Rhoads Stevens

"Syntax is the study of the principles and processes by which sentences are constructed in particular languages" is the first sentence of Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures, a book few linguists consider still important.

"Syntax," I think, is the subject of the sentence--though I'm certainly no linguist.

"is" is the main verb--or maybe it's the "to be" verb.

"the study" is the subject complement. It's what my father calls a "predicate noun." I might be confused, though, in that this could be a gerund or the adverbial objective. It might be an expletive? I've never know the difference between "its" and "it's."

"of the principles and processes" is a prepositional phrase that modifies "the study." My father says strong writers are judicious with their prepositional phrases.

"by which sentences are constructed in particular languages" is an exhausting thing for Noam Chomsky to write. It serves to modify "the principles and processes."

But here I thought "Syntax" was the subject of a sentence when, really, it is sitting in its bed sick. Syntax has tried all sorts of remedies for its illnesses, but none of them work. This instant, in fact, to no effect, Syntax has an entire mouthful of iron shavings in its mouth. While Syntax sucks on this stuff, its last remaining relative--The Study--secures a string of high-powered magnets around its neck.
     "Now open your mouth, Sweet," The Study says to poor Syntax. Syntax opens its mouth, and the shavings creep out. They come out like insects on Syntax's lips and down its neck. The shavings inch slowly until they end up shivering on that string of magnets.
     At the foot of Syntax's bed is a cedar chest that a man named Trumbull stands in.
     In the doorway of Syntax's bedroom, there stoops a medical skeleton. Similar to nearly all skeletons, it hangs on a wheelie pole of a thing. This skeleton is knock-kneed and pigeon-toed, hanging. Yes, this skeleton looks so timid in Syntax's doorframe.

The second sentence Noam Chomsky writes is this: "Syntactic investigation of a given language has as its goal the construction of a grammar that can be viewed as a device of some sort for producing the sentence of the language under analysis."

"Syntactic investigation of a given language" is the subject. That, or it's the passive voice in the imperative. It's an interrogative subject.

"has" is the main verb. I pronounce it "haz," my father, "hass."

"as its goal" is a complement and, perhaps--though Noam Chomsky has never admitted this in any of his interviews--a selectively mute child. This child would not speak at home or at school, so her parents asked her if she'd like them to build her a shed.

"the construction of a grammar that can be viewed as a device of some sort for producing the sentence of the language under analysis" is a charming noun phrase--one that Noam Chomsky must have chuckled at as he created. The child's parents built her a shed out of Has and used As Its Goal as fasteners. In this shed, over and again, the child would say to herself, "The construction of a grammar that can be viewed as a device of some sort for producing the sentence of the language under analysis."
     Her parents heard her say this because they listened to the thin walls of her shed. Her parents eventually recorded her repetitions because they wanted to give tapes that proved she spoke to her teachers and prospective friends.

Syntax sits up more in its bed.  It tries to get up, but The Study stops it.
     "You're much too sick!" The Study reminds its relative. The Study puts a wool cap on Syntax's head and makes it lie down again. The Study has Syntax close its eyes and puts two powerful magnets on its lids. "The medicinal powers of magnets," The Study says.
     It's now that Trumbull, standing in the cedar chest, says, "Now, Syntax, lock me in." He crouches down and shuts the cedar chest over his head. "Now lock me in!"
     "Syntax is too sick for that!" The Study says.

"More generally, linguists must be concerned with the problem of determining the fundamental underlying properties of such successful grammars" is the sentence that follows the first two sentences in Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures, a book that has never been read in its entirety on a beach or on a plane or in bed. A book that's never been read while a patient waits for a barium enema. There was once a scientist who had the gall to name a chimp that he thought was linguistically gifted Nim Chimsky.

"More generally" modifies the main verb of the sentence. My father says the weakest main verb is the "to be" verb. My father says that all sentences should be active.

"linguists" is the subject of the sentence that passeth understanding.

"must be concerned" is the main verb. It's not active. It's in the passive.

"with the problems" is a prepositional phrase. "Remove all prepositional phrases that you can!" my father screams as he stands over me. He waves andirons.

"of determining the fundamental underlying properties" is a prepositional phrase. "Remove them!" my father shrieks. He stabs at our ceiling with the andirons. Earlier, he had tried to shove Mother into the cold, vacant fireplace.

"of such successful grammars" is yet another prepositional phrase. This prepositional phrase is necessary, though, in that it provides light for Trumbull in that cedar chest he's in. As he waits for Syntax to lock the chest tight, he uses Of Such Successful Grammars to look around. He finds a hole. He pulls himself into it and sees it's a tunnel. He elbows and legs and groins himself into this tunnel. Sometimes, the tunnel feels like it's going up. Other times, it slants down. He comes to a part that feels like a wall--but then he sees there's a ladder he can climb up. And it's Of Such Successful Grammars that lights his way.
     Meanwhile, The Study holds a piece of steel pipe over Syntax's closed eyes. Both magnets buzz up and off Syntax's eyelids and clikclik onto the pipe. Syntax quickly gets out of its bed, runs for its doorway, pushes its medical skeleton aside, and leaves its bedroom for some other place.

