Monday, July 7, 2014

Old School 101: The Basic Sentence Unit

“In only the post-seasons of 2006 to the present has this likewise been true.”

Those words emanated from my pen – literally – a few days ago while scribing a rather ponderous piece on how the NBA has chosen to structure and adjust its post-season playoff tournament through the years.
During a lengthy career as a secondary-school English teacher (sentence structure a specialty), such an arrangement of verbiage would have had a place in my course – quite possibly as the basis for some extra-credit grammatical questions on a test or quiz. For example,

·         Which word is the simple subject of this structurally simple sentence? (Hint: It’s the only pronoun in the sentence.)
·         Identify any two words in this sentence that are adjectives.
·         What is the second prepositional phrase in this sentence?
·         Match the word with its part of speech (as it’s being used in this sentence):
1.       “present”     (a) noun
2.       “likewise”     (b) verb
3.       “been”          © adverb

In those more technologically simple days of teaching, my class’s initial activity frequently was the grammatical analysis of a short set of sentences from the blackboard. It was a versatile little teaching practice: suitable for review, a practical context for revealing some new syntactical twist, a familiar way to introduce the style or idiosyncrasy of a to-be-studied author. That the ultimate teaching purpose was not readily apparent created an edgy curiosity in a certain kind of student and spurred its share of teachable moments, within and without the curriculum. (I was given a hefty push down the path to retirement when non-school-based administrative authority mandated, in order to facilitate the teacher assessment process, the prominent posting in the classroom of the learning objective(s) for that particular usage of valuable teaching time.)

Whether pre-planned or a spontaneous reaction to what was deemed a collectively inadequate effort, the ever-popular “pop quiz,” accompanied by the obligatory adolescent groan, paid regular visits to my classroom.

In our “sentence-du-jour,” an Abacus-trained sentence-parser would immediately spot the introductory prepositional phrases, three of them. The second of my short series of Grammar Packets establishes as a rule that the Subject, Verb Phrase and Complement in a sentence will never be discovered within the confines of a prepositional phrase.

Well, that wipes out all but the last five words, two of which clearly are verbs. Indeed “has” and “been” are among the 23 helping (or auxiliary, as they are called in really old textbooks) verbs available for use in proper English – not including colloquialisms like “should of” and whatnot.

Now, a convenient little custom in how our language has evolved is that a helping verb, while not a mandatory element in any sentence, will always precede the main verb that it’s assisting. So, is “true” our main verb here – heck, is “true” a verb at all? Something gets described as “true” or valid. Describing words are adverbs or adjectives, not verbs.

Apparently, “has been” is the verb phrase, making “been” (one of the eight forms of the common verb “to be”) the main verb, i.e. the simple predicate. Aha, that actually clears things up significantly – the sentence has a Linking Verb rather than an Action Verb. (A “Be” form, when used as the main verb, is always and automatically Linking.)

Here are a couple of pieces of helpful language trivia for ya. A sentence with a linking verb is required to have a complement; that complement may be a noun, a pronoun or an adjective; and the job of said complement is to rename or to describe the subject of that very sentence. E.g.

Fluffy [subj] is [LV] a beagle [comp].
She [subj] is [LV] friendly [comp].

Then “true” must be the complement – technically a Predicate Adjective – and the message of the sentence-in-question must be that something or other “has been true.” (Notice that the series of prepositional phrases identifies the time frame for this particular bit of veracity.) Even though it wasn’t part of this version of the assessment instrument, we’re left with the question of the subject of the sentence. The only possibilities we seem to have are “this” and “likewise.” The latter, which conveys the meaning “in the same way,” answers the question “How,” information typically provided by an adverb.

The word “this” is most frequently used as an adjective to specify “Which one.” But it’s also a demonstrative pronoun – remember “dis, dat, dese and dose”? – and as such is allowed to serve as the subject of a sentence. (Notice how “She” substitutes for “Fluffy” as the subject of the second “friendly beagle” sentence above. A pronoun still takes the place of a noun, right?)

Upon embarking with any group of students on a “journey” through a piece of Shakespearean drama – Romeo & Juliet dozens of times with my freshmen; Julius Caesar with sophomores a few times; even Macbeth in a couple of once-over-lightly treatments with seniors during summer income-embellishment sessions – the student/“passengers” were asked to cast such a grammatically discerning eye to the following polite refusal of a request to dance:

My feet can keep no measure in delight
When my poor heart no measure keeps in grief.

Almost all students, many without the benefit of instructor-input, could recognize the patterns and pieces of this centuries-old usage of their language. The fun question to ask was always, “OK, now, what does it mean?”

In today’s sentence, the question we’re left with is, “OK, now, what does ‘this’ mean?”

Any guesses?

“Teach” is offering Extra Credit.