The Straight Dope

Educational conservatives sometimes say our problems would be over if we just taught kids to diagram sentences. Yet consider this simple sentence, which is found in that most basic of books, a children's primer: "See Spot run." How would you diagram this sentence? See is the predicate; Spot is the direct object; run is the... the what? Obviously it's a verb, but what function does it perform in the sentence? We're old enough to have done our share of sentence-diagramming, but this one has us at a loss. Help us, Cecil, you are our only hope.

-- Dick and Jane, via the Internet

No question, this would be a better world if we could all diagram sentences properly. Unfortunately diagramming, or for that matter merely parsing sentences, is becoming a lost art. A survey of experts turned up the following creative theories:

1. Run is an abbreviated present participle, and the sentence should really read, "Do you see Spot running?" The genius who contributed this said it was "a shame" to put such a malformed sentence as "See Spot run" in a primer. A little too late to be bringing this up now, bub. Anyway, I say it's cheating when you eliminate the problem by rewriting the sentence.

2. Spot run is a "small clause," a piquant term brought to us courtesy of transformational grammar, a field of linguistics we might think of as sentence-diagramming for adults. A small clause consists of a noun phrase followed by some other kind of phrase. In "See Spot run," Spot is the noun phrase and run is a verb phrase. Unfortunately your transformational grammarians do not trouble themselves with such details as what kind of verb phrase it is, leaving us pretty much back where we started.

3. Spot run is an "objective infinitive." Now we're getting somewhere. An infinitive is an uninflected verb form commonly beginning with to, as in to run. In an objective infinitive (and doesn't that sound like something you could get Unitarians to pray to?), the noun is modified by the infinitive, and the two parts together -- in this case Spot run -- are the direct object of the predicate, See. One may object: How can run be an infinitive? There's no to in front of it. My informant explained this by saying the to was "understood." "See Spot [to] run"? I don't think so.

Never fear. We pull out our trusty 1936 edition of A Writer's Manual and Workbook by Paul Kies. Kies writes that to, though it's the "sign of the infinitive," is "frequently omitted, especially after such verbs as help, make, bid, feel, see, hear, dare, need; e.g., "I heard him sing," "I see Spot run." He even provides a diagrammed infinitive, which looks like the Flying Wallendas playing jai alai. This week sentence-diagramming, next week world peace?

I have been wearing a copper bracelet for about two months. Although people selling the bracelets don't explicitly tell you how they are supposed to help, they do hint that they will relieve symptoms of arthritis or common aches and pains. They are fashionable now with the golf community, and, being an avid golfer with a bad back, I figured I'd give one a try. Well, lo and behold, my back seems to be better. Do these bracelets really work, or is my mind just playing tricks on me?

-- Dellroy, via AOL

It's probably all in your head. But little research has been done, even though copper as an arthritis treatment has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks. From 1940 to 1971, a few doctors used injections of copper salts to treat arthritis, apparently with some success. But the method never caught on, and manufacture of copper medicines was eventually discontinued.

I've been able to turn up only two studies of copper bracelets, both from the '70s. One claimed the bracelets eased arthritis pain and even said the weights of the bracelets diminished over time, presumably because some of the metal was absorbed through the skin. But the study's methodology was pretty casual -- people answering a newspaper ad were asked to wear bracelets and fill out a questionnaire. The other study, conducted at a university medical center, found the bracelets had no effect. One rheumatology expert expresses the common view of copper bracelets today: "You can get them for several hundred dollars, and I don't think you need to do that. A five-dollar one will make your arm just as green."

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

 
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