Tag Archives: Robert MacNeil

Grousing About Grammar – Bad Sentence

One thing I didn’t tell you in my recent review of Wordstruck by Robert MacNeil is how he gave an admonition that made me wonder if I am the right kind of influence on people:

“If you love the language, the greatest thing you can do to ensure its survival is not to complain about bad usage but to pass your enthusiasm to a child. Find a child and read to it often the things you admire, not being afraid to read the classics.”

MacNeil quotes a man named Hugh Kenner, who said of some people that they “took note of language only when it annoyed them.” In the days when I frequently read to my children, especially when they were older, I must say in my defense that I do remember stopping at least occasionally to point out particularly well-written sentences. But when the bad sentences force you to stumble or pause or halt completely as you try to figure out what is going on, you can’t help but be annoyed and take note of them, too.

This happened to me just today, and once again I will reveal myself in full nitpickerliness. The sentence that held me up fails in more than one way, so it’s very useful. I’m not going to tell you where it came from, but the author has a (recent) doctoral degree in Intellectual History. I’m not sure why I think that should mean something pertinent to my complaint…but let’s just get on with the beginning of his article:

F.M. [abbreviation mine] lived his life as a poet, a playwright, a novelist, a journalist, and a Roman Catholic. Born in Bordeaux during the year 1885 to a bourgeois family, M.’s mother tenaciously held to her religiosity. His father’s side of the family, on the other hand, sported Voltairean, republican, and anticlerical sentiments.

You can probably guess what happened to me as I was reading briskly along in the first sentence, then cruising through the stop sign period and on to the comma in the second sentence, fulling expecting that M. would be there after the pause — Oh! M’s mother is here, how odd…that must mean the author was talking about the mother’s birth in Bordeaux…strange that he would start out telling us about M., and then in the very next sentence start in on the mother…and there is his father in the following sentence…hmm…I don’t know much about M., but I don’t actually think he is recent enough that his mother could have been born that late…the author must be talking about M.’s birth, then. Too bad, now I have stopped thinking about M. and his mother and am all focused on this writer, poor boy, who spent so much effort in school and can’t get his lovely article off to a decent start.

Before moving on to find out more about M., I had to skip to the end and read the blurb on the author… next I began a rewrite of his problematic beginning in my head — so many times I have done this for myself and five children, trying out different arrangements of words and clauses so that you say what you mean and your reader can read you as effortlessly as possible.

What happened here is called a dangling participle or dangling participial clause. The “Born in Bordeaux” clause actually has no subject (it’s dangling there unattached), but we naturally expect the subject to be close by, so we try to attach the clause to M.’s mother, but it doesn’t really belong to her. The Wikipedia article to which I linked tells it all very clearly, along with other examples that are often funny.

One way that this particular beginning could have been rescued would be to make it slightly longer. Sometimes it just gets awkward, trying to pack too much into a sentence, and the best thing is to make one or two more sentence so you don’t muddle things. To put his birth and his mother’s religious attitude into one sentence seems to be hurrying along too fast, as though the author were just stringing his notes together.

And don’t try to be too clever in switching the order of your clauses and phrases. That’s partly how this writer got into trouble. It’s only the second sentence of your whole article, so certainly you can afford another sentence with the direct and simple subject-verb order.

To say that M. was born “during the year 1885″….It must just be a careless wordiness, because “in 1885” would do nicely, and during gives the impression of an ongoing activity. The time of birth is a date, not a duration.

How about this re-do of the second and third sentences, putting the mother into the father’s sentence, and we don’t even have to add lines. Taking out some commas makes it a  little cleaner, too:

He was born to a bourgeois family in Bordeaux in 1885. M.’s mother tenaciously held to her religiosity, while his father’s side of the family sported Voltairean, republican, and anticlerical sentiments.

Now that I’ve got that settled, I can go to bed. I’ll take the article along and hope I can keep my mind on M. this time.

Stories of English – Wordstruck

A friend gave me a used paperback copy of Wordstruck, a memoir by Robert MacNeil, of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that he hosted in different formats from 1975-1995 on TV. I had heard his name during those years, but our family didn’t watch television, so we didn’t pay attention until he co-authored the book The Story of English in 1986. It was quickly made into a TV series that we watched on our video player at home some time later.

I have often thought of renting the films again, because they were so fascinating in our fairly brief viewing. Now I find that Netflix doesn’t have them, and they are out of my price range to buy. There are some excerpts on YouTube.

Wordstruck chronicles MacNeil’s life up until the time he wrote the book in 1989, focusing on his love for the English language, including an account of the early influences that he thinks may have encouraged it. On the first page he describes an evening in chilly Nova Scotia when he was still a little boy, his mother reading to him while he snuggled in his pajamas on the sofa. She is reading the Robert Louis Stevenson poem “Windy Nights” that I read year after year to my own children — so I knew from the beginning that I would enjoy considering the author’s family life.

His parents loved books, and books were the main diversion of their life as “members of the large, scraping middle classes.” Mrs. MacNeil’s voice “was multi-hued, like glass fused of many bottles in a fire, with wisps of Lowland Scots and Highland Gaelic, Irish, Hanoverian German, Acadian French, and the many flavours of English deposited by generations of British soldiers and sailors,” and “She sounded enthralled, as full of wonder and close-rivetted attention as I was.”

And for MacNeil’s father, “Whatever he was doing, his books were a constant; even when he was short of cash for anything else, like paying bills, books appeared. In fact, he used books to hide the bills he couldn’t pay. Occasionally I found little nests of them when I pulled out a book. My mother said scornfully that was Irish–dealing with unpleasant reality by putting it away somewhere, out of mind. She never knew which books to look behind. It made her both furious with him and tender.”

