Grammar Wednesday

I love California Teacher Guy, I really, really do.

I have this hole in my head, you see, and my thinking is slightly less than stellar lately.  I was wracking my poor, holey little brain and trying to figure out what the hell I was going to talk about for Grammar Wednesday, and I was just about to resort to putting a style guide on the table by its spine, letting it drop open, and writing about whatever was on the pages.  CTG came through for me, yet again and just in time, with this email:

My Dear Mrs. Chili,

I was reading Tess Gerritsen’s The Mephisto Club when I stumbled on this sentence:

She startled awake what seemed like only moments later, to find that they were now struggling along an unplowed road, Jane’s tires churching through snow.

While “startle” can be both transitive or intransitive, to use it in the former manner demands an object. For me, “awake” just doesn’t work as the object of “startled” in this sentence. Or am I wrong?

Thank you, as always, for your sedulous attention to matters of decency in grammar!


Now, please recognize that I’m recovering from minor but still traumatizing surgery, and that even if I weren’t, I’m still the first to stand up and say that I’m not an expert at this sort of thing (though I may play one on the internet).  That being said, I’ve got a couple of problems with this sentence.

First, I agree with CTG; I don’t think that “startled” and “awake” work well together here.  She could be started awake only moments later, but it seems to me that she should be startled awake by something; the sentence feels unfinished to me.  It may well be that the sentence is grammatical – but it’s awkward and clunky and the fact that we’re investigating the structure means we’re not appreciating the point of the sentence.  The movie isn’t nearly as entertaining if one can see the stage hands, you know?

My second gripe with the sentence is the first comma.  She was startled awake what seemed like moments later is an independent clause; to find that they were now struggling along an unplowed road is a dependent clause – but there’s no need for the comma separating the two structures.  I can’t come up with a single comma rule that would explain that mark’s placement in that sentence.

Is “churching” even a word?  Is it supposed to be onomatopoetic?

Happy Wednesday, Everyone.



Filed under Grammar

14 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. fermat

    I agree with you Mrs. Chili, the first comma seems unnecessary. Also, the only definition for “church” being used as a verb is in its transitive sense when you bring a woman (usually after giving birth) to a church for thanksgiving. Having no knowledge of the story I can’t tell if it’s appropriate.

  2. oops- the word “churching” was in the book? That’s a misprint. It should have been “churning.”

  3. I would like to note with awe that the author of the book in question just wrote a comment explaining something but was able to keep herself from saying anything about the sentence being discussed. Tess, you are a stronger person than I! (I thought that was probably a misprint, I was going to guess crunching, though.)

  4. Ms. Gerritsen! Welcome! I hope you don’t mind our taking your sentence apart – recognize that it’s done respectfully and in the spirit of learning.

    I expected that the “churching” was a misprint, too, but I also allow for the reality that there are words out there that I don’t know. I’m often ASTOUNDED at the number of misprints (at least, I HOPE they’re misprints) in the books that I read. The last Harry Potter novel was full of them, and I don’t even want to TALK about what happens in newspapers lately. Sheesh!

    I’ve been thinking about it (no small task today, believe me) and I’m still not sure I can adequately explain why I don’t think the first part of the sentence works. Let me swish it around a little more and I’ll see if I can’t make it make sense outside of my holey little head….

  5. okay, now I really should get off the internet and back to work.

    But I just wanted to say that you’re absolutely correct about that first comma — it shouldn’t be there. I can’t explain how it got there. The sentence immediately strikes me as “off” as well, so I should have caught it during my final read-through. But when a manuscript is 100,000 words long, these things do slip by.

  6. p.s. — I just checked my US editions, and both the hardcover and the paperback correctly have “churning.” So you must have a large-print or UK edition!

  7. How much do I LOVE that you’re participating in this conversation?! It’s like having a rock star in our midst! A very good-natured and gracious rock star, to boot!

    I’ve just accepted a job as an editor – part-time and long-distance, but an editor nonetheless – and it really is an AWESOME responsibility. Things DO slip by, and I know how difficult it is to proof one’s own work. I’m surprised, though, given what I imagine a manuscript has to go through before it’s published, that this error was missed. It kind of brings one up short.

  8. Mea culpa! I was typing so fast that I typed “churching” (which is indeed a legitimate word), rather than “churning.” Ugh! 😦

  9. CTG, typos are a bitch.

    What does “churching” mean, anyway? I’ve never seen “church” as a verb before….

  10. “The Churching of women (or simply ‘Churching’), while not a required ritual, should be carried out as soon as the new mother is able to leave the house (the Church permits women to stay home, without culpability, from church for 6 weeks after giving birth) and after baby has been baptized.

    “Churching is the woman’s way of giving thanksgiving to God for the birth of her child, and predisposes her, through the priestly blessing that is a part of the ritual, to receive the graces necessary to raise her child in a manner pleasing to God.

    “Know that Churching is not a ‘purification’ ceremony, though it is imitative of the day, which we commemorate on 2 February (Candlemas), that Mary underwent her “purification” (ceremonially speaking and in obedience to the Old Law) and presented her Son in the Temple to Simeon.”

    And there you go, compliments of

  11. While I have nothing to add about the grammatical parts of this sentence, I too, think it is terrific that a best selling author has so graciously commented.

    Now I’m going to have to add her to my “to read” list!

  12. Good Morning!

    I agree with the incongruence of startled awake, ‘startled’ for me just isn’t a verb that can take a resultative, an end state or another predicative complement. But just which verbs can isn’t a regular thing; it seems to be a lexical property of individual verbs.

    On the comma, I would take the point of view that punctuation is merely the orthographic representation of spoken prosody and intonation. Therefore, if the two clauses in that sentence above were separated by an intonational pause, then a comma is justified, in my opinion.

    I would have thought you’d be more worried about the final non-finite clause. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with it in my opinion, but isn’t there some rule against headless (lacking a primary verbal inflection) clauses that aren’t more strongly connected to surrounding clauses?

    (I’m still reading by the way, but this morning is about the first time in weeks that I’m not too busy to comment.)

  13. I was wondering if anyone was going to say something about “churching”! I couldn’t figure that out! But thanks to the author for explaining.

  14. Startled awake means something very specific to me, I can absolutely see it and would use it in creative writing myself since, for me, it’s so clear.

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