Thursday, June 6, 2013

Following is a simple grammatical summary of the openings I tossed out yesterday. I don't go into jargony detail; all I'm doing is laying out the patterns.

(1) This is the beginning of Christina Stead's The Little Hotel:
If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens. Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law died. The woman stayed here twice. We became very friendly, though I always felt there was something she was keeping to herself.
Exclamatory fragment. Subject-predicate, two independent clauses, funky inverted negative. Adverb phrase, subject-compound predicate. Subject-predicate. Subject-predicate, dependent clause. Sentences are relatively brief. Word choice is clear and basic. Author uses few descriptors. Verbs are plain. Tone is cheerful, optimistic, straightforward.

(2) This is the beginning of Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye:
"Get away from here, you dirty swine," she said. 
"There's a dirty swine in every man," he said. 
"Showing your face round here again," she said. 
"Now, Mavis, now, Mavis," he said. 
She was seen to slam the door in his face, and he to press the bell, and she to open the door.
Imperative statement, epithet, plain dialogue tag with pronoun. Defining statement, plain dialogue tag with pronoun. Fragment, plain dialogue tag with pronoun. Repeated fragments, name, plain dialogue tag with pronoun. Dialogue ends. Passive-voice construction linked by conjunctions. Word choice is casual. Author repeats her only notable descriptor ("dirty") twice in two sentences. Verbs are plain. Tone is bad-tempered.

(3) This is the beginning of Virginia Woolf's The Years:
It was an uncertain spring. The weather, perpetually changing, sent clouds of blue and of purple flying over the land. In the country farmers, looking at the fields, were apprehensive; in London umbrellas were opened and then shut by people looking up at the sky. But in April such weather was to be expected.
Definition statement. Subject, modifying phrase, predicate, participle phrase. Prepositional phrase, subject, modifying phrase, predicate, semicolon, prepositional phrase, passive-voice construction with compound verb and prepositional phrase. Transitional conjunction, passive-voice construction. Word choice varies between simple and more complex. Author uses many descriptors. Verbs are plain. Tone is neutral.

(3) This is the beginning of Ivy Compton-Burnett's The Last and the First:
"What an unbecoming light this is!" said Eliza Heriot, looking from the globe above the table to the faces round it. 
"Are we expected to agree?" said her son, as the light fell on her own face. "Or is it a moment for silence?" 
"The effect is worse with every day. I hardly dare look at any of you." 
"You have found the courage," said her daughter, "and it is fair that you should show it. You appointed the breakfast hour yourself." 
Lady Heriot did not suggest that anyone else should appoint it.
Exclamation, plain dialogue tag with name, participial phrase with stacked prepositional phrases. Question, plain dialogue tag with relationship noun, adverb phrase with prepositional phrase. Second question by the same speaker. Two sentences of dialogue, without dialogue tag: (a) Subject, predicate, adverb phrase. (b) Subject, predicate, prepositional phrase.  Subject, predicate, dialogue tag with relationship noun, coordinating conjunction, subject, predicate, dependent clause. Second sentence by the same speaker: Subject, predicate. Dialogue ends. Subject, predicate with negative, dependent clause. Author uses few descriptors. Verbs are usually plain, with the exception of the repeated "appoint." Tone is ominous.

(4) This is the opening of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood:

Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing,  very red, on the edge of the furthest woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones.
Subject, predicate, stacked prepositional phrases, participial phrase, prepositional phrase, parenthetical adverb phrase, continuing participial phrase, stacked prepositional phrases. Subject, predicate, prepositional phrase, dependent clause, participial phrase, parenthetical modifier, prepositional phrase. Adverb phrase, subject, compound predicate, coordinating conjunction, subject, participial phrase, predicate, adverb phrase. Author uses many descriptors. Verbs are plain. Tone is neutral.


Well, that took forever, and now I have to go do real work. Tomorrow I will continue on with the project. For now, I will simple toss out a couple of questions:

Did you expect O'Connor to use more descriptors than Woolf? 

Did you expect Compton-Burnett and O'Connor to share a predilection for prepositional phrases?

If you've got sentence-related observations of your own, leave them in the comments. Then tomorrow we can mull them over. (But do try to stick with sentence-related rather than meaning-related.)


CMGadapee said...

I find it interesting that all of the authors share the use of "plain" verbs, and several chose instead to freight their sentences with complicated sentence patterns. I wonder if this choice is intentional, typical of the time period, or purely accidental. I am drifting toward the diction of a time period, especially with the heavily convoluted sentences and the use of passive voice.

That all being said, I like the quiet cadences. Active, muscular verbs have their place, too, and the spare style of authors like Hemingway also has appeal. I am always intrigued by the connection among diction, style choice, and the time period in which the author is living. The sounds and rhythms that a person is surrounded by influences her writing, and I wonder if the gender and the location also matter.

Christopher said...

I notice that you too use not just "plain" words but garbled constructions in your final comment, Dawn -- a defective infinitive with a slang verb in your first sentence, then two hyphenated participles left dangling with no object in your last. And that's a sign of good writing too, I'd say, the ear for the unexpected, the shock of the wardrobe malfunction that works -- high rhetoric in low places, letting it all hang out in the cathedral like John Donne, T.S.Eliot, John Ashbery or Anne Carson. The concert violinist gets off on blue-grass in great writing, the physicist works string theory out on the road.

Of course I also assume your words have something to say and are not just sentence-related. That's why your writing excites me, Dawn -- it's not just the uprightness of your wrist, the fierce expression or the fingering.