by Richard Lederer
Word Ways, 1980


Grammar and glamor are historically the same word. Back in the eighteenth century one of the meanings of grammar was"magic, enchantment"--the Scots let slip the r into an l, and lo, came forth glamour. In the popular mind, grammar is anything but glamorous. Whatever magic resides in the subject is seen to be a sort of black magic, a mysterious cauldron filled with creepy, crawly things.

As I approach the end of my second decade as an English teacher, I am convinced more than ever that the study need not be an acrane, cacademic exercise. "Every self-sespecing mechanic," said John Dewey "will call the parts of an automobile by their right names because that is the way to distinguish them." Thus it is with gammatical concepts and the writer. If Alexander Pope is correct in advising us that "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance," a knowledge of structural terminology will, I believe, reduce the chance and enhance the art, even if the names are one day forgotten. Ultimately, though, my primary rationale is that, in the words of Paul Roberts, "the best reason for studying grammar is that grammar is interesting." It may not be glamorous in any glittery Hollywood sense, but grammar can be very interesting, even enchanting.

After my scholars have completed their study of descriptive English grammar, I often assign them the writing of a supersentence--a single sentence that includes at least one example of each of the seven phrases and subordinate clauses that are identified in English grammar: 1) adverb clause, 2) adjective clause, 3) infinitive phrase, 4) noun clause, 5) gerund phrase, 6) participial phrase, 7) prepositional phrase. These structures may occur in any order in the sentence.

Recently, while grading a batch of supersentences, I decided to try writing one myself, using the fewest words possible. An hour of industry produced the following (numbers identify the clauses given above):

1When people 2who swing want 3to see 4what's happening,
they try 5attending parties 6given 7by hipsters.
(16 words)

I proudly presented my concoction to my departmental colleagues and to my students. A few days later, when I entered my tenth grade classroom, I found written on the board:

Fred, 6wanting 3to win 7by 5playing hard, practiced 1more than I, 2who knew 4he stank.
(15 words)

Among the triumphantly glowing faces ringing the table was that of Bruce Monrad, a positive whip of a young linguist who, as a sophomore, was already taking advanced Latin and French. Bruce, it turned out, was the author of the fifteen-word supersentence--a creation that not only contains an elliptical adverb clause, than I (practiced), and a hidden noun clause, (that) he stank, but one in which the four phrases are compacted into the subordinate part of the sentence and the three clauses into the main part. Not to be outdone, I labored for a few days and came up with:

6Stung 7by 4what happened, Lederer began 5trying 3to write 1better than Monrad, 2who fainted.
(14 words)

Next morning, I marched into the classroom and triumphantly engraved my new sentence on the blackboard, only to be instantly one-upped by my young rival, who stepped forward and inscribed:

6Helping 3win 7by 5scoring 1more than I, 2who thought 4he stank, Fred overcame.
(13 words)

Here Bruce's brilliant excision of one word is accomplished in his second phrase, the infinitive, in which he leaves out the to: Helping (to) win by scoring...

Now I was growing desperate. Word of the contest had spread throughout the school. How could I ever again face my colleagues and my students if I were to be defeated by a mere stripling? The whole affair was beginning to give the lie to William Cobbett's cynical pronouncement "the study of grammar is engages not the passions." Resolving not to give up, I closeted myself for the entire weekend and finally emerged from my study with "eureka!" on my lips, for I had written:

6Helping 3win 7by 5overcoming 4what threatened, Lederer, 2who persisted 1when challenged, triumphed.
(12 words)

In addition to being eminently readable, my supersentence is characterized by two clever strokes: a clause within a phrase within a phrase within a phrase within a phrase in the first five words, and the distillation of the adverb clause into a two-word combination, when (he was) challenged. Not only are all the structures as concise as they can be, but with the exception of the subject, Lederer, all nouns, adjectives and adverbs are now replaced by phrases and clauses. The sentence seems to be traveling at the speed of light. It can become no smaller.

Or so I thought.

On Monday morning I strutted into class and hubristically presented my ultimate supersentence, delivering a learned lecture proving that we had indeed reached the end of the road supersentence-wise. "Not so fast, Mr. Lederer," Bruce giggled, and proceeded to explain that he, too, that very morning, had discovered the formula for the two-word adverb clause while reciting the prayer For Special Persons in school chapel ("comfort him when discouraged or sorrowful...") and that, moreover, he had been able to replace all nouns, adjectives, and adverbs with phrases and clauses. He then chalked up:

4Whoever rebels, 6daring 3oppose 7by 5fighting 1when oppressed, 2which overcomes, conquers
(11 words)

Alas, there is no possible ten-word supersentence. Like two boys choosing sides for a baseball game, Bruce and I have run our hands up the bat, and there isn't any wood left. Actually, of course, we've both won.

Back to Word Ways articles
Back to Word Ways home