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.

Published by

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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