This is why we need a linguist

Well, this is why I need a linguist.

I’ve just read Katharine’s “Can you spot the sentence fragment?” post.

For me, the first fragment is easy:

Though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.

That’s a fragment because “though” is a subordinator. Coming before “I did snap at friends…” it turns a complete sentence into a subordinate clause:

complete sentence I went home
subordinate clause (or fragment) although I went home
complete sentence I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed
subordinate clause (or fragment) though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed

But I’m having a big problem with the second fragment, which is that it “feels” like there are two other fragments in Katie’s post, not just one.

First fragment:

From this weekend’s New York Times Magazine

That’s obvious (no verb) — but, to me, this sounds like a fragment, too:

At which point you realize, say, that it doesn’t express one more advantage to Adderall, but rather that it brings up the first of three downsides.

I say “sounds like a fragment” because I write by ear — never learned formal grammar beyond 4th grade or thereabouts (and, no, learning grammar in Spanish class doesn’t help. Not really.) So my rule for complete versus incomplete is whether a string of words sounds complete or incomplete.

At which point you realize, say, that it doesn’t express one more advantage…” sounds incomplete to me, and the reason it sounds incomplete to me is that opening “at which point.”

But why?

Is “at which point” a subordinator, too?

And if it is, how do we know?

Katharine knows the answers to all these things.

It’s a very strange thing, trying to make unconscious knowledge conscious.

The minute you try, you lose your sense of conviction.

Always happens with spelling. If you really think about how to spell a word — consciously think about it — it slips away.

Try it.

Try consciously thinking about how to spell “Hoover v— cleaner” instead of just writing it down, on automatic pilot, the way we normally do.1

Now that I’ve thought about Katie’s at which point sentence, I’m completely mystified.

Very annoying.

1. OK, I admit: I can’t spell vacuum unconsciously, either, not with any reliability. But I really can’t spell it if I think about it. 

4 thoughts on “This is why we need a linguist

  1. The rules for what sorts of words can modify complete sentences seems somewhat arbitrary–i.e., not based entirely on meaning. “However” can introduce a complete sentence; “though” can’t. “At that point” can; “At which point” can’t. One way to test for this is to see if it works to pause–or add a comma–after the phrase in question. Cf:

    “However, I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.” (fine)

    “Though, I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.” (weird)

    “At that point, you realize that it doesn’t express one more advantage…” (fine)

    “At which point, you realize that it doesn’t express one more advantage.” (weird)

    This may relate to where the intuitive ear comes in.

    Like

  2. On reading, writing, and linguistics:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley/2017/01/mark_seidenberg_and_john_mcwhorter_on_reading_versus_literacy.html

    Lexicon Valley is worth the time to listen to almost always, but I thought this episode might be particularly interesting for you.

    John McWhorter’s linguistics classes on The Great Courses are also well worth the time to listen to; he’s a brilliant lecturer.

    ps. Catherine, I tried to contact you on your old email address (the Verizon one that is still shown on KTM: the Sequel), but that seems not to work any more.

    Like

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