"I'm Trumbull's daughter Helvetia Pious," a young woman says to Syntax as it races down a staircase. On the wall next to the staircase is a painting that has the title, "Of The Principles and Processes." In it, a man weighs himself by standing on his son's back. There's another painting titled, "Syntactic Investigations of a Given Language." This one shows a dog choking on a piece of meat.
     "I'm Trumbull's daughter Helvetia Pious," this young woman says again. "I don't have a comma in front of my name because my father has many other daughters."
     Helvetia, along with The Study, pursues Syntax as it clears the end of its staircase.

The fourth sentence Noam Chomsky writes in his less-than-corking book Syntactic Structures is "The ultimate outcome of these investigations should be a theory of linguistic structure in which the descriptive devices utilized in particular grammars are presented and studied abstractly, with no specific reference to particular languages."

"The ultimate outcome of these investigations" is the subject of this sentence.

"should be" is the main verb. It's the "to be" verb. My father had tried to push Mother into the fireplace. This instant, he tries to push me into it. Our fireplace is the size of a puppet theatre and is empty of any flames. My father pushes me into the fireplace. I get to the back of it and put my palms against its brick. It's been so long since we've had it cleaned. And its flue must be filthy.

"a theory" is the subject complement, a predicate noun. That, or it's the difference between "further" and "farther." It's the difference between a "clever" horse and a "clever" child. It's when someone uses "loan" as a verb when, really, they should use "lend." It's when someone uses a word--an indefinite pronoun--like "someone" and later uses "they" instead of "he" or "she" to refer back to it. Or A Theory is Trumbull's oldest daughter. She once woke to a man fastening iron gauntlets, anklets, and a choker to her. "What's all this?" she said to him. He told her how they were going to wear iron things on their bodies and then try to run through a hall tiled with powerful magnets.

"of linguistic structure" is yet another prepositional phrase. If my father were to see it, it would give him paroxysms. In the back of the fireplace, I feel the rungs of a ladder. I pull myself onto them to escape the tips of my father's andirons. "Cast a sentence in the active!" he yells after me. "Ask yourself, 'Who does What to Whom?'" I head for the flue.

"in which the descriptive devices utilized in particular grammars are presented and studied abstractly" is something that Nim Chimsky--that cheekily-named chimp--never wrote or understood. Nim, alas, wasn't really linguistically gifted. (Other scientists debunked him.) There was once a horse named Clever Hans--and he, too, wasn't linguistically gifted. (Debunked.) Is A.L.Ex, the Avian Learning Experiment (an African gray parrot that says, "Want a nanner" when it wants a wad of banana) linguistically gifted?

"with no specific reference to particular languages" are two more prepositional phrases. To give strength to each other, they hold hands.

Syntax hides, and The Study and Helvetia Pious look for it. The Study sees an oriental rug sagging oddly into the hardwood floor. It yanks the rug aside--only to reveal that the rug had covered an oblong hole. The Study puts its head into the hole. Then, its entire body. Unlike Trumbull, it has no prepositional phrase to see with. With which to see. Helvetia Pious, from the hole’s lip, watches The Study’s form recede.

"One function of this theory is to provide a general method for selecting a grammar for each language, given a corpus of sentence of this language" is what, according to Noam Chomsky, comes next.

"One function of this theory" is the subject. A man to whom Helvetia Pious was engaged bought a horse named One Function of This Theory. What he did to this creature was shoe it with powerful magnets. He next set up--by way of extreme personal expense--a quarter mile track tiled with, yes, powerful magnets. This man thought he would be able to ride One Function of This Theory onto this track. Then, once the horse was on this track, the man was certain it would glide around and around. It would be free of all friction. (He had, after all, arranged the horse's magnets and the track's magnets so that their like poles would be facing each other. Pluses to pluses or minuses to minuses.) But this didn't work. The horse broke its legs.

"is" is the main verb. Another "to be" verb. "The weakest verb a strong writer could select," my father says. I hear his andirons clatter in the fireplace far below me, for I have pulled myself up--by ladder rungs--half our chimney. But, oddly, instead of ascending toward the flue, I begin to climb what must be diagonally. And then I'm moving horizontally. I'm certain I'm on my knees going over ladder rungs.

"to provide a general method" is a noun phrase that's in the interrogative. It's the phrase to select when you'd like to express something that you wish would happen or that is contrary to all you take for granted. It's the subjunctive--or what the Spanish call the ablative.

"for selecting a grammar" is a prepositional phrase that A.L.Ex could say after "Want a nanner."

"for each language" is a prepositional phrase that Clever Hans could stamp at but not understand.

"given a corpus of sentence of this language" is a participial phrase that once clothed the limbs of the fallen medical skeleton in Syntax's doorway.

The Study is in a tunnel but has no prepositional phrase it can use for light. As it moves, it's certain it can hear Trumbull's voice. The man says, "It's been so long since I've seen my daughter Helvetia Pious. It's been so long since I've seen my daughter The Study. In fact, both of my daughters must be the principle of the construction that can be an investigation of a grammar that's under analysis."
     And The Study--as it crawls in its tunnel, as it makes out a dull prepositional light--hears what must be Syntax. It says, "I've had enough with magnets. They're not improving my sicknesses. Nevertheless, with fundamental investigation, properties must be concerned with linguists."

The chimney I'm in--it's really become more of a tunnel--now angles down. I crawl tentatively until I hear odd voices hush. I crawl until I see a light go out. I crawl until the front of my face hits another warm body.






I was reading Kenneth Patchen's Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer when I wrote it. I was listening to Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.