Monday, August 16, 2010

Sleuthing your way to better reading

Sometimes becoming a better reader is as simple (and as challenging) as becoming a grammar sleuth and hunting for subjects and verbs.

Take a look at these notoriously difficult first sentences:

In dealing with the State we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born; that they are not superior to the citizen; that every one of them was once the act of a single man; every law and usage was a man's expedient to meet a particular case; that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good, we may make better. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Politics.")

From a little after two weeks oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that-a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them. (William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!)

...and one of my favorites, which you may have heard me use as an example in this summer's Parent Practicums:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Whew! Is the sweat popping out on your forehead yet?

Although some writers, like Faulkner, may use incorrect grammar as a stylistic technique, subjects and verbs are still the key to breaking their sentences into manageable chunks.

Look again.

In dealing with the State we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born; that they are not superior to the citizen; that every one of them was once the act of a single man; every law and usage was a man's expedient to meet a particular case; that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good, we may make better.

From a little after two weeks oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that-a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

From there, you're poised to pick out other features of the sentence--conjunctions, modifiers, and so on--but none of those pieces can stand alone without the core of the sentence: Subject | Verb.

I | Am.

Remember?

Now for a fun challenge: do you and your family like to diagram sentences? Send a digital image of your favorite diagram to 1SmartMama@gmail.com, and I'll post it on my blog! It can be as simple or as complicated as you want. Or, suggest a sentence you would like to see in a diagram, and we can work on it together.

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