A half-sentence?

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Scott Timberg, "Maurice Sendak rewrote the rules with 'Wild Things' " (Los Angeles Times, October 11):

In "Wild Things," a single sentence can take pages to unfold, its meaning changing slightly with each image. And this book with numerous wordless pages ends with a half-sentence and no accompanying image. Sendak works similarly to the directors of the French New Wave, who used jump cuts and other techniques to dislocate their editing. (link)

Apparently this half-sentence has a dislocating effect. But what is this dislocating half-sentence? This, (1):

and it was still hot.

(it refers to Max's supper, still waiting for him on his return from his adventures among the wild things).

Suppose this last page had been this, (2):

And it was still hot.

(with a period at the end of the immediately preceding text). Then we'd have a sentence with an initial coordinator. Such sentences are fiercely reviled in some circles, on the grounds that they are not complete sentences but only sentence fragments. But no reputable writer on usage shares this prejudice. Here's Mark Liberman on No Initial Coordinators:

There is nothing in the grammar of the English language to support a prescription against starting a sentence with and or but — nothing in the norms of speaking and nothing in the usage of the best writers over the entire history of the literary language. Like all languages, English is full of mechanisms to promote coherence by linking a sentence with its discourse context, and on any sensible evaluation, this is a Good Thing. Whoever invented the rule against sentence-intitial and and but, with its a preposterous justification in terms of an alleged defect in sentential "completeness", must have had a tin ear and a dull mind. Nevertheless, this stupid made-up rule has infected the culture so thoroughly that 60% of the AHD's (sensible and well-educated) usage panel accepts it to some degree.

And here I am, following up on Mark:

Mark notes that the AHD note for and rejects NIC out of hand, and he provides a smorgasbord of cites (and statistics) from reputable authors.  Similarly MWDEU.  Paul Brians, collector of common errors in English, labels sentence-initial coordinators a "non-error".  Bryan Garner denies, all over the place, that NIC has any validity.  Even the curmudgeonly Robert Hartwell Fiske tells his readers that there's absolutely nothing wrong with sentence-initial coordinators.  A point of usage and style on which Liberman and I and the AHD and the MWDEU stand together with Brians and Garner and Fiske (and dozens of other advice writers) is, truly, not a disputed point.  NIC is crap.

But still NIC lives on in the popular mind. Presumably Timberg was treating (1) as (2) and criticizing it as a NIC violation (while, perhaps slyly, committing a NIC violation with "And this book with numerous wordless pages ends with a half-sentence …"). (Thanks to Phil Resnik for pointing me to the L.A. Times piece and noting Timberg's NIC violation.)

However, Sendak didn't write (2). He wrote (1), which isn't punctuated as a separate sentence. Here's what Sendak wrote as the final sentence of Wild Things, with line divisions as in the original; the sentence is spread across four pages, with some wordless pages intervening:

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws
but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye

and sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and through a day

and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him

and it was still hot.

(You'll see that Sendak isn't fond of commas.)

This sentence is a coordination of three clauses: the first in lines 1 and 2, the second (introduced by the coordinator but) in lines 3 through 8, the third (introduced by the coordinator and) in line 9, which is our old friend (1). So, yes, (1) isn't a full sentence, just one clause of a sentence, but there's nothing grammatically wrong with it.

Maybe Timberg expects every page in a children's book to stand on its own as a text, and it looks like most (but not all) children's books are arranged that way, but it's not the way Sendak (with his few words and many images) works. In fact, not one of the four pages above stands on its own as a text (granted, the first is missing only a period).

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20 Comments »

  1. Anton Cox said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    Why is it assumed that "has a dislocating effect" has anything to do with "is grammatically wrong"? I have no time for prescriptivist poppycock either – but I dont see why the final paragraph of this post is a fair reflection of Timberg's views.

    In fact, immediately before the quote cited Timberg writes "Indeed, Sendak's books weren't just groundbreaking for their darker stories, their more torrid families, their less sentimentalized protagonists. It was also their innovative relationship between words and pictures." And after writes "That visual richness and the complex, ambiguous world suggested by "Wild Things," led Jonze to see an entire feature film in the book." This suggests that he is praising the "dislocating effect", not panning it (yet alone panning it for being ungrammatical!).

    This whole post seems to be tilting at windmills.

  2. dwmacg said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    I think you're misreading Timberg's point. He's calling it a "half sentence" because it's a continuation of a sentence from a previous page (granted, it's much less than half of that sentence), not because he thinks it's ungrammatical. His point has nothing to do with prescriptive ideas of correctness, but with how Sendak's book broke with the conventions of children's literature of the time. And from what I've seen of those books, not many of them allowed for sentences to continue across pages. (By the way, Timberg also starts a sentence with "but" in the third paragraph. He's no slave to NIC.)

  3. Karen said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    I agree. He's talking about Sendak ending with *part* of a complete sentence, not with a sentence fragment.

  4. John Cowan said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    The fourth page looks like a complete sentence to me, though standing alone you'd wonder about the anaphoric binding.

