Friday, April 11, 2008

Grammatical Workhorse

Dionysius defines grammar as acquaintance with what is said in the poets and prose writers, meaning the classical canon as it had emerged in his time. The subject has six parts, which were the daily activities of teachers and students in school: reading aloud, including understanding meters used in verse; identification of tropes in the text; explanation of the meaning of rare words and historical references; construction of etymologies; practice in declining nouns and conjugating verbs; and that is called "judgment" of the poets.

George A. Kennedy
A New History of Classical Rhetoric (p. 83)

The video is a bit late this week, but I should have it up later today. Back in the old days (Dionysius wrote his handbook around 100 B.C.) the study of literature was an important part of the study of grammar. I thought of this when I suddenly remembered an oral exam in English literature that I took many years ago. I had been asked to analyse Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and to read it out loud. I did well on the analysis, demonstrating that I understood what the poem was saying. But when I read it out loud, the examiners pointed out that I had misunderstood the meaning of "that" at various points. This misunderstanding was evident my reading. When the video comes up, you'll see what I mean.

Pam Peters, in her Cambridge Guide to English Usage, has called "that" "the workhorse of the English language". It can be used as a conjunction:

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r
The moping owl does to the moon complain

But it can also be used as a demonstrative pronoun.

That is an owl. It is moping in yonder ivy-mantled tower.

And as a determiner:

Save that owl from yonder woolly-mantled mammoth.

Notice that "that" can mean "yonder": "We have to save the owl from that woolly mammoth over there." But here's the part I remember from the exam:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

The "that" in "all that beauty" and "all that wealth" works as in:

All that your wealth ever gave you will be taken from you when you die.


With all that beauty and all that wealth, you'd think she'd be happy.

That's how I read the "that" during the exam. It sort of sticks with you.

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