An article in today’s The Daily Telegraph caught my eye.  On page 5, the caption is “The genius of Shakespeare is in grammar, not the words.”  It goes on to say:

“For centuries, Shakespeare has been celebrated not just for his genius as a playwright but for creating many of the most commonly used words and phrases.
But an academic has challenged the view of Shakespeare as the father of modern language, claiming that he was no more inventive with words than his contemporaries”

Jonathan Hope, from Strathclyde University, compared Shakespeare’s work with that of Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe.  These men were, in proportion to the volumes of their work, responsible for inventing just as many new words.  But, according to Mr. Hope, Shakespeare reinvented grammar, breaking away from the conformity of traditional rules.

“Mr. Hope highlighted a passage from Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4, where Shakespeare plays with the normal rules of English that demand a sentence is structured in the order of subject, verb, object.  In the scene the queen says to her son: ‘Hamlet, thou has thy father much offended.’  Mr. Hope explained: ‘In present day English we would expect, ‘Thou hast much offended thy father, Hamlet’.

As you may know, other languages don’t follow this subject, verb, object convention.  In German, for example, the verb is often placed at the end of the sentence.  So in German, it might be, ‘Thou, Hamlet, thy father hast much offended.’  To me, this sentence seems a bit awkward, because it’s not immediately clear who is the subject and who is the object.

Nevertheless, I am very much in favour of creating different sentence structures to make it interesting for the reader.  But more importantly, different structures can convey sightly different meanings by emphasizing one part of a sentence over another.

Let  me give some examples:

  • “Handsome John passionately kissed pretty Mary and held her hand in the dining room.”  (conventional, except that the prepositional phrase at the end kind of dangles)
  • “In the dining room, pretty Mary was passionately kissed by handsome John, who held her hand.”  (in this version, Mary and the dining room assume more importance)
  • “Having passionately kissed pretty Mary in the dining room, handsome John held her hand.” (here, that passionate kiss takes centre stage.)
  • “Having held her hand in the dining room, handsome John passionately kissed pretty Mary.” (here, that hand holding seems most important.)
  • “Pretty Mary was passionately kissed by handsome John, who held her hand in the dining room.” (pretty Mary is the key character here.)
  • “John, who was handsome, passionately kissed pretty Mary and held her hand in the dining room.” (John’s looks get extra emphasis.)
  • and so on

In my opinion, it can make boring reading if one sentence after another follows the subject, verb, object format.  Much more interesting to throw in prepositional clauses, adverb clauses, adjective clauses, and participial phrases (using a verb ending in ing, for example).

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