Hansel and Gretel’s mother becomes a stepmother

The Grimms were told by friends that some of the material in the first edition [of Grimm’s Fairy Tales] was too frightening for children, and they did make a few changes. In a notable example, the first edition of “Hansel and Gretel” has the mother and the father deciding together to abandon the children in the woods. In later editions, it is the stepmother who makes the suggestion, and the father repeatedly hesitates before he finally agrees. Apparently, the Grimms could not bear the idea that the mother, the person who bore these children, would do such a thing, or that the father would readily consent.

ONCE UPON A TIMEThe lure of the fairy tale.
JULY 23, 2012


S V  O
The ant carries a kernel of corn.
S V  C
The ant appears industrious.

When students encounter Subject+Verb+Object and Subject+Verb+Complement sentences for the first time, they can have trouble telling the two apart.

Here is a test.

Change each sentence into passive voice, and see what happens.

Corn is carried by the ant. (CORRECT)
Industrious is appeared by the ant. (INCORRECT)

Subject-Verb-Object sentences can be turned into passive voice sentences.

Subject-Verb-Complement sentences can’t.

Grammar for English Language Teachers 2nd edition by Martin Parrott, p 301.

William J. Kerrigan’s X-1-2-3 method – all posts
Class notes X-1-2-3
5 + 2: the 7 ‘canonical’ English sentences
10 basic sentence patterns in the English language
SM’s sophisticated SVOO sentence
DT’s astute observation (reflexive pronouns)

Laura Gibbs on Aesop

Passage from:  Aesop’s Fables. Trans. Laura Gibbs. London: Oxford University Press, 2002.

In fifth-century Athens, however, there were no books of Aesop to be thumbed through, since the first written collections of Aesop did not yet exist. It is very hard for us as modern readers to appreciate the fact that Aesop could still be an authority whom you had to consult, even if he were not an author of books to be kept on the shelf. To ‘go over’ or ‘run through’ Aesop meant to bring to mind all the many occasions on which you had heard the stories of Aesop told at public assemblies, at dinner parties, and in private conversation. Aesop’s fables and the anecdotes about Aesop’s famous exploits were clearly a familiar way of speaking in classical Greece, a body of popular knowledge that was meant to be regularly ‘gone over’ and brought to mind as needed.

Talking vs writing

One reason writing is so much harder than talking is that the grammar used by writers is quite different from the grammar used by talkers, as you can see in the conversation below. All native speakers of any language have had enormous amounts of practice using the grammar of spoken language.

We’ve had far less practice using the grammar of written language.

A sample stretch of talk

…speakers are sitting at the dinner table talking about a car accident that happened to the father of one of the speakers

< speaker 1 >  I’ll just take that off. Take that off.
< speaker 2 >  All looks great.
< speaker 3 >  [laughs]
< speaker 2 >  Mm.
< speaker 3 >  Mm.
< speaker 2 >  I think your dad was amazed wasn’t he at the damage.
< speaker 4 >  Mm.
< speaker 2 >  It’s not so much the parts. It’s the labour charges for
< speaker 4 >  Oh that. For a car.
< speaker 2 >  Have you got hold of it?
< speaker 1 >  Yeah.
< speaker 2 >  It was a bit erm.
< speaker 1 >  Mm.
< speaker 3 >  Mm.
< speaker 2 >  A bit.
< speaker 3 >  That’s right.
< speaker 2 >  I mean they said they’d have to take his car in for two days. And he says All it is is straightening a panel. And they’re like, Oh no. It’s all new panel. You can’t do this.
< speaker 3 >  Any erm problem.
< speaker 2 >  As soon as they hear insurance claim. Oh. Let’s get it right.
< speaker 3 >  Yeah. Yeah. Anything to do with
< speaker 1 >  Wow.
< speaker 3 >  coach work is er
< speaker 1 >  Right.
< speaker 3 >  fatal isn’t it.
< speaker 1 >  Now.
from:  Teaching about talk – what do pupils need to know about spoken language and the important ways in which talk differs from writing? by Ron Carter

Linguist Jim Miller on talking vs writing.

5+2: the 7 “canonical” sentence patterns of English


I am using the word “canonical” to refer to the most basic form of the English sentence.


The dog chases the cat” is a canonical sentence.

Non-canonical forms of “The dog chases the cat” include:
The cat is chased by the dog.
It is the cat that is chased by the dog.

All three sentences are grammatically correct, but only “The dog chases the cat” is “canonical.”

The chart below appears in John Seely’s short, clear, and extremely useful book Grammar for Teachers, a 170-page distillation of Quirk and Greenbaum’s 1779-page A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language.

The 7 canonical sentence patterns:

S V    
Elephants exist.
S V O  
Elephants like  grass.
Elephants give children rides.
S V C  
are (not)
S V  O C
Elephants make children happy.
S V  A  
Elephants live here.
Elephants thrust him away.

In these patterns, all of the “sentence slots” — S, V, O, C, and A — must be filled. If a slot is not filled, the sentence becomes “grammatically incomplete.”

I’ve written “5+2” in the title of this post because the final two patterns – SVA and SVOA – are, in Seely’s words, “much less common.”

As Seely puts it: “They only occur with a very small number of verbs, but they are important.”

NOTE: The basic patterns can be carved up in a few different ways. For a 10-sentence scheme, see this post on Martha Kolln’s 10 basic sentence patterns.

5 + 2: the 7 ‘canonical’ English sentences
Class notes X-1-2-3
3 ways to combine the 7 sentence patterns
10 basic sentence patterns in the English language
SM’s sophisticated SVOO sentence
DT’s astute observation (reflexive pronouns)

A short overview of English syntax by Rodney Huddleston

Using the “so-what game” to write your conclusion

Good advice from University of North Carolina’s Writing Center:

Introductions and conclusions can be the most difficult parts of papers to write. While the body is often easier to write, it needs a frame around it. An introduction and conclusion frame your thoughts and bridge your ideas for the reader.


Play the “So What” Game. If you’re stuck and feel like your conclusion isn’t saying anything new or interesting, ask a friend to read it with you. Whenever you make a statement from your conclusion, ask the friend to say, “So what?” or “Why should anybody care?” Then ponder that question and answer it.

Here’s how it might go:

You: Basically, I’m just saying that education was important to Douglass.

Friend: So what?

You: Well, it was important because it was a key to him feeling like a free and equal citizen.

Friend: Why should anybody care?

You: That’s important because plantation owners tried to keep slaves from being
educated so that they could maintain control. When Douglass obtained an education, he undermined that control personally.

You can also use this strategy on your own, asking yourself “So What?” as you develop your ideas or your draft.

You don’t need a friend to play the So-what game, and you probably shouldn’t wait ’til the end of your essay to play it!

“Syntactically ambiguous” news headlines

A syntactically ambiguous headline:

Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years

syntax: the way words are put together in a language to form phrases, clauses, or sentences. “Syntactically” is the adverb form of syntax.
SIL International

ambiguous: open to or having several possible interpretations

The phrase “syntactically ambiguous” means that a sentence or expression is ambiguous because of its syntax. Change the order of the words, and the ambiguity is resolved.


Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Axe” could mean one of two things:

  1. An enraged cow used an axe to attack a farmer.
  2. An enraged cow attacked a farmer who was holding an axe.

Unless the axe is critical to the story, I would fix this headline by striking the last two words:

Enraged Cow Injures Farmer

EXERCISE: Syntactically ambiguous headlines

Created by Bucknell University’s Department of Linguistics, Culture, and Languages.