on the “how,” the rigid application of language use. In contrast, Linguistics focuses on the “why,” the doctrine. It teaches the underlying principles that govern language use and, as such, can cue a writer on when it’s appropriate to ignore prescriptive counsel or to flout a general rule.

3. Linguists are not Grammar Nazis.

Again, linguistics aims to describe language use, not prescribe it. Because of this, linguists might exude a somewhat smug moral superiority over the petty grammar “advocates” that pepper the Internet and elsewhere. Linguists know the rules (quite intimately, in most cases) and love to observe when and why those rules get broken. They don’t want you to check your grammar usage around them, which is probably the most convincing reason that you should.

Where a Grammar Nazi will correct your every little flaw and dictate which words you should or should not use, the linguist’s outlook is more a “live and let live,” stress-free state of mind. And because no one, not even the most stringent of Grammar Nazis, gets language 100% right all the time, the laissez-faire approach is much more logical.

Besides, who doesn’t love exuding smug moral superiority? Put down your brickbats, Grammar Nazis, and delve into true language proficiency.

4. Linguistics has multiple fields that can be useful to a writer, especially a fiction writer.

  • Phonology/Phonetics: the study of the different sounds in language. Every language has its own phoneme inventory, and phonetic environments create variations called allophones. This field includes regional and foreign accents as well as speech impediments and slurring, and can be an incredible tool to show characterization. Additional writing tools: stress, alliteration, assonance, metathesis, onomatopoeia.
  • Morphology: the study of the smallest units of meaning in language, called morphemes. These are the building blocks for word creation and include affixes, roots, and grammar markers (such as the ‘s on a possessive noun). Writing tools: wordplay, portmanteaus, nonce words; J.R.R. Tolkien uses an aberrant morphology pattern in Gollum’s speech to reinforce his disconnect from society; Louis Carroll combines morphemes from separate words to create new ones (e.g., “chortle” from “chuckle” and “snort”). Morphology can also serve well in world-building, particularly when it comes to place names.
  • Syntax: the study of sentence structure and parts of speech. Seriously, what can I say about this? You can’t write without syntax. Writing tools: verbing, word order, parataxis vs. hypotaxis vs. embedding, fragments and run-on sentences. If you’re a writer, syntax is your bread and butter, and you’d be well served to delve into its depths.
  • Semantics: the study of meaning. Writing tools: metaphor, ambiguity, malapropisms, double-entendres. Semantics takes nuance into consideration and helps create the atmosphere associated with any work of literature. Is your narrative dry or lush? Purple prose or objective sparseness? Semantics can introduce multiple layers of meaning and set the tone of the piece.
  • Pragmatics: the study of communication. Writing tools: the big word with Pragmatics, insofar as I’m concerned, is DIALOGUE. But it’s not just character-to-character dialogue. Writers create a dialogue with their readers. Pragmatics includes intent vs. result, whether a message was properly received, and whether the speaker even meant for that message to be properly received. Politeness, deception, relevance, the meaning behind a certain intonation or inflection: all of these fall into the field of Pragmatics. This is the garden path where all aforementioned fields come together to play. I cannot say enough about the usefulness of pragmatics in creative writing.
  • Typology: the study of patterns across multiple languages. Writing tools: foreign language structures and features; those really ambitious writers who want to create a new language entirely can look to typology as an apt starting point.
  • Language Acquisition: the study of language learning. Writing tools: speech patterns of children (first-language learners) and speakers of other languages (secondary-language learners), including phonetic approximation and vocabulary acquisition. We’ve all read that story where the supposedly normal 2-year-old speaks with unnatural distinction, or the foreigner stumbles with simple vocabulary but pulls out complex verb tenses. Don’t be that writer. Language acquisition is systematic and predictable.
  • Historical Linguistics: the study of language change over time. Writing tools: etymology, archaic case endings and speech patterns. This is my favorite field of linguistics. It provides such a nice template for creation, and it softens one’s inclinations toward prescriptivism. It’s difficult to demand that language use be kept to one specific pattern when you’ve glimpsed all the other cycles it’s passed through to get there.

5. Linguistics can shine light on the otherwise nebulous “Show, don’t tell.”

In fact, it can do so from multiple angles. In Syntax, “showing vs. telling” involves the theta-roles assigned by verbs. Pragmatics highlights “showing” through manner and relevance of communication. Instead of the narrow, “do this, not that, use this verb not that one” instruction that occurs with creative writing classes, these linguistic fields provide the inner workings of the language, thus allowing writers to self-identify “tell” prose and “show” prose and strike a balance accordingly.

6. Linguistics has a steep learning curve, but it’s worth the climb.

The discipline is rife with jargon, a “restrictive code” to talk about restrictive codes (among other phenomena). This is nothing more than language used to describe language. Terms and usage will be unfamiliar at first, but don’t get discouraged.

Syntax is probably the easiest place to start, because most people are at least familiar with parts of speech. Hardest place to start would be Pragmatics, where “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” And yet, from a creative standpoint, Pragmatics is probably the best field to tackle, simply for how it broadens one’s concept of language and its endless possibilities.

7. As a writer, you’re already using linguistic principles. You’re probably using many of them subconsciously.

Ultimately, as language users, the principles of linguistics are already written in our brains. It’s just a matter of identification. Do you have a character that spouts off $5 words to assert personal authority/intelligence? That’s Pragmatics with a dash of Historical Linguistics. Foreign accents? Phonology and Language Acquisition. Deceptive double-speak? Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics. None of these fields exists in a vacuum, and no literature exists without them.

In closing, I leave you with this quote from the wonderful Ludwig van Beethoven:

Beethoven_quote

 

Also, as an apology for the click-bait title on this article, a bonus!

8. Linguists love puns and other corny language jokes.

It’s true. The worse the pun, the more they adore it. Check out the Linguistics Llama for undeniable proof. If you think that’s clever, or you want in on the jokes, Linguistics might be the discipline for you!

 

Nouns: An Overview

This post provides an overview of the Noun. Skill level: Beginner

Objectives:

  1. Define the term “noun” semantically, morphologically, and syntactically.
  2. Discuss features of nouns in English (number, possession).
  3. Create nouns from other parts of speech using only syntactic placement to indicate the change.

I’d love to say that nouns are a self-explanatory category. I mean, we all know what a noun is, right? Or, we’ve heard the word and have a general idea, or… something. The purpose of this post is to codify that “something” into a more concrete understanding. If you know exactly what a noun is and can accomplish all of the above objectives already, then feel free to move along.

If not, or if you want a refresher, read on.

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