Saturday, May 15, 2010

Grammar in Literature

It has been quite some time since I read Dan Chiasson's review of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in The New York Review. (It was in the April 20 issue.) However, I realize that, sooner or later, I am going to have to read this book to see for myself just how much she can pack into so few words. Brevity seems to be the sharp edge of her rhetoric, followed closely by an extraordinarily thorough mastery of grammar. Thus, I would not be surprised if this were the entirety of her story "A Double Negative:"

At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.

Chiasson reflects on this "story" as follows:

The double negative—to say nothing of the future perfect infinitive, "to have had a child"—isn't really permitted in speech; those who talk this way sound persnickety. But everything about what one feels (and in the end, does) about whether to have a child depends on making these hairbreadth grammatical distinctions. Parse it wrong and you are in big trouble: the orphanages are full of kids whose parents failed to parse their own complex thoughts correctly.

Indeed, at a time when tweets have reduced communication to structures even simpler than unadorned subject-predicate couplings, this is the sort of text that reminds us that the subtle twists and turns of grammar, such as the future perfect infinitive, are there for a reason. They are products of prior generations trying to come to grips with the complexity of their own thoughts in such a way that others could effectively understand those thoughts. This is particularly true of all those rich options that make up verb grammar, since any effective communication about actions we take, have taken, or wish to take must be verb-based. Is it too much to say that, if we lose our grip on verb grammar, we create the risk that both acting and communicating about acting may descend into a catastrophic chaos?

No comments: