Miss Lack, Noam Chomsky, autopsies

Preface: Noam Chomsky is not in need of a post mortem. He’s alive and well and will live (I hope) for many more productive years.

Yesterday at a short meeting, I ran into someone I know through the Girlchild. She mentioned to me that she was reading Homestead and really liking it, which of course is always lovely to hear. Then she said that she had come across a sentence that she couldn’t diagram.

My first reaction: sheer panic. Please, I said, tell me you’re not hoping I’ll remember the sentence.

Luckily that wasn’t what she was trying to get at. She meant that she thought the sentence worked, but didn’t understand its structure.

Pause here for a flashback to my fourth grade classroom, Miss Lack with her beehive hairdo, and the blackboard where we learned to diagram sentences the old fashioned way. I liked taking sentences apart to see how they work, and I was good at it. In fact, Miss Lack was the first teacher to give me the idea that I was good at writerly things.

Now forward in time to graduate school and Chomskyan syntax, where taking a scalpel to a sentence had a different purpose — and was interesting for more complex reasons.

And back again to the here and now.

When I’m writing a story, I never, ever diagram a sentence. I just don’t think that way. Storytelling glides along on another plane, and wants nothing to do with dissecting noun phrases and subordinate clauses. Thus: I would have been happy to let this conversation drift away to be forgotten, but then this friend did email the sentence in question.

Now I feel obliged to reply (Catholic schoolgirl automatic response no. 23). So I looked at it, the sentence in isolation. That is, here is the sentence, taken out of the warm nest of the story and pinned to the electronic autopsy table:

When she looked at the available men in Rosenau, Wainwright’s Katharina could see no promise in any of them but of children and farm work, things that interested her not in the least.

Against my better judgment, ignoring the voice in my head screaming PROCRASTINATION, I looked at this sentence, which really is composed of three sentences draped over and around each other in cozy comaraderie. For a moment I considered trying to locate the old software that allowed me to produce a classic tree diagram ala transformational grammar, but that way lies madness. Or at least OS X 9, a place I never go these days.

So instead, a completely ad hoc approach that would satisfy neither Miss Lack nor Professor Chomsky. The three sentences:

1. She ||looked || (at the available men) (in Rosenau).
(transform into a relative wh-clause)
2. WK || could see || no promise (in any ((of them)))
|| [promise of] (children*) (farm work*)
3. Things* interested her {negation strategy}.
(transform into subordinate clause)

After this I’ll I have to spend some time putting the poor thing back together and tucking it back into the story.

My fourth grade teacher, Miss Lack, is Forever in the Building

I had a fourth grade teacher called Miss Lack. Imagine a young Mother Superior with a beehive instead of a wimple and habit. She had to be in her twenties, but that never occurred to us. She was scary.

She was also a good teacher. I first remember thinking about writing in her classroom, the elements that went into it, how a comma made a difference. Of course she was a product of her time, and she was a strict grammarian. One way and one way only to speak and write the language. We diagrammed sentences and labored over quotation marks.

Still today I think about Miss Lack when I hesitate over where a period goes. Even though her rules are now way out of date and new punctuation fashions are in place, I remember her rules. And when I see somebody using them, I’m torn between admiration and irritation.

Here’s the rule I still see used a lot and it drives me nuts because it’s so stilted:

Mary took her best friend, Louise Harrigan, out to lunch.

The old fashioned rule is: got two semantically equal noun phrases (friend=Louise), set the second one off with commas. Now I ask you, is this not awkward? Doesn’t it make you pause and think about, say, beehive hairdos intead of what Mary and Louise are talking about at lunch? It’s like a footnote stuck right up into the face of the story. But I see this a lot. I never, ever do it myself. I try to find a way to achieve the information without evoking Punctuation Parameters.

Mary took her best friend out to lunch. Louise was always in the mood for sushi, and she had no compunctions about gossip.

You can get the Harrigan part in there someplace in the scene, it doesn’t need to be right up front. At least not for fiction. I would make this same argument with a slightly different approach for creative non-fiction. It’s just awkward and silly and fourth-grade to stick to this better-introduce-the-character-to-the-reader approach.

Miss Lack taught me some very useful things, as well. For example, I credit her with the beginnings of my extreme dislike of excessive exclamation marks.