Steve Wilson

I have always enjoyed words and how they are used, but as I have not kept up on the grammatical, I frankly admit to longer being able to accurately describe, or recognize in use, the dangling participle or the gerund, nor would I be able to give anyone a tutorial on the singular personal pronoun in the objective case vs. the plural personal pronoun in the subjective case; me, us, we and myself get all mixed up nowadays. But I bet a euro to a yen that I’m not alone in that.

But I do still know how to parse a simple sentence and that I owe the learning how to diagram a sentence. I learned that many moons ago in a classroom at Greenfield Elementary School (that classroom is one of the few remaining of original construction still in use); the teacher was a man named Ray Blach. While a few of my classmates found the exercise tedious, I thought it fascinating that all the words we use fit into either one category or many categories of speech depending on how and where in a sentence that word was used.

Since that time I have enjoyed writers who look closely at the language. His politics notwithstanding, William Safire was a favorite grammatical genius of mine; it was he who back in the late 1960s would have a vice president denounce opponents of the “establishment” with such gems as “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “nattering nabobs of negativity,” “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” and “hopeless, helpless, hysterical hypocrites of history.” Ya gotta love the alliteration.

I once had my own fun with the language in a college class some 25 years ago when, in a sociology class of all places, we were tasked with creating a situation of tension which then was resolved by some means of sociological support. This was after I had a handful of writing classes on my transcript, so I chose to approach the task as if it were a TV sitcom or a stage play. It went like this:

A classroom setting, students are in their final year of middle school and it is near the end of the school year. It is Parent’s Night on the campus and each teacher had students prepared to show off the best their class had to offer. As the teacher of the class, I had in the hours preceding the evening event separated the students equally into four groups, with each group comprised of students with similar skills: civics, geography, language and research. When the parents were all gathered that evening (of course my classmates played all these roles) I put the following statement on the monitor and waited for the response:

“While the state of Missouri is home to the Mark Twain National Forest and the town of Hannibal lays claim to being the hometown of the famous author, Samuel Langhorne Clemons was actually born in Florida.”

Because I had not informed the class, my “students” and “parents,” of what I would put forward to create the tension required of the assignment, some of the “parents” were quick to react, the most common statement being that they were pretty sure Mark Twain was a native of Missouri. Some were adamant that that was the case and wondered aloud about my ability to teach their children. To which I replied something like, “That may be true, but I stand by my statement. Let’s let the ‘students’ work it out.”

(Now I am suspecting that some of you reading this are saying to yourselves, “Wilson, old man, your once sharp memory is failing you now because call him Mark Twain or Samuel Langhorne Clemons, he was still born in Missouri!” To which I say, wait for it.)

So, the students went to work: civics showed that Mark Twain was the nom de plume of Samuel Langhorne Clemons and that his many books were still read by many, geography confirmed that such a forest named for him existed in Missouri and then language and research combined showed that the statement was indeed … true. And with that settled, the parents were appeased and I was honored as a great instructor of young minds. Class assignment complete, A-plus grade. (Actually, we didn’t get graded like that, but it sounds good.)

And that successful little exercise I owe all to the days of diagramming sentences in a classroom in my hometown and to being a rabid reader since my youth. And if some of you out there still are having trouble buying that the statement is true, well, just diagram it and then do the research. (Or wait a few more sentences and I’ll tell you how it is true.)

Words are important and it is beneficial to know how to parse sentences and get a fuller meaning or what a person is conveying with their use of the language; this is especially helpful when it comes to political rhetoric, and today such rhetoric is everywhere and has untold influence on listeners. There are times when listening to a politician answering a question one can hear a response, which when boiled down to its barest bones either doesn’t answer the question or offers conflicting ideas within the answer. This is a type of language we call “legalese”; conveys nothing but makes the speaker sound involved and intelligent. Watch out for such language.

Now, back to the statement. When the word “while” is used to start a sentence and no comma is placed after it implies a negative, in this case it means “in spite of the fact.” So if one eliminates the extraneous information in the statement, the forest, and the nom de plume and hometown, then one is left with a simple statement that Samuel Langhorne Clemons was born in Florida. Research will inform you that on Nov. 30, 1835, one Samuel Langhorne Clemons was born in the small village of Florida, Missouri; some 60 miles northeast of the town of Hannibal. So there you have it.

Take care. Peace.

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King City and Greenfield columnist Steve Wilson may be reached at [email protected].


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