I Am Shakespeare And So Can You

Some writers want to use the most straight­for­ward English in their work. So doing, a bur­den is lif­ted from the read­er. Other writers struggle to cre­ate quite indi­vidu­al sen­tences that are fresh and unusu­al, but at the expense of ease.

From the blog Neurophilosophy comes word that research­ers are invest­ig­at­ing the effects on read­ers of a par­tic­u­lar sen­tence form called the func­tion­al shift. Why? Well, spe­cial cases of lan­guage — ambi­gu­ity, for example, or agram­mat­ic­al­ity — force the human sen­tence pro­cessing mech­an­ism to react in a nov­el way, and this some­times reveals how it works.

Functional shift hap­pens when a word is mis-clas­si­fied and needs to be re-clas­si­fied later in the sen­tence, when sub­sequent inform­a­tion dis­am­big­u­ates the struc­ture.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (at least, I think it is; this is how I inter­pret it):

No, let the can­died tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the preg­nant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may fol­low fawn­ing. Dost thou hear?

The word ‘crook’ would be heard as a noun but later inform­a­tion forces a verb inter­pret­a­tion. It draws the listen­er towards the sen­tence. Its meta­phor burns brightly.

Philip Davis, Guillaume Thierry and Neil Roberts are invest­ig­at­ing how the brain responds to these func­tion­al shifts. They write:

[We found that] while the Shakespearian func­tion­al shift was semantic­ally integ­rated with ease, it triggered a syn­tact­ic re-eval­u­ation pro­cess likely to raise atten­tion and extra emer­gent con­scious­ness, and giv­ing more power and sheer life to the sen­tence as a whole.

In this way Shakespeare is stretch­ing us, mak­ing us more alive, at a level of neur­al excitement…Our find­ings begin to show how Shakespeare cre­ated dra­mat­ic effects by impli­citly tak­ing advant­age of the rel­at­ive inde­pend­ence — at the neur­al level — of semantics and syn­tax in sen­tence com­pre­hen­sion. It is as though he is a pian­ist using one hand to keep the back­ground melody going, whilst sim­ul­tan­eously the oth­er pushes towards ever more com­plex vari­ations and syn­co­pa­tions.

This is some­thing to think about when writ­ing. Not all sen­tences should be gram­mat­ic­ally cor­rect. Grammaticality is anoth­er axis on which the writer should move freely, to some effect.

The PDF of the art­icle can be down­loaded here.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “I Am Shakespeare And So Can You”

  1. Not all sen­tences should be gram­mat­ic­ally cor­rect.”

    Welcome to the world of American copy­writ­ing! I have to deal with this every single day!

    Interesting art­icle — not sure I fully under­stand it (you are much, much smarter than I am.)

    Doesn’t ‘crook’ mean ‘to bend’?

    As well as the more obvi­ous: ‘crook = crim­in­al’

    Did I just open my mouth and remove all doubt, when I should have kept quiet and only risked look­ing like a fool?

  2. Thanks for your com­ment, Roland. Your thoughts sound entirely intel­li­gent and sens­ible! I’d agree that ‘crook’ can mean ‘to bend’ (and this verbal inter­pret­a­tion might even be the ini­tial inter­pret­a­tion)…

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