A Difficult Sentence

Most of the different theories of language instruction floating around teach a second language in the same way: with reference to one’s first language. The first language is acquired without reference to any other language at all; the second is acquired in reference to the first. As much trouble as I’ve had learning Greek, it would be far harder for me to learn Greek with a Bulgarian Greek textbook, like Rali would have used. It’s interesting, therefore, to look at how we process our first language and deal with complex sentences.
I picked a random starting point in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (58) and came across this sentence:

To inform the mind and govern the actions of their yet ignorant nonage till reason shall take its place and ease them of the trouble is what the children want and the parents are bound to; for God, having given man an understanding to direct his actions, has allowed him a freedom of will and liberty of acting as properly belonging thereunto, within the bounds of that law he is under.

This sentence is as complicated as anything we find in Latin and Greek, and it took about three passes before I understood it. Rali’s frequent admonition not to take the sentence in sequence is spot on here, even though many classics instructors disagree with the find-the-verb-first approach. Why should they, when it’s basically what I did with this sentence in English? My first pass I tried to take it in sequence, but didn’t get it. My second pass I instinctively skipped over the subordinate clauses to determine the basic structure, which is as follows:
A is B; X has allowed Y Z.
All the other stuff in this sentence is grammatical filler.
Read the sentence and note how your brain processes it. In my case, I get up to “ignorant nonage” when I feel myself tune out. “OK,” my mind says to me, “this is more complicated than we thought!” Next says, “find the verb!” I immediately skip ahead until I find it, “is”. So I know that the part I got up to when I fogged up, “is” something else. We have a copulative sentence of some kind. Only once I’ve made this determination—–that informing children’s minds and governing their actions is what children want and parents are bound to—-do I back up and figure out the “till” clause, which I see is modifying when this equation is valid.
The second half of the sentence, after the semicolon, is grammatically easier, but harder to understand. In English I can immediately assume “God” is the subject, and I quickly grasp that what immediately follows modifies God. In this case, I note what it says and queue it up in my head, waiting for a time to use it. I see the sentence like this: “For God, blah blah blah blah blah, has allowed him a freedom of will and liberty of acting…” Acting how? “…as properly belonging thereunto…” What the heck does THAT mean? I read on confused, hoping the next section will clarify: “…within the bounds of that law he is under.” Hmmmm, I still don’t get it. I looked up “thereunto”, a word I don’t see very often, and learned it means “to that”. Not much help.
This is a fascinating exercise in that it parallels my trouble with classical languages. Often I reach a point where I understand the grammar and vocabulary in a sentence, but the meaning just isn’t clear. As Rali knows, I get quite frustrated. But here is an example of an English sentence which causes me the same confusion. How do I approach it in my native tongue?
Adler and VanDoren make an important point in their classic text, How to Read a Book. You don’t have to understand everything you read, at least the first time through a text. Read what you can, understand what you can, and come back to the parts you don’t understand. In the present case, I read a few more sentences and then got the gist of what Locke is trying to say–that man’s freedom of will and liberty of acting is constrained by his state of being. A child may have free will, but is subject to his parents for guidance.
The idea of taking Greek and Latin in the order of the sentence maybe be a good idea for simple authors, like Xenophon, or for simple sentences in more difficult authors. We must remember, however, that we learn these languages to read Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Sallust, and that these authors convey complex concepts in complex form. You could take Spanish and learn how to read newspapers and airport signs, but to study the classics is an exercise in decoding complicated language, and you will occasionally, even often, resort to a systematic deconstruction of the sentence in order to determine its meaning. If any classics teacher tells you otherwise, give him some John Locke and watch him do it in English.


2 thoughts on “A Difficult Sentence

  1. Finally! I’ve been waiting for a post like yours forever.

    There is no such thing as linear reading. Have people read a sentence out of a newspaper, and watch how they finish the words incorrectly, because they read the first letters and assume the rest, jumping ahead, until logical inconsistency forces them back.

    People don’t really think of the way they read – just as they don’t think of the way they walk. Ask someone to tell you how they walk, and you’ll hear “just put one foot before the other.” But if you try doing it, you’ll end up injured, because at the bottom of all walking is the core – just as at the bottom of all reading is finding out what verbal idea the sentence conveys. Without engaging the core, your whole skeleton gets skewed, and pain ensues…

    I watched two of my new Latin students get through a paragraph today. They focused on what seemed easy to translate and got lost on the way. I also saw one of my former Extension students confidently carve through Pompey’s letters to Ahenobarbus – just by focusing on the finite verbs. Macte, Scottus!

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