  5. arthur said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    Timberg doesn't make any grammatical criticism, and his point is correct. Wild Things is very dislocating in the genre for which it is intended: reading aloud. The page turns don't correspond to periods or commas, so the temptation is to turn too quickly to permit the child to enjoy the fairly complex pictures. Then there's the challenge of pacing the page turns where there are no words at all. And what are you supposed to do with words that have no picture at the end? I find that I watch my son more closely with this book than with most children's books so I don't go too fast or too slow (it helps that there are very few words to read). I think that's a non-trivial part of the appeal to both of us.

  6. Bloix said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    Sometimes a sentence can be "wrong" even though it can be diagrammed. And the sentence you quote is, of course, grammatically correct, but it's an extravagance, a breathless tumbling of words that would likely earn the red ink of a garden-variety copy editor.

  7. Nathan Myers said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    I think it was Dave Barry who commented on children's books with less than one sentence per page, something like: "… and I'll tell you what he did next" … "but not on this page". Google has been unhelpful in locating a reference.

  8. Brian said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

    Interesting. I've read the book hundreds of times, but have never noticed this.
    It's a good example of how the medium itself can help with the expression of language. There is no need for commas because you pause naturally with the turn of the page. The formal rules can be broken because it's not viewed as one sentence.

  9. Levi Montgomery said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 9:33 pm

    Speaking of Google being unhelpful… can someone please tell me what, in this reference, NIC stands for? Sorry to seem ignorant, but all my education was in manufacturing technology.

  10. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

    To Levi Montgomery: see No Initial Coordinators earlier in the posting.

  11. Levi Montgomery said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

    Ah! Thanks, read it over and over and somehow missed that, even when looking specifically for a reference.

  12. Michael Siemon said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

    I take exception to the comment from arthur, i.e.:

    "Wild Things is very dislocating in the genre for which it is intended: reading aloud. The page turns don't correspond to periods or commas, so the temptation is to turn too quickly to permit the child to enjoy the fairly complex pictures. Then there's the challenge of pacing the page turns where there are no words at all. "

    In reading aloud to youngsters who might be the targets of this book, there is a _lot_ of contextual dwelling on any given page, and its potentially many implications. The _syntactical_ connection with preceding and following pages is _very_ minimal. Part of the joy of this book is wandering off in the exploration of what is happening on each page. One turns the page when one's target/focus child seems no longer to want to dwell on the current one. Assuming syntactic continuity as an over-riding stricture in such a context strikes me (having very recently in fact gone through Wild Things with an almost-3-year-old) as bizarre. I suspect that Arthur's "temptation to turn [the page] too quickly" hints at the _adult's_ programming to drive the text through on purely syntactic grounds, and possibly adult discomfort with exploring the visual context at the level the child is indulging itself in. :-)

  13. Karen said,

    October 14, 2009 @ 5:44 am

    Levi – I expect you missed it because you were looking for a (NIC) to follow the first use…

  14. Joe said,

    October 14, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    So, is there a "dislocating effect"? I expect that, just like jump cuts and other experiments in discontinuity in filmic language, these "dislocating effects" become commonplace and then subsequently incorporated as stylistic conventions. At this point, they lose their "dislocating effects" and the reason why they were "unconventional" in the first place.

  15. Bloix said,

    October 14, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Remember that children's books are not written to be read once, but many, many times. The delay between the sections of the sentence that are interrupted by wordless pages becomes part of the pleasure of the experience, as the child waits with anticipation for the next extravagant semi-nonsensical phrase (in and out of weeks, through a day), which he or she of course knows by heart, having heard and said it dozens of times before.

  16. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 14, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    If I remember rightly, the last phrase before the wordless pages is "Let the wild rumpus begin". Then you and the child you are reading the story to take time to examine each of the following pages one after the other and talk about the rumpus depicted there before your reading resumes when you reach the page where the text is continued.

  17. Vicki Baker said,

    October 14, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    I agree with the other commenters: there's no criticism of Sendak's grammar in Timberg's piece- he's saying something about style. The effect of the last half-sentence on a pictureless page mimics the moment of coming out of an extended reverie or daydream back into quotidian reality – the sort of thing a film director would accomplish with a jump cut.

  18. Matt said,

    October 14, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

    I don't know that this really fits in with what's being discussed here, but have you ever noticed that the most famous scene in any kid's book ever — the actual biting of the green eggs and ham, that so-cajoled-for taste — is not depicted. We see the character regard the morsels on the fork, we turn the page, and we see the expression of delight on his face. No words. The ham and eggs are bit as we turn the page, in the act.

  19. Levi Montgomery said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 3:31 am

    Karen;

    Thanks, I'll take that. Because it's either that or old age setting in. :)

  20. Katherine said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 5:41 am

    The book is, essentially, a type of poem, employing children's story-telling speech. Small children often have no respect for commas; they use words like "and" and "but" instead, and use gestures – or even pictures when their words and gestures seem inadequate to them – as Sendak uses pictures.

    And there is nothing wrong, grammatically, with Sendak's text. His grammar is just fine in all of his books. If there's any dislocation it's a result of a reader not having read enough poetry.

    Here's an illustration from Wallace Stevens, which Sendak's voyage through time made me think of right away:

    The man bent over his guitar,
    A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

    They said, "You have a blue guitar,
    You do not play things as they are."

    The man replied, "Things as they are
    Are changed upon the blue guitar."

    Sendak is a poet as much as he is an illustrator, and focussing on film to address his syntax is – I think – using the wrong medium as a referent.

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