Grammar Wednesday

Holy Crap! It’s Wednesday again ALREADY?!

This question was posed by a reader who specifically asked for anonymity – I’m not sure why, exactly, as there’s really nothing incriminating in it, but you ask and I honor – so I’m just going to post the question and leave it at that. This was on a high school English test:

Instructions-

Rewrite this THESIS sentence with the correct verb tenses.

—-

images2.jpegIn Lord of the Flies, William Golding exposed humanity’s tendency to act selfishly even when faced with dire circumstances that threaten to sever the boys’ friendships, destroy lives and create irrational fear.

————————–

My daughter changed it to-

In Lord of the Flies, William Golding exposes humanity’s tendency to act selfishly even when faced with dire circumstances that threaten to sever the boys’ friendships, destroy lives and create irrational fear.

————————–

The three words that are underlined were underlined by her teacher as being incorrect- and she was marked down half a point. I KNOW her corrected sentence STILL is wrong, but I’m not sure WHY and I don’t think that the three words underlined are necessarily wrong.

Can you please #1 correct the sentence and #2 explain why the teacher underlined those three words?

THANK you so much.

I’m not making any promises that anything I say is right (you should all know by now that this disclaimer is implied in pretty much everything I say), but here’s what I think:

somewhere in the course of the sentence, the topic shifts. In the first part of the construction, we’re talking about how Golding is portraying humanity (and, by the way, your daughter was 100% correct in changing the “exposed” to “exposes.” We English types always talk about lit. in the present tense), but somewhere after that, the sentence shifts to talking specifically about the boys in the story.

Humanity is a collective noun and, as such, takes a singular verb, which is why I don’t really have a problem with the even when faced bit. It would be fine to say “Humanity has a tendency to act selfishly, even when faced with circumstances where cooperation is required” or something to that effect.

I suppose the argument could be made that, since Golding is the actual SUBJECT of the sentence, that he is, in fact, the one being faced with circumstances. If I were asked to change the sentence on an exam, I’d do more than change verb tenses – this is just a rotten sentence. I’d probably do something like this, and then have a long and probably heated conversation with the teacher afterward:

In Lord of the Flies, William Golding exposes humanity’s tendency to act selfishly in the face of dire circumstances, and shows that even children bear out that tendency when he puts his characters in situations that threaten to sever the boys’ friendships, destroy lives, and create irrational fear.

I’m not 100% satisfied with that, even, but it’s better than what we started with. Anyone else want to take a shot at this?

Happy Wednesday, Everyone! Next week, a question from O’Mama!

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18 Comments

Filed under Grammar

18 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. I agree this is a lousy sentence. It does seem to change direction somewhere in the middle. In fact, it’s “the boys” that throws me off. Here’s my stab at it…

    In Lord of the Flies, William Golding exposed humanity’s tendency to act selfishly even when faced with dire circumstances that threaten to sever friendships, destroy lives, and create irrational fear.

    I’m also a serial comma junkie.

  2. Why do literary types always speak of literature in the present tense?

    Also, did you sign this site up for NaBloPoMo too or just Blue Door?

  3. Michael, I’m a serial comma junkie, too – I’ve gone back to fix that (I wrote it very early this morning – it’s a lame excuse for sloppy commas, I know, but it’s the best I’ve got).

    Kizz, I’m not sure why we speak of literature in the present tense, I just know we do. I could speculate that it’s because literature is supposed to be ever-present and relevant, even if the author is long dead, but I’d really just be talking out my ass with that.

    HELL, NO! I only signed up for NaBloPoMo for The Blue Door. I’m crazy, but I’m not THAT crazy…

  4. I’m not sure what’s supposed to be wrong with this sentence, verb tense-wise, except the tense of “expose”.

  5. Just checking, dude. I mean, you did it last year…

  6. DID I sign up for both blogs last year?! What the HELL was I THINKING?!?

  7. Mmm… I don’t think “exposed” necessarily needed to be changed to “exposes.” You could argue that “exposing” is what Golding did when he wrote Lord of the Flies, which would put it in past tense. OTOH, you could argue that exposing is more dependent upon the audience, which is current, and therefore puts it in the present tense.

    As far as discussing what’s IN the story, you use present tense because the action has been “captured in an eternal present.” If, on page 84, it tells us about Tom riding his bike to Dave’s house, we say, “On page 84, Tom rides his bike to Dave’s house.” It doesn’t matter when you look at that page – Tom will ALWAYS be riding his bike to Dave’s house!

    Photo captions work the same way.

    (Then again, I could be wrong.)

  8. Yeah, Clix, but we also say “Shakespeare writes about every human emotion in his works.” Shakespeare hasn’t written anything in a really long time, but we still use the present tense – or, at least, I and my immediate colleagues do…

  9. I was planning on writing a lengthy reply to this last night (this morning on your side) but it was too late and I was too tired.

