Little worlds made cunningly, analyzed badly

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I've been reading Stanley Fish's recent booklet "How to Write a Sentence: And How To Read One", seduced by passages like this one on page 2:

… just piling up words, one after the other, won't do much of anything until something else has been added. That something is named quite precisely by Anthony Burgess in this sentence from his novel Enderby Outside (1968):

And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nestled in the placed "ordained" for them — "ordained" is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of syntactic structures — they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another. They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine.

But the following 158 pages left me disappointed.  Prof. Fish gives us plenty of rhapsodizing about how great syntax is, and plenty of oohing and aahing about how great specific sentences are:

A sentence is, in John Donne's words, "A little world made cunningly." (Donne is speaking of the human body, but that is just another composition.) I want to bring you into the little worlds made cunningly by as many writers as I can cram into a short book.

This is a laudable ambition; but in his tour of great sentences, there's almost no syntactic analysis — and neither is there any careful analysis at any other level of linguistic structure. Nor is there any advice to the reader about where or how to learn more about the structure and function of these "little world[s] made cunningly", other than his recommendation of Graff and Birkenstein's practical compendium of rhetorical templates They say/I say.

This is probably just as well, because what little linguistic analysis Prof. Fish gives us is full of assumptions from old-fashioned grade-school grammar, about whose inadequacies he's curiously incurious. If he were writing about about the body, he'd be enthusing about the precarious balance of the four humours; but since he's writing about syntax, his central assumption — obviously false and curiously unexamined —  is that sentences are all about agents, actions, and (optionally) things acted upon:

It is important to understand that the relationships that form the sinews and relays of sentences are limited. There is the person or thing performing an action, there is the action being performed, and there is the recipient or object of the action. That's the basic logical structure of many sentences: X does Y to Z. (Sentences can also come without objects, as in "Joe walks.") […] The instances are infinite, although the form remains the same (this is a key point, and I shall return to it): doer, doing, done to.

He repeats this over and over again in different places and in slightly different ways:

Let me say again that by "forms" I do not mean parts of speech or any other bit of abstract machinery. I mean structures of logic and rhetoric within which and by means of which meanings — lots of them — can be generated. The logical structures are the ones we have already met: the structure of relationships between actors, actions, and the objects acted upon.

Or again:

A sentence, I declared, is a structure of logical relationships; the relationships are finite and learnable; the contents that can find expression in the structures formed by the relationships are infinite and incapable of being catalogued. So it follows, I argued, that content will be a distraction and that the skill of writing well-formed, clear, and tightly organized sentences will be acquired by focusing on forms. I explained that what I meant by "forms" is not the list of parts of speech or kinds of clauses or grammatical errors found in many textbooks, but the logical forms that link actor, action, and the object of action in a way that make available simple and complicated predications.

And this is not just mechanical repetition of something he was taught in the fifth grade. When Prof. Fish attempts a bit of linguistic analysis that deals with individual clauses, those hypothetical actions materialize in his description, one per clause, even if the idea makes no sense in relation to the examples analyzed:

Although the forms of argument are more numerous than the forms of sentence structure, their number is limited; they can be catalogued (Graff and Birkenstein do it), they can be added to your argumentative repertoire, and you can use them not simply to arrange thoughts but also to create thoughts. […]

There is no limit to the forms you can practice this way: "Even though," "Were I to," "Notwithstanding that," "Depending on whether," "In the event that." Each of these forms exists to make available a certain content, and apart from them, that content could not be briskly produced. An "Even though" sentence — "Even though I was exhausted, I watched another episode of Law & Order" — makes a complicated statement: it specifies two actions that follow one another but, in the usual course of things, shouldn't (if I'm exhausted I should turn off the TV), and it signals awareness of the oddness of the sequence even before we know exactly what its specifics are. (emphasis added)

It may very well be useful for students to practice writing the specific kind of "Even though" construction that "specifies two actions that follow one another but, in the usual course of things, shouldn't". However, it's easy to discover that few real-world "Even though" sentences meet this condition — all you need to do is to look at Fish's own example.  In the phrase "I was exhausted", what is the action? Who is the actor, and who or what is the "object acted upon"?

