When writing the A-Z, one of the things I wanted to avoid was the use of contrived sentences to illustrate points of grammar – of the type I was having a shower when the phone rang, or Look, black clouds: it’s going to rain! Instead, I wanted examples which were genuine, but also plausible, easy to understand, and, if possible, memorable. Rather than consult a corpus, I decided, where possible, to use well-known titles of songs and films – which had the advantage of being genuine, familiar and fairly easy to unpack. For example, the entry on participles included citations from some song titles and lyrics by the Beatles:
Participles are used:
- in conjunction with auxiliary verbs to form verb phrases: She’s leaving home. I’ve just seen a face. I should’ve known better.
- after certain verbs: I saw her standing there.
- to post-modify nouns in the form of a reduced relative clause: There’s a shadow hanging over me.
- like adjectives: the long and winding road;
- on their own, as the verb in a non-finite participle clause: Looking up, I noticed I was late. Rocky had come, equipped with a gun.
At a fairly late stage in the production of the book, however, there was a sudden panic at head office, as the realisation dawned that we might need to seek permission to use these quotes – permission, what’s more, from none other than Michael Jackson (who, at the time, held the rights to most of the Beatles oeuvre). I tried to argue that sentences of the type “she’s leaving home” could have been said or written by anyone. But, in the end, (and even after I had appealed to the Society of Authors for advice) it was decided that it was just too risky: even if permission were granted, it would come at an enormous cost. So all the Beatles citations were excised. This is how the above extract appears in its published version:
Participles are used:
- in conjunction with auxiliary verbs to form verb phrases: As I was going to St. Ives… I’ve been to London to look at the Queen.
- after certain verbs: Tow went howling down the street. Jill came tumbling after
- to post-modify nouns in the form of a reduced relative clause: Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair. There was an old woman tossed up in a basket…
- like adjectives:I went out to the roaring sea, and saw a tossing boat.;
- on their own, as the verb in a non-finite participle clause: The maid was in the garden, hanging out the clothes. In spring I look gay, dressed in handsome array.
The examples are all ‘authentic’, in that they come from English nursery rhymes, but for me they have nothing of the resonance or memorability of the Beatles quotes.
For that reason, I am always on the look-out for film and song titles that I can use in language analysis classes, and I am proud that many of these (although not the Beatles ones) did make it into the final cut of An A-Z. I am particularly keen to collect film and song titles that are complete sentences, such as She’s leaving home or The times, they are a-changing or A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. These – I think – are much more fun to analyse than the kind of contrived sentences that are the stock in trade of traditional grammars.
So, if you know of any film or song titles that form syntactically complete sentences, do let me know!