Grammar discussed on the wireless

Sometimes I think some of you have the idea that grammatical concepts are something only relevant to a few freaks like me. Maybe you’re right. But we do get about a bit.

I was listening to Simon Mayo’s programme on BBC Radio Five Live this afternoon, on which a new book-panel ‘Book of the Month’ feature had started. You can listen to the whole thing online, or via podcast, but I’ve snipped the relevant bit and put it here.

Nested clauses , also referred to as embedded clauses, are clauses that occur within another clause. What I think he’s really bothered about (from the example he gives) is the use of lengthy complex sentences, with multiple subordinate clauses, where the main clause comes at the end. Do you recall a sentence of that type (technically called ‘left-branching’ as the dependent subordinate clauses appear in writing to the left of the main clause) that we have looked at? If you are in Y12 you should certainly recall this from Jane Austen:

When Lady Russell, not long afterwards, was entering Bath on a wet afternoon and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Campden-place, amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint.

The BBC have kindly placed the first three chapters of the book under discussion on their website, but you can just click here for it:Portrait of an Unknown Woman – Chs 1 – 3 .

Take a close look at the language of those opening chapters and see if you agree with the speaker’s criticism. Do you think the use of nested clauses is the most characteristic feature of the language? What other striking grammatical features do you notice?

Find me a sentence from the text that contains at least one nested clause, post it in a comment, and explain why you have chosen it. Keep an eye out in your reading elsewhere, too. Spot any nested clauses? Not sure whether you’ve caught one or not? Post ’em here and we’ll have a look.

Go on. You know you want to, and since I’ve been off this week you really ought to do some work. You may like to look at a bit more of the superb online course in Language & Style from Lancaster University. Yes, it’s aimed at undergraduates, but that will probably be you very soon, and it’s aimed at students who may not have studied English language, so it assumes no prior knowledge. If you work through that and can show understanding of even a part of it, it will hugely enhance your attainment at A-level, so it will be well worth the time spent, whether you’re in Y12 or 13, and doing either course (though it is especially valuable for the Lang & Lit students).

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3 Responses to Grammar discussed on the wireless

  1. annelise says:

    Initially when reading these first chapters, I found the writing style hard work. I t was hard to maintain concentration when reading it, due to the long noun phrases, and what seems to be never ending lists of adjectives, ‘First Margaret and Will roper came out, arm in arm, decorous, stately, married, learned, modest, handsome and happy, on that scratchy morning, unbearably smug.’ The sentences are extremely complex and at times I really did lack interest and found that by the time the sentence had ended my mind was elsewhere, and all concentration had been lost.
    It also appears that there are no sentences that are not modified in some sort of way, and everything has to be described, and although the description is very vivid and I do like it I wish there had been more variety of sentence types in the first few pages (especially).
    There does appear to be a few nested clauses in there ( I think).
    And outside, where Dame Alice kept
    finding herself on her majestic if slightly fretful tour of
    her troops (casting a watchful eye down the river to check
    what boats might be heading towards our stairs), there
    was what seemed to be Chelsea’s entire supply of young
    boys, enthusiastically pruning back the mulberry tree that
    had been Father’s first flourish as a landowner – its Latin
    name, Morus, is what he called himself in Latin too (and
    he was self-deprecating enough to think it funny that it
    2
    also meant ‘the fool’).
    The example above is a nested clause (I hope), and to further my point on the first few pages being tiresome and requiring energy to read, I feel this sentence demonstrates how much information is crammed within a sentence.
    However once I had read further not o the next few pages into the part where it goes into the bit about John Clement, I found it really interesting and if there were the use of a lot of nested clauses I did not notice them as I actually got into it, so it was not that bad after all; consequently I feel the criticism of the first two chapters needing to ‘be tightened’ is unfair, however to a certain extent I am in agreement with the criticism.
    Not only this the language used I did like and the descriptive words used, ‘aromatic apple logs’ ‘clankings and choppings’ ‘wild water’ these little uses of alliteration that really did sound good when read aloud, and also some of the descriptive language used created quite vivid, material mental images.
    i hope that sounds alright, an di actually read teh chapters on the internet – how sad

  2. Mr Heald says:

    Impressive commentary Annelise. Well done.

    I’m not feeling up to developing this further at the moment.

    But where’s eveyone else?

  3. year 13 lang lit crew massive says:

    howzit sir!

    just thought i’d say i don’t like the idea of this whole english on the internet stuff! let’s get back to the blackboard and chalk AH!

    Change is not good!

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