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Grammar: What is a Text Made Of?

To conclude our short series on basic grammar, let’s have a quick look at what makes a text. As usual, we take the view that a greater understanding of the ways a language works prepares us to improve our fluency.

A sample text is reproduced below. It belongs to the first chapter of Edgar Allan Poe‘s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. I chose it because I love Allan Poe and because a text from 1841 is written slightly differently from a modern text. For us non-native English readers, there is even more work to do before we enjoy the story: we have to put the several bits of sentences back in the places they would occupy today.

Am I saying that grammar can help enjoying literature? Absolutely. As usual, look for the structure, access the meaning.

So here it goes:

‘Residing in Paris during the spring and part of the summer of 18—, I there became acquainted with a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. This young gentleman was of an excellent—indeed of an illustrious family, but, by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it, and he ceased to bestir himself in the world, or to care for the retrieval of his fortunes. By courtesy of his creditors, there still remained in his possession a small remnant of his patrimony; and, upon the income arising from this, he managed, by means of a rigorous economy, to procure the necessaries of life, without troubling himself about its superfluities. Books, indeed, were his sole luxuries, and in Paris these are easily obtained.’
Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (public domain, source classic-literature.co.uk)

The words we’ll define today are words of volume, of ‘how big’ a chunk of text is. From bigger to smaller, they are :

paragraph > sentence > clause > phrase > word

A paragraph is the entire passage pasted above. Paragraphs start at a new line and generally tell one moment, give one idea or argument of a text (fiction or non-fiction). In blogs, paragraphs are usually short but in literature, they can seem endless! Of course, length and styles vary greatly but the underlying structure remains the same.

A sentence is the part of the paragraph which starts with a capital letter and end with a full stop. Sentences are the unit of speech. The first sentence of our excerpt is:
‘Residing in Paris during the spring and part of the summer of 18—, I there became acquainted with a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin.’

Grammar really lives inside the sentence. Sentences can be short (‘Life is short.’) or very, very long (the French author Marcel Proust earned the reputation of writing the longest sentences in French literature).

If the sentence is the natural unit of speech, the clause is the minimum unit of meaning. A sentence can be made of one clause only:
‘I am reading a book.’

or several, which then have different of relationships. They can be equal, like the last sentence of our passage:
‘Books, indeed, were his sole luxuries, and in Paris these are easily obtained.’

Or they can depend on each other, with one assuming a subordinate role:
‘I am reading the book that I bought yesterday.’

Technically speaking, a clause is made of a minimum of a Verb, and often a Subject. These elements are rarely one word each, but rather expressions. These expressions are called phrases. Why do we need a phrase? to add details, nuances, explanations. In short, to add information. In the following examples the verb phrases are underlined:
‘I am reading a book.’
[he] had been reduced to such poverty.’

Some of the noun phrases of our passage are below, their noun underlined:
part of the summer of 18—
This young gentleman
his sole luxuries

Again, these structures are explained here in English, but they exist under this form or another in most languages. Look in yours or in the one you’re learning to see how they are constructed and in this way, add to your toolbox to improve your understanding.

And if you give it a try and read the rest of E.A.Poe’s short story, you will have read one of the first detective stories in the modern literature!

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