“He always wrote on the flyleaf of each new book the date and where he was, so I can follow him: reading Chesterton just after they were married in November 1929, Scottish poets the following spring, Conrad through the early thirties, and Proust at sea in wartime….” Ah, what a life people lived before television!

MacNeil the Shakespearean actor explains how the words and rhythms and story of a poem like “Windy Nights” were so effective at training his mind to appreciate poetry without him being aware of anything except that he didn’t want his mother to stop reading. His grandmother loved that one, too, and made him memorize it on walks through the public gardens.

Stories of Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Pan; authors like Kipling and Dickens–they all contributed to a rich mental landscape, as words and word patterns populate the mind:

 “They accumulate in layers, and as the layers thicken they govern all use and appreciation of language thenceforth. Like music, the patterns of melody, rhythm, and quality of voice become templates against which we judge the sweetness and justness of new patterns and rhythms; and the patterns laid down in our memories create expectations and hungers for fulfillment again. It is the same for the bookish person and for the illiterate. Each has a mind programmed with language–from prayers, hymns, verses, jokes, patriotic texts, proverbs, folk sayings, clichés, stories, movies, radio, and television.

“I picture each of those layers of experience and language gradually accumulating and thickening to form a kind of living matrix, nourishing like a placenta, serving as a mini-thesaurus or dictionary of quotations, yet more retrievable and interactive and richer because it is so one’s own, steeped in emotional colour and personal associations.”

Obviously MacNeil’s mind has a very thick matrix, and the book is full of his sharing various experiences of his life in all its cultural wealth, riches I think are made more valuable by being able to speak and write articulately about them from a broad knowledge background.

So far I’ve just drawn from the introductory chapters, but there are a few incidents later on that I want to mention. During WWII when he was still a boy, MacNeil paid ten cents for a tour of a captured German fighter plane, and while he sat in the cockpit the inspection of the inside “convinced me that Germans were real people, human beings….The few instruments had German labels and the realisation that the man who flew this had to be able to read the words which I could not made him intelligent, alive–a real person with a name. So were the Germans who had designed and built this beautiful machine, even if it was no match for our Spitfires, of course.”

From singing in the choir in the Anglican Church:

“There was poured into the porches of this child’s mind a rich echoing soup of sound which made literal sense only when recollected years later. If scientists could examine my brain, as they do the contents of murder victims’ stomachs, they would find that I had gorged myself when young on plum puddings and fruitcakes of this seventeenth-century prose; each word simple in itself, the combination rich and fruity, loved for the taste on the tongue, through years in the digesting; words for their own sake. That was particularly true of the often-repeated passages from the Book of Common Prayer, paraphrases of biblical verses that constitute English worship since the sixteenth century.”

“All this exposure to the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the hymns seasoned me with the words and the forms that had launched British navies and armies into battle and imperial civil servants on their missions; the words that had christened the babies, married the daughters, and buried the dead of the Empire….It was like the tannin of English tea staining our souls for life. You do not lose it ever.”

God willing, His words have not stopped their work on the soul of this man who loves them so dearly as mere words, and not for His meaning that they carry. MacNeil tells us also about many of his favorite non-church words, like reek, and how they came to be and to change over time. He says of Old English: “The words are usually small, like nuts, with strong vowel sounds for flavor and a hard shell of consonants.”

In school the author was good at public speaking and reciting poems, and acting in plays. Then at seventeen, he fell in love–with Shakespeare. “On a winter afternoon in 1948….I didn’t find God but I found William Shakespeare, a piece of God’s work so extraordinary that he comes close to divinity itself.”

“The ironic cast of Shakespeare’s words released me a little from the prison of my self-absorption, and hooked me into a wider, grander scheme of things. They made me larger, freer.”

Of course, it is the language and literature of Shakespeare that MacNeil loves — but he also loves every other variety of English from limericks to slang. Being the author of The Story of English, he’s not afraid to acknowledge that language is always changing, and quotes Otto Jespersen, who wrote in 1905, “The English language would not have been what it is if the English had not been great respecters of the liberties of each individual and if everybody had not been free to strike out new paths for himself.”

There are some changes that do concern MacNeil: he wonders if we are losing our ear for the language because we have consigned good English to the printed page, and also started to depend on computers to choose our syntax and vocabulary. This makes us “more remote from the sound of our language, and therefore from a feeling for the weight of words.”

“There must be some living connection between the weight of words and truth….Today, it seems, words increasingly mean nothing to the person using them….The public words of public men seem to be used increasingly like aerosol room fresheners, to make nice smells.”

It was a very agreeable acquaintance to make, of Robert MacNeil and his love for the English language. I do like him, and spending time with him I was reminded of my own efforts to give my children a rich literary diet in their youth. I certainly did love to read to them; I even made them memorize poetry. But I know I haven’t loved the language as much as this man.

I’m impressed with his writing skill and glad to meet someone who rejoices in so many aspects of his humanity, but it is the Creator of us humans who ultimately deserves our adulation and love. For a fact, Shakespeare and even Robert MacNeil are examples of God’s handiwork and make us know something of the divine, because they are made in God’s image. I can’t revel in the language very long before I start to praise the God who gave us the gift of language and speech.

Just thinking about speech and language brings Psalm 19 to mind. I pray that the literature of the Psalter is a powerful part of the matrix of my own children’s minds and hearts — now I feel that we didn’t read from it enough. Here is part of that particular psalm to help me bring my review to an end:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
….Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.