Of white bears (and black ones)

As Catherine has quoted J.S. Mill as saying,

The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.

And, I would add, much of the logic of a sentence comes from its grammar.

But grammar brings us more than logic; it opens up worlds of possibility. Were it not for the various tense-marking and mood-marking verb endings and auxiliary verbs, for example, we’d mostly–whether we’re conversing, reading, writing, or even thinking–be stuck in the here and now.

Mr. Shandy (senior), in a disquisition on auxiliary verbs that concludes the 5th volume of Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, puts it nicely:

Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at
once to set the soul a going by herself
upon the materials as they are brought
her; and by the versability of this great
engine, round which they are twisted,
to open new tracks of enquiry, and make
every idea engender millions.

The verbs auxiliary we are concerned
in here, continued my father, are, am;
was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suf-
fer; shall; should; will; would; can; could;
owe; ought; used  or is wont. — And these
varied with tenses, present, past, future, and
conjugated with the verb see, — or with
these questions added to them, — Is it?
Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May
it be? Might it be? And these again
put negatively, Is it not? Was it not?
Ought it not? — Or affirmatively, — It is;
It was; It ought to be. Or chronologi-
cally, — Has it been always? Lately?
How long ago? — Or hypothetically, — If
it was; If it was not? What would
follow? —- If the French should beat
the English? If the Sun go out of the
Zodiac?

Now, by the right use and application
of these, continued my father, in which a
child’s memory should be exercised,
there is no one idea can enter his brain
how barren soever, but a magazine of
conceptions and conclusions may be
drawn forth from it.

— Didst thou ever see a white bear?
cried my father, turning his head round to
Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:

— No, an’ please your honour, replied the
corporal.

— But thou could’st discourse
about one, Trim, said my father, in
case of need?

— How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle
Toby, if the corporal never saw one?

— ‘Tis the fact I want; replied my father,
and the possibility of it, is as follows.

A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen
one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever
to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one?
Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear? (for
how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what
should I say? If I should never see a
white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall
see a white bear alive ; have I ever seen
the skin of one? Did Iever see one
painted? — described? Have I never
dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt,
brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear?

What would they give? How would
they behave? How would the white
bear have behaved? Is he wild?
Tame? Terrible Rough? Smooth?

— Is the white bear worth seeing? —

— Is there no sin in it? —

Is it better than a BLACK ONE?

END of the FIFTH VOLUME.

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