Friday, January 14, 2022

Stalking the elusive present participle

    When I was in third grade, Mrs. Nemeth handed out a mimeographed worksheet listing phrases that students had to deem either “possible” or “impossible.” One was “a pig with a bushy tail.” I checked “possible” and she marked it wrong.
     This offended me to the bottom of my fussy little 8-year-old soul, and the next day I marched into class with my Giant Golden Book of Biology, and showed Mrs. Nemeth the page about salamander body parts being grafted onto each other. If the leg of a big salamander could be attached to the body of a small salamander, I huffed, was it not possible that a bushy fox’s tail could be grafted onto a pig?
     I think she hated me after that.
     Correction by students — either rightly or wrongly — is one of the countless challenges of being a teacher.
     When I was cobbling together my faux English class for Wednesday’s paper, parsing Lori Lightfoot’s very schoolmarmish “You’re not listening!” (really, our mayor has more snaps than a onesie) and surfing grammar web sites, it did cross my mind that I was out of my depth and should enlist an English teacher to check my work.
     But I was fairly confident — always dangerous — so I shrugged and decided, were I wrong, well, somebody would correct me. And besides, wouldn’t being wrong add a layer of verisimilitude to my classroom presentation? A sly dig.
     Consequences began rolling in. Here’s Peg Cain, who taught literature for 20 years at Nazareth Academy in LaGrange:
     “Are listening,” of course, is a compound verb. “Listening” is, in this case, not a gerund, but the present participle of the verb. ... “Not listening,” therefore, cannot be a predicate nominative because “listening” is not a noun in this sentence. “Not” is merely an adverb, hanging around ...
    So not a gerund but ... a present participle?
     Jeanne Parker, who was teaching English at Palatine Township High School before I was born, joined in:
     In the sentence “You’re not listening,” listening is indeed a verb; you’re the contraction, does indeed contain the subject you as well as the verb are, which is NOT, however, the main verb but rather an auxiliary verb, making are listening the main verb phrase, NOT a predicate nominative.
     So ... a main verb phrase?

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  1. Nothing but respect for the "Proper English Police". Although never a stellar English student, I've always felt that the demise of the proper use of language may foretell that society's future.

  2. I think it was second grade when we were given a stack of magazines and the instruction to cut out pictures of things that use batteries, then paste them onto our own little collages.

    One of my pictures was a car.

    Our teacher marked me down for that, claiming that cars don't use batteries. I was flabbergasted by her incompetence, not to mention filled with indignation that she could endanger my future prospects by grading me down for her mistake, not to mention my more immediate earnings since I was rewarded with 10 cents for every "A" on my report cards. It's my most vivid childhood "trust your own judgment" memory. :)

    WRT provoking a reader response (or not, see Monday's story), to restate, incorrectly, De La Soul (and rankle a few readers)... "Stakes Is Low".

  3. As you write about the remarkable knowledge and passion of educators, the GOP takes a different slant regarding the goings on in a classroom. Why does the GOP always consider Soviet style solutions to the problems they create out of thin air?

  4. Whatever I learned about grammar, which was the usual amount from a parochial-school education of a couple generations ago, I'd guess, has either been internalized or forgotten. While I can pick the subject, verb and object out of a sentence, I could no sooner define gerund, participle or predicate nominative than I could a quark or a neutrino. That being said, since I'm a nit-picking nerd myself, I'm delighted to see some teachers get their moment in the sun in today's column.

  5. Speaking for myself, I don't want to be the one drawn into correcting someone else's writing simply for the sake of one-upmanship ("spelling flames" are considered to be the weakest of Internet arguments), and I wouldn't dare post a grammar analysis for fear of stirring up the very legion of teachers you seem to have gently provoked recently. (Speaking of which, there is a hysterical sight gag involving sentence diagramming in Wes Anderson's film "The French Dispatch" that is impossible to see without a good flashback-to-high-school belly laugh.)

    I see spelling and punctuation errors anywhere and everywhere, but would rather leave the petty corrections to someone who can't find anything else to complain about. I was one of only four people in our office licensed to operate semi-colons, and found myself mostly removing them from the wrong places when asked to proofread someone else's work, but I would rather focus on whether someone is getting their point across than exactly how they're doing it. (On the other hand, Neil, I'm still waiting for someone to point out that in Thursday's column, you climbed into rowing sculls, not "skulls," unless you found some very unusual form of watersport there.)

    I think that writing and language skills improve with age and use, and I like to think that I'm pretty good at it, though I don't claim to be perfect either. I don't really have a problem with misspellings or grammar issues; my biggest problem is typing so fast that I leave out entire.

    1. Still waiting ... why? If you see an error, please point it out. Fixed now.

    2. Doesn't the last sentence in the second paragraph pretty well belie the rest of the comment? Having your cake and eating it too, eh, Andy? On the other hand, you do write well, and who am I to judge? ; )

    3. I think what escapes non-writers is that errors are baked into the process. Most writing of any significance written by anybody ever contains some kind of mistake, if not lots of mistakes. The question is, who catches them? The writer, ideally. An editor, if one is around. The readers, often. Or nobody. I can pull a story that was published 10 years ago and widely read and notice some alarming gaffe. What bothers me is not the errors, but the coyness that goes with pointing them out. Just ... fucking ... tell ... me. Or not. Look at the dance of seven veils Andy does over "skulls." It becomes this entire tortured thing about language skills and self-reference and ... jesus, I don't know what's going on. You know the only thing I took from his comment? "Gotta correct 'skulls.'" The rest is static.

    4. My wife was a writer and an editor for many years. From her, I learned that it's human nature for most people to overlook or just "not see" the mistakes in their own writing or grammar or sentence structure. Hence the need for copy editors and proof readers. I did both of those jobs, and got to be pretty good.

      She belived that it's not a good idea to write a resume or a news story or a magazine piece without letting somebody else read it....and I totally agree. Most folks need to have somebody else catching their own mistakes. Doesn't even have to be a professional. Just another person. I cringe at some of the errors that have made it into EGD under the name of "Grizz." They really bug me.

    5. Okay, okay, it's like this: I don't intend to be the Spelling Police, and I don't want my post to be ONLY about someone else either misspelling their words or picking the wrong one (perhaps via an autocorrect going sideways). I was waiting for someone else to notice the "skulls" thing, but no one did. I agree that I didn't need to be coy about it and the watersports joke was lame as well.

      So, okay, no more of that; I get the point and I'll stick to private Not-for-publication corrections of misspellings instead. I still enjoy having a dialogue about practically anything here.

    6. Grizz: I think you meant “believed.” ;)


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