This embarrassing oversight was almost unavoidable, because it's relatively rare for an "Even though" construction to involve a relationship between two actions in a pragmatically-incongruous temporal sequence. A typical real-world "Even though" sentence is this one from the current NYT:

Even though Wells Fargo is the nation's biggest lender to consumers, its losses on bad loans have been lower than the rest of the industry.

A statement about Wells Fargo's rank in consumer lending does not denote an action, and neither does one about the size of its losses. And the relationship between the two propositions, in this case, does not involve any obvious temporal sequence.

In other examples, the inter-clause incongruity may be more subtle — again from the current NYT:

Experts have said that a million people died in earthquakes in the 20th century ­ and that this century might see 10 times as many deaths, with as many as a million killed in a single quake. That is, unless major efforts are made to fortify the world’s growing cities, which are expected to be homes to billions of added residents.

Even though the rate of earthquakes over time seems to be more or less unchanging, the world's population explosion means that more people are moving into quake zones, which are often near coasts. The result, the experts say, is the prospect of continuing trauma.

Again, there's no sequence of actions, but there's also no simple pragmatic incongruity between the unchanging rate of earthquakes and the trend for people to move into quake zones. Rather, the point is that a predicted increase in quake-related deaths is not due to increased quake frequency, but rather to larger populations at risk: here the rhetorical pattern links three propositions, not two.

We can even find cases where the temporal sequence between the clauses is reversed — thus

Even though he will not speak to reporters now, Zimmerman did speak to one before the Broncos played the Vikings in 1994.

That's from the COCA corpus, which has 5,733 sentences starting with "Even though". A spot check of the first 100 hits suggests that at most a few percent involve a temporal sequence of two actions. It's hard to get a crisp and reliable count, because Prof. Fish gives no definition of his terms, as I guess is appropriate given his anti-foundationalism; but in the 100 hits I checked, there were only a handful of examples like the following, where it seems clear that there's a temporal-sequence incongruity between two things that we could plausibly call actions:

Even though hydrodynamics research has driven the successful steps in the first years, it is economics and manufacturing that will have the final say on bringing this technology to the world.

The book's other exercises in linguistic analysis exhibit the same sort of confident overgeneralizations, implicitly refuted by the very examples chosen to illustrate them. For example:

The subordinating style orders its components in relationships of causality (one event or state is caused by another), temporality (events and states are prior or subsequent to one another), and precedence (events and states are arranged in hierarchies of importance).

At least there are now states as well as events in Fish's ontology (unless "actions" are meant to include both states and events, contrary to the ordinary language meaning of the terms?), but his list of "causality …, temporality …, and precedence" is repeated several times, and really seems to be intended to be exhaustive. Despite this, his own chosen examples of the "subordinating style" include phrasal relationships of implication, (spatial) location, description, exemplification, concession, and so on.

It's certainly encouraging to see Prof. Fish, a leading light of post-modern literary studies, continuing to beat the drum for linguistic form. I just wish he'd undertake to learn something about it.


  1. GeorgeW said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    Even though Prof. Fish feels a need to pontificate on syntax, he should write something that actually glitters as with atmospheric dust which we call meaning.

    [(myl) There's plenty of meaning in this book, much of it interesting and enjoyable. But despite the book's thematic commitment to the central role of linguistic form, there's relatively little analysis of it; and when we get some, it's full of vague and incoherent references to things like actors, actions, and objects.]

  2. John Lawler said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    Too bad. Fish can write seducingly, all right; and he's right that syntax plays a big role. But your comments remind me strongly of Auden's remark in 'Notes on the Comic':
    "A sentence uttered makes a world appear
    Where all things happen as it says they do;
    We doubt the speaker, not the tongue we hear:
    Words have no words for words that are not true."

  3. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

    I wish the entire education establishment, K-16, could pause for moment and agree to stop associating the "verb" with "action," as if the marriage were inevitable. <overgeneralization>If there is one pseudo-concept that most impedes students ability to understand English grammar, this is it.</overgeneralization>

    [(myl) Hmm. Do you think it's worse that the noun=object and subject=agent associations?]

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    Joseph Epstein's review is entertaining in its own right, but also at its own expense.

  5. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 4:25 pm


    Hand-in-hand, more likely. Participles do so much work in English that poor-to-average students can rarely identify them as subjects, objects, or modifiers, and often misidentify them as main verb, simply because they have an "actiony" feeling. And of course it's hard to know if a NP is a subject or not if you don't know what the verb is.

