Celebrating the discipline of language: meaning, nourishment, grammar, mad love

March 03, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

In 1983, I fell hopelessly, ineffably in love. A book did it: "The Well-Tempered Sentence," by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. For moments in my agonized ecstasy (or ecstatic agony - I was careening from one to the other), I imagined the cause might be Ms. Gordon's face, rather than her mind. A dust jacket photograph showed a woman of apparently exquisite beauty, strong cheek bones, lushly sensual, maddeningly enigmatic mouth, eyes cryptic as they were intelligent.

But no! The words, the words!

A book of poetry, a perfect romantic novella? Neither. The subtitle gives it away: "A Punctuation Handbook for The Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed." It's a textbook on punctuation (Ticknor & Fields. 148 pages. $13.95).

I have never met Ms. Gordon. She may be, in truth, just another pretty grammarian. You know the type. In the Second Grade, I was in love with Miss Morris, one of the same.

Schooled by Miss Morris, fond of punctuation's capacity to make language coherent, I would have thought myself unneedful by 1983. But no. The book delighted, reminded, instructed, nourished.

Its heart and soul are the clarity of Ms. Gordon's rules and her examples: She writes "A question mark should stay at the end of an interrogative sentence that is part of another sentence" and then, among illustrations, offers: "We were still pondering the eternal question, Was the Big Bang an act of passion or the Freudian slip of an arrogant fool?, when the storms and floods began."

It goes on and on

Before I was able to recover from Ms. Gordon's commas, in 1984 she brought forth another provocation: "The Transitive Vampire" (Pantheon. 192 pages. $22).

That book is subtitled "A Handbook of GRAMMAR for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed." It leaps beyond punctuation into the briar patches and fever swamps of "Nouns," "Verbals," "Comma Splices," and "Arriving at Agreements."

Once again, the joy and the power are in the examples. One: "Adjective clause can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. A restrictive clause imparts information needed to identify the person or thing it is modifying. The girl who is stroking the gargoyle is in love. ... A nonrestrictive clause gives descriptive information not strictly essential to the sentence. Esmeralda Waterloo, who strokes gargoyles, is in love."

Why do I make such a fuss?

Are punctuation and the rest of grammar important? Yes. Miss Morris told me so at the very beginning of the Second Grade, and Miss Morris never lied.

These are parlous times. I have friends who teach in eminent law schools who complain, ritually each autumn, of the appalling hTC number of first-ranked products of first-rate undergraduate faculties who have arrived again in law school classes unable to write a consistently grammatical sentence in the English language. I see immense amounts of the failure of the teaching or learning of grammar and punctuation - and thus the failure of language to convey - in books coming out every day to wide commercial or critical acclaim.

Yet, there can be no civilization without rules; there can be no rules without law; there can be no law without precise language; there can be no precision of language without grammatical discipline. Thus those who would have a society with hope or promise of being fair, humane, accountable must have a profound grounding in grammar and indeed punctuation.

I know of nothing written that better serves that fundamental than Ms. Gordon's two books.

Now there has suddenly come to my hand, thanks to a thoughtful and learned friend, a new book by Ms. Gordon, "The Ravenous Muse" (Pantheon. 248 pages. $20). Be still my soaring heart! It is subtitled "A Table of Dark and Comic Contents, a Bacchanal of Books." On its cover, a slit-eyed crow is devouring books, a napkin neatly around its throat. A jacket photograph, in profile, chin uplifted, presents Ms. Gordon, suddenly reigniting my heart.

Not about grammar

It seems at first a rather quirky "commonplace book" -composed of passages of particular personal appeal taken from other people's writings. And that is so, in a sense, as Ms. Gordon declares in her introduction: "Many of these writers belong together because wherever I am, so are they: my home."

But there is a more coherent purpose, a dramatic structure, all very neat. It next seems to be a collection of writing about food and literature. Actually all of the food is metaphor. After examining the play of food in the writings of Milorad Pavic, Ms. Gordon concludes: "It turns out this is how to engage the mind, keeping the body present, content, and desirous - never sated: very important! - for that's the nature of the ravenous muse, to go on wanting, to demand new combinations and subtleties for the tongue that both tastes and talks."

And as if to prove it, she quotes Antonin Careme: "The fine arts are five in number, namely: painting, sculpture, poetry, music, and architecture, the principal branch of the latter being pastry."

The book is a delicious celebration of literacy. Its nourishment finally is of the mind, the soul, not of the body. It is a testament to the immortality of art and art's role of strengthening, building the mind and soul.

It is a lovely little book. It does not have the practical utility of her two splendid handbooks, but somehow it amplifies them, suggesting that not only is grammar important, but that its precision is fundamental to all broader joys of language and spiritual well-being.

I have long known grammar is of immense significance in heaven. Miss Morris made that very clear. That leaves me with hope I shall meet Ms. Gordon in the hereafter. I shall watch my semicolons resolutely.

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