Thursday, May 13, 2010

Grammar at Bag-End

A geek's confession: I have never read The Lord of the Rings, and I only know The Hobbit because my fifth grade teacher read it out loud over several weeks of "quiet time" in 1977.

Recently, in post-Harry Potter and Percy Jackson 2010, the eight- and nine-year-old males in my son's peer group have started carrying around assorted Tolkien books. The paperback covers are worn and tattered, mainly from falling out of perpetually unzipped backpacks, but I suspect some of the boys are actually reading the books too.

So I decided it's time for some mother-son bonding: I would nip E's potential cultural illiteracy in the bud, and (long overdue) make up for my own, by reading the books out loud to him.

We are now nearing the end of The Hobbit, and I think I've discovered the reason I never felt any affinity for it. It isn't because most of the book is about a long arduous slog, nor because the peoples of Middle Earth somehow managed to procreate (as evidenced by the existence of characters) without there being any females around. No, even the book's admittedly good moments--like Bilbo's riddle duel with Gollum--aren't enough to make up for its thoroughly annoying grammar.

I've therefore taken it upon myself to decipher some of Tolkien's rules, so that the path might be easier for other wannabe LotR fans.

Rule 1: After introductory elements only weak minds need commas.

Exhibit A: "In spite of the dangers of this far land bold men had of late been making their way back into it from the South, cutting down trees, and building themselves places to live in among the more pleasant woods in the valleys and along the river-shores."

Exhibit B: "Following him they found themselves in a wide hall with a fire-place in the middle. Though it was summer there was a wood-fire burning and the smoke was rising to the blackened rafters in search of a way out through an opening in the roof."

I suppose it doesn't make sense to say it was summer in a wide hall with a fire-place in the middle. Still, I wouldn't have had to back track from "Though it was summer there" to "Though it was summer, there" had Tolkien included a comma.

Exhibit C: "As Bilbo's sharp inquisitive eyes got used to seeing things he could catch glimpses of them whisking off the path and scuttling behind tree trunks."

Fun with back-tracking! Find your favorite introductory element:
a. "As Bilbo's sharp inquisitive eyes got used to seeing things he could catch glimpses of,"
b. "As Bilbo's sharp inquisitive eyes got used to seeing things he could catch,"
c. "As Bilbo's sharp inquisitive eyes got used to seeing things,"

Rule 2: Ambiguous pronoun references add depth to them.

Exhibit D: "Then at last they [Bilbo and the dwarves] said good-bye to their ponies and turned their heads for home. Off they trotted very gaily, seeming glad to put their tails towards the shadow of Mirkwood."

E and I suspected something was amiss when Bilbo's party headed in the wrong direction, and we confirmed it when the hobbits and dwarves sprouted tails.

Rule 3: Separating subjects and verbs over as vast a distance as possible, and recalling thus certain tape-worm-like sentence structures composed by authors in the German language and also sometimes apparently even in English, gets readers' attention.

Exhibit E: "Occasionally a slender beam of sun that had the luck to slip in through some opening in the leaves far above, and still more luck in not being caught in the tangled boughs and matted twigs beneath, stabbed down thin and bright before them."

Rule 4: Remember this, colons are bad.

Exhibit F: "All the time they ate, Beorn in his deep rolling voice told tales of the wild lands on this side of the mountains, and especially of the dark and dangerous wood, that lay outstretched far to the North and South a day's ride before them, barring their way to the East, the terrible forest of Mirkwood."

This is a nifty example because it deals with several of the rules and their exceptions: "All the time they ate, [surprise comma!] Beorn in his deep rolling voice [observe delay of verb] told tales of the wild lands on this side of the mountains, and especially of the dark and dangerous wood, [this unnecessary comma confounds the reader] that lay outstretched far to the North and South a day's ride before them, barring their way to the East, [colons are bad, but a colon would be helpful here] the terrible forest of Mirkwood."

Rule 5: Because an idle mind is the devil's workshop to figure out your meaning, make your readers struggle.

Exhibit G: "The barrels now all lashed together creaked and fretted."

You choose the error: is it (a) lack of commas separating items in a list ("The barrels now all lashed together, creaked, and fretted"), or (b) missing commas around a participial phrase ("The barrels, now all lashed together, creaked and fretted")? (Ooh, ooh, choose (b)!)

Exhibit G occurs about two thirds of the way through The Hobbit, by which point you are no longer likely to be surprised by such comma-less constructions.

2 comments:

Mom said...

Just so you know, this Grammer's never been to Bag-End, plus I've got a colon and I'm not afraid to use it!

mom2homer said...

For which I am, of course, grateful.