    More generally, I should say that our first-grade labels do as much harm as good, maybe even more in the long run.

  6. Ø said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

    I totally get it that statements like "verbs are action words" can be very misleading. But how would (or how does) one begin teaching grammar to (say) fifth graders without falling into unfortunate overgeneralization/oversimplification? This reminds me somehow of "new math".

    [(myl) First, let's put this into context: Stanley Fish's book is not aimed at fifth graders.

    And second, I'm not sure that teaching broad part-of-speech categories to grade-school children is a good idea. In general, it's better to start with simple things than with false things.]

  7. John Lawler said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    @ Ø: It would have to be part of a program that would teach not just grammar but phonetics and other things as well. Let me point you at a term paper written for my grammar class some years ago that suggests such a program. It seemed like a good idea then, and I've grown even fonder of it since.

    [(myl) Thanks, John! That's indeed a thoughtful and interesting vision of what K-12 linguistic education might look like. K-12 curricular changes are hard to accomplish in general, and even more so now with the importance of standardized test scores in evaluating schools. So I've concluded that it's probably easier to start educational reform at the college level and work down from there. But I'd love to be proved wrong.]

  8. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    But how would (or how does) one begin teaching grammar to (say) fifth graders . . .

    There is no point in teaching the grammar of a linguistic system to children who do not use that system with a high level of sophistication. One acquires such a level of sophistication by using the language. In particular, since English-speaking folks provide grammatical instruction in the written form of the language, one should be a highly competent reader of the language before beginning any program of grammatical study.

    In other words, if a kid enjoys reading and by 5th grade has consumed 1000 books or so (from Dr. Seuss to Harry Potter), grammatical instruction will mostly seem to remind him of things he already knows but did not have a vocabulary for. It might also polish up a few loose ends. But it will not, repeat will not, teach that fifth grader to use the language correctly. He (and most likely his family) have already handled that job.

    If, on the other hand, by 5th grade a kid has avoided reading anything more sophisticated than text messages and the satellite television menu, then formal grammar instruction will feel like so much child abuse. If it leaves any lasting impression at all, it is more likely to be deleterious than salutary, and stands a good chance of turning him against formal education in general.

    Actually, a 5th grader in such circumstances is still salvageable if emergency action is taken; a 9th grader less so; while a freshman in college is lost, lost, lost.

    When I say such things to legislators and so on, the usual objection is something like, "But they need to use correct English."

    To which a suitable reply might be, "Yes. And trees dying in the desert need to walk 500 miles to the nearest river. Sadly, you cannot teach trees this skill."

  9. Geoff Pullum said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 1:05 am

    I just love the fact that Fish's much-admired quotation from Anthony Burgess contains a clear violation of the much-revered (but totally fake) "which/that" rule, that you mustn't begin a restrictive relative clause with which. Educated people (Americans especially) like Fish, who claim they care about grammar but actually don't have much knowledge of it, almost invariably defend that rule (invented as a proposed reform by a pair of Englishmen at the beginning of the 20th century, and ignored by British writers) as if it were important, and seem to believe that good writing respects it. And almost invariably they fail to notice how the writing of authors they respect (and often their own as well) gives clear evidence that the rule is bunk. This post offers an example or two; Simon Heffer's dreadful book on how to write offers another typical example, endorsing the rule but using a colophon quotation from an author who doesn't obey it. We have published dozens of other cases here on Language Log. (I don't recall whether I've seen Fish endorse the which/that rule, by the way; my point here is more general: Burgess is a much-respected writer, and clearly his writing is not in conformity with the rule, and I wonder just how many people would notice that.)

  10. language hat said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 9:22 am

    But how would (or how does) one begin teaching grammar to (say) fifth graders

    I feel obliged to point out that the vast majority of language-users throughout human history have grown up using their native languages perfectly well without a single moment of formal instruction in grammar. The idea that children need to be officially taught their own language in school ("Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?") is a modern one, and quite bizarre if you think about it.

