Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thinking of Participles

Day seven of The Decameron didn’t turn out to be my favorite, that honor probably going to the fifth day, with, among other tales, its wonderful story of Federigo and his falcon. The ten stories I read this year, year seven of my plan, all had to do with women who trick their husbands with lies so they can get a little something on the side. I definitely chuckled here and there, but I certainly couldn’t root for any of the characters.

I also read just last week that Boccaccio, for all his silliness, was considered by the literati of fifteenth-century Italy to be the model of Italian prose. I learned enough Italian a couple of years ago to get by in Arezzo for four-and-a-half months, but I certainly don’t know enough to judge the quality of seven-hundred year old writing in the language. But from reading the modern English translation Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, I imagine it might have to do with the length and complexity of Boccaccio’s sentences. Maybe nothing this involved had ever been written in a modern romance language before:
And while he was living there, certain knights returning from the Holy Sepulcher happened to come across a group of young men, one of whom was Lodovico, arguing about the relative beauty of the women of France, England, and the other parts of the world, and after listening to these young men, one of the knights began to tell them that in all the parts of the world he had visited and of all the women he had ever seen, there had certainly never been any woman equal in beauty to Madonna Beatrice, the wife of Egano de’ Galluzzi from Bologna; and all his companions, who had seen her with him in Bologna, were in agreement.
The sentence has three main clauses and several subordinate clauses together with various other modifying phrases. I like especially the phrases headed by present participles: returning and arguing. Participles are like magic words; they particip-ate in two parts of speech, like a magician’s rabbit appearing in two places at once. As adjectives, they modify nouns: the knights are returning and the young men are arguing. But as verbs, they can take all the modifiers usually associated with verbs. In the sentence “I saw a girl reading a book,” the word reading modifies girl as an adjective, but it also takes book for an object, as verbs do.

I’ve been fascinated with present participles since long before I knew what to call them. Sometime probably around junior high, I remember reading a sentence something like this: “Mr. Smith, grabbing his hat, stumbled out the door.” I should say I misread it, since what I first saw was this: “Mr. Smith grabbed his hat, stumbling out the door.” Realizing my mistake right away, I reread the sentence, puzzling over it a long time and wondering what difference in meaning, if any, my misreading had caused. I also tried to change both words to finite verbs – “Mr. Smith grabbed his hat and stumbled out the door” – quickly deciding that either of the first two versions was better, and vastly superior to the clunky “Mr. Smith grabbed his hat, and he stumbled out the door.” I sometimes use the lesson I learned that day with my graduate students, suggesting to them that they turn an occasional verb into a participle to smooth out a stretch of awkward dissertationese. And I still apply the lesson to myself: in fact, I just went back and changed at least four clauses in this post into participial phrases.

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