I recently ran across, serendipitously, an article in The Atlantic Monthly blog by Kevin Dettmar, a professor of English at Pomona College, titled “Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities.” He begins, “I’ve never hated a film quite the way I hate Dead Poets Society.” Since I remember also disliking (if not hating) the film when I saw it, I was intrigued. Dettmar’s main reason for his attitude toward the film is that Mr. Keating, the literature teacher (played by Robin Williams) who is its hero, encourages students to experience poetry as he does by “feeling” it rather than find their own experience by actually reading it. Dettmar cites, as his first example, a thorough misreading of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” He then writes:
In a like manner, how often has Frost’s “The Mending Wall” been quoted out of context in debates about immigration reform? “Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed.
Whoa! Has Professor Dettmar actually read a poem by Robert Frost titled “The Mending Wall”? The famous poem that begins “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” is titled “Mending Wall”; it’s about the narrator and his neighbor mending the wall between them. In the title, mending is the gerund of ‘mend’ and wall is its direct object; it like ‘eating breakfast’ or ‘making money,’ and such a phrase does not allow, in English, an article before it. If one wants to fully nominalize the phrase (treat it as a noun) then of is required between the gerund and the object: the eating of breakfast, the mending of (a or the) wall. Otherwise, the verb form ending in -ing can only be a present participle, and the mending wall can only mean ‘the wall that mends,’ which is not what the poem is about. Consider hunting game and the hunting game: the former is the activity of hunting wild animals, the latter is a game based on hunting.
Contributors to Language Log often decry the ignorance of grammar by teachers of English, and this instance certainly validates their complaints. Among the chief decriers is Geoffrey Pullum, coauthor (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (and its cheap sibling, A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar). I admire and respect Geoff Pullum but (as I have noted in a few previous posts) I have my differences with him, and one of them is that CGEL and SIEG have abolished the difference between gerund and participle, and conflated them into a single verb form that they call gerund-participle, simply because “no verb has different forms corresponding to the two uses” (SIEG, p. 32). I wonder: had there been just one verb with two different forms, would that have made all the difference? As I have shown in the preceding paragraph, the two uses are governed by different rules; is that not enough to justify regarding them as different verb forms, as they are in most other inflecting language?
The problem is that, by focusing exclusively on the phenomenology of standard English and deliberately ignoring that of other languages (including dialects and older forms of English), Huddleston and Pullum have strayed from what I think of as the historical function of grammar: teaching the rules of a standard language to students who may or may not be “native speakers” (those whose primary vernacular is a colloquial variant of the standard, what I call a parastandard). In fact, historically the first grammars were of “dead” languages — ones that no longer had a colloquial variant: Sanskrit, Homeric Greek, Classical Latin, Koranic Arabic, Scriptural Hebrew.
While I don’t believe in the “universal grammar” theories of Chomsky and his school, I have found that the concept of parts of speech (or lexical categories) is of great help in relating discourse in one language to what it might be in another, even when the structures are quite different: that prepositions in English correspond to postpositions in Japanese or Turkish does not really hinder understanding.
And, it seems, professors of English need to be taught about gerunds and participles.