  11. Henning Makholm said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    But how would (or how does) one begin teaching grammar to (say) fifth graders

    I feel obliged to point out that the vast majority of language-users throughout human history have grown up using their native languages perfectly well without a single moment of formal instruction in grammar. The idea that children need to be officially taught their own language in school

    But fifth grade is about where instruction in secondary languages begin – at least around here. That's when you need a grammar vocabulary in order to find your way around dictionaries and inflectional paradigms. Teaching those things with the children's own language (whose structure they already know informally) as a main example is much easier than if they have to learn thinking explicitly about grammar at the same time as learning a foreign language, with nothing well-known to tie those new concepts into.

    It's for the same reason that immigrant children who do not speak the majority language at home benefit from formal instruction in their home language.

  12. GeorgeW said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    @language hat: Good point. The purpose is to teach them a variety of their language that they do not speak.

  13. Bill Benzon said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

    For the record, sometime in the past decade Stanley Fish has lamented that the current generation of literary critics has lost the art of close reading. So, it would seem, has Fish.

    Actually, he probably never had it. Upon closer inspection, much co-called close reading turns out not to be very close. Often, however, it glitters brightly with quotations from the text it fails to attend to. But that's a rant for another venue.

  14. Rebecca said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

    Speaking as a 4th/5th grade teacher, I’d say children that age typically enjoy manipulating dialect and are ready for some linguistic analysis to help with that. They’re already noticing that “rules” they’ve been told don’t always work, like verb=action. But with some guidance in using their own intuitions and in analyzing patterns in syntax and morphology, they can come up with a pretty good, if not formal, understanding of what’s going on. For example, a favorite activity is labeling the parts of speech in the “Jabberwock” – something they can do quite well, but not by appealing to a dictionary or a set of semantic assumptions.

    I think of this kind of approach to grammar, along with general critical reading strategies, as immunization against later exposure to adults who believe in phantom and/or zombie rules. And it sets them up better for developing whatever dialect registers they need, whether that is writing scholarly journal articles or talking their way out of a speeding ticket.

  15. Jason Stokes said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 11:11 pm

    > I totally get it that statements like "verbs are action words" can
    > be very misleading. But how would (or how does) one begin teaching
    > grammar to (say) fifth graders without falling into unfortunate
    > overgeneralization/oversimplification? This reminds me somehow
    > of "new math".

    I don't know about fifth graders, but when I was in the sixth grade, my teacher, who I shall call Mrs Davies, because that was her name and hopefully she has died in horrible pain by now, gave me that same spiel about how verbs were "doing words", and a noun is a "person, place or thing." And when I, as I usually did when I heard something that didn't make any sense, pointed out that this didn't make any sense, because what about the verb "is", which I knew was a verb from reading the dictionary, where's the "doing" in "I am something, I wanted to know? And she gave me that strange, patronizing, aggrieved smile she always gave, the one that signalled Jason is challenging my authority and trustworthyness again, and just repeated the definitions she had given, and told me to do my work and identify the parts of speech based on whether they were doing words or persons, places or things, and I refused because what she told me made no sense and I knew it was wrong, and it was just another black mark against me. So she ostentatiously put it into her special "Jason" book, the book that was just about me, the only book she kept, mind you, not for any of the other students who misbehaved, as just another example of Jason's incorrigible misbehaving, the one she told me she showed to the principle as a record of how disgraceful I was, so her job would be protected when she disciplined me and hopefully would get me transferred out of her class, or better yet, out of the school, an ambition which she made no secret of and in she used as a club to intimidate me. Because she knew I was too young to know she was all bluff, and has no such authority.

    Look, I was an immature, in many ways obnoxious little kid. But I was still extremely bright, and not at all a bad kid, other than the fact that I got outraged when someone said anything that didn't make any sense, or talked down to me in any way, and refused to tell me what was really going on, and she was, please take my word for it, an extremely stupid, lazy and vindictive teacher, and teaching oversimplified crap and giving lazy answers to sensible questions is a crime even when you're doing it to sixth graders — especially the brighter ones. It cost me considerable effort to overcome the confusion induced in me because I had been told the parts of speech were semantic categories — or at least, simple to state semantic categories like "doing word" and "person, place or thing", modulo the ideas of generative semantics or cognitive grammar, both of which ideas our Mrs Davies probably couldn't even spell, let alone explain.

    What should we teach 5th graders? I'm not sure. But something to do with how sentences are built with slots, and how you can put words into certain slots and not others. Give them sentences like He _ the cat and ask them what kind of words can go in that slot to make a complete sentence, and what can't. Tell them the first kind of word is called a "verb", and that verbs have all kinds of different meanings associated with them. And so on. And the brighter kids can go from this straight into popularizations of Chomsky — which I did soon enough, around 14 — and John Mcwhorter's book "The Tower of Babel", which is excellent.