    My intuition says that the verbal complement when faced with… is fine, but on a more analytical reading, the verb participle faced here, still needs a subject.

    But, the best cadidate for its subject (by functional control, but that’s getting extremely technical and theoretical) is ‘humanity’, and is embedded deep inside an NP, all of which is the object of exposes and which includes a further embedded non-finite clause.

    I assume it is humanity that is ‘faced with dire circumstances’ rather than anything else, but how can this be syntactically possible when humanity is so deeply embedded? It’s inside a possessive determiner phrase (you know it’s a determiner phrase because you can’t add another determiner, *the my bag, though this isn’t always the case; cf. Italian, lo mio zaino ‘the my bag’).

    In other words, the subject of the non-finite verb phrase to act selfishly… is humanity’s tendency, not ‘humanity’ on its own. If it were left as a full independent clause, rather than a nominalised clause, like humanity tends to act selfishly…, then the addition of the modifier when faced with… would be fine, as the subject would very easily perseverate, or, carry across from the main verb to the subordinate verb.

    (As an aside, this is how full clauses get nominalised; the verb becomes a noun, either a gerund or a regular old nouny thing, and it’s subject becomes a possessive determiner phrase. He leaves, and it is bad for us nominalises to his leaving is bad for us. It’s a testament to the inherent fluidity of parts of speech and word classes.)

    So, syntactically, it’s difficult to see how humanity can function as the implied subject of (be) faced with…, but reading it, it’s very understandable, as no other reading is really possible. I think the following version is also completely understandable:
    I’m talking about your tendency to act silly when drunk
    And that’s of eactly the same structure (for our purposes) as the above.

    I think the only problem here is one of tone, in the traditional sense that is; the tone of the writer towards the content. The ‘adverb’ even implies that, in this instance, humanity’s tendency to act selfishly does not normally extend to instances whereby said humanity is faced with dire circumstances. I’d have left it out altogether, or replaced it with ‘especially’:

    In Lord of the Flies, William Golding exposes humanity’s tendency to act selfishly, especially when faced with dire circumstances that threaten to sever the boys’ friendships, destroy lives and create irrational fear.

    Unless of course the writer’s implication was indeed that humanity’s selfishness should cease in dire circumstances.

    I always do this, sorry for the long and overly technical comment. For what it’s worth, this is very very theoretically interesting, and I doubt many linguists would be able to explain it away very easily. I gave up and said ‘meh, it sounds fine’. Thanks for making me think!

  10. There’s also the stylistic error of seamlessly going from a universal observation (humanity’s tendency to act selfishly) to an individual instance (the boy’s friendships).

  11. Now that Jangari is someone who knows what he’s talking about….

  12. How about “even when facing”? Won’t that solve the problem nicely? (Honestly, the original wasn’t really a problem for me. As far as I’m concerned, it “read” just fine!)

  13. Jangari, yet again, I bow to your brilliance. I LOVE my linguists!!

    Michael, don’t he, though? I LOVE my linguists!!

    CTG, the woman who sent me the question has been in touch, and it seems that the daughter is planning on bringing the blog to her teacher to see if she can get him (or her) to explain why S/HE thought her answer was wrong. I’m hoping this doesn’t cause her any trouble – we can be a pretty picky and demanding bunch here in my classroom – but I really am interested in hearing what the teacher has to say. I’ll keep you posted if/when the woman gets back to me…

  14. I think “even when facing” is still a participle that needs a subject, and the subject is still deeply embedded. I agree that either version sounds ok, tho.

  15. WL

    Tenses aside, I think the real problem is that the sentence is nonsensical. All of humanity does not have a tendency to act selfishly when circumstances threaten the friendships of these particular boys, which is what the sentence seems to say:

    “humanity’s tendency to act selfishly even when faced with dire circumstances that threaten to sever the boys’ friendships, destroy lives and create irrational fear”

    It’s hard to rewrite sentences that are this crappy to begin with, but my stab at it would be something like:

    “In The Lord of the Flies, Golding illustrates humanity’s tendency to act selfishly, even in dire circumstances, by telling the story of a group of boys overcome by rivalry and irrational fear when friendship and cooperation are needed most.”

  16. Yeah, WL – that’s where I was going, too – but you said it better than I did…

  17. fermat

    Here’s my stab at it.

    Original: In Lord of the Flies, William Golding exposed humanity’s tendency to act selfishly even when faced with dire circumstances that threaten to sever the boys’ friendships, destroy lives and create irrational fear.

    Revised: In Lord of the Flies, William Golding exposes humanity’s tendency to act selfishly, as evident when the boys face dire circumstances that threaten to sever their friendships, destroy their lives, and create irrational fear.

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