  16. Julie said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 1:56 am

    In the fifth grade. I read constantly, drinking everything from Nancy Drew to Albert Payton Terhune. I taught many of my classmates to read. Wrote stories for my own entertainment. Tried to decipher family letters in German (not very successfully). But I didn't "get" fifth-grade grammar at all.

    I don't know what they were trying to teach us, and I don't think my classmates learned as much as I did. Only in seventh-grade Spanish class (foreign-language options are scarce in small-town America) did I really get a grasp on the concepts involved…and why one might want to know them.

  17. maidhc said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 5:19 am

    I remember starting sentence diagrams in what must have been Grade 8. The year after that we started Latin, but I went to a very conservative school.

    I was always a voracious reader, and I don't remember having any conceptual difficulty with the sentence diagrams. It was a new concept, but it seemed quite obvious to me. I suppose some of my classmates may have found it more difficult.

    In my side reading in high school I encountered Backus-Naur Form, and I remember being totally blown away by the concept. But it definitely was not part of the school curriculum.

    Looking back, I think that the sentence diagramming stuff was one of the more valuable concepts I learned. Maybe from the point of view of a professional linguist it is too prescriptivist, but at age 12 I got a lot out of it.

    Do they still teach this stuff to kids? I went to a private school, so my experience is not typical.

  18. Tobias Mercy said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 5:58 am

    Apropos sentences. I don't know where to to write an "Ask Language Log" request, but I was pondering this essay which seems to me to be a load of bs, based on my knowledge of German literature. Peter Stamm might narrowly fit the bill, but then, his sound is very specific in German literature, very obviously and deliberately "American". The rest seems very 'off', but I'm afraid I might lack the linguistic tools to discuss it. Plus, I might be wrong.

  19. Participant roles of subjects « Arnold Zwicky's Blog said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    […] Language Log, Mark Liberman has returned to the antique (and deeply inadequate) assumptions of school grammar, in a piece on Stanley […]

  20. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    A contribution to this discussion, focusing on the subject = agent and the verb = action assumptions of school grammar: on my blog, here.

  21. Joe Linker said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

    I wonder if Fish gives any credit to Francis Christensen’s work?

    [(myl) Since I bought Fish's book in Kindle form, it's easy for me to be able to state categorically that the letter-string "Christensen" does not occur in it.]

  22. Rodger C said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

    Was I remarkably fortunate to have been taught, over 50 years ago, that a verb expresses "action, being, or state of being"? On reflection I'm especially charmed by the distinction between "being" and "state of being," which may have helped me in Spanish.

    [(myl) But what about events and developments? And all of these things are sometimes expressed by nouns as well. If someone doesn't already know — by whatever means — how to identify the parts of speech, attempts to apply these semantic or pragmatic definitions, no matter how elaborated, will lead them badly astray.]


  23. Friday Links/Notes « TuneBlog said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 9:22 am

    […] Everything You Need To Know About Culture In Ten Books–Although I read that How To Write A Sentence isn't all that authoritative. […]

  24. Rodger C said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    @myl: I certainly learned somewhere along the line that these definitions are only rough guides to naming what that thing is that works that way in the sentence. I was first introduced to formal grammar in the 7th grade, but I don't think I really caught on to what it was for till I started Latin in the 9th.

    [(myl) Part-of-speech analysis is relatively easy to learn in Latin, because most content words inflect in a way that lets you know what paradigm a particular instance belongs to. English words generally don't wear their category identity on their sleeve to the same extent.]

  25. Ellen K. said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    I really don't remember how I learned what nouns and verbs are, but I suspect it wasn't from having them properly explained. I think that for some of us those semantic descriptions actually work, despite being technically wrong, in helping us learn what nouns and verbs are. They work not as definitions but as clues that help us figure it out for ourselves. And, my thinking is, for some people, that works, for others, it doesn't. Well, it may depend on the teacher too, not just the learner.

    Actually, after writing that, I'm thinking I probably learned the basic parts of speech through use. A noun is a word that people call a noun. :) Pretty much the way we learn vocabulary in general.

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