The Grammar Gremlin
Several mailings back George McWhorter commented upon the general perception
among critics (or so it seems; it certainly would be interesting to know
where the charge originated) that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ deathless prose
is especially noteworthy for its poor grammar. In my younger years I found
this accusation particularly troubling, perhaps because I was such a zealous
admirer, intent upon making converts to ERB. Although I often considered
this question while reading and rereading ERB, I don’t recall ever finding
a genuine example of bad grammar in his work, back then.
One of the curious things that both books and friends have in common is
that we can continue to discover new and interesting aspects of them .
. . of the good ones, anyway. Sadly, in my more recent investigations I’ve
begun to notice what those shadowy critics of ERB must have been talking
about. It’s been my observation in recent years that ERB most often runs
afoul of English grammar in his use (or non-use) of the past perfect or
related grammatical tenses.
Two examples caught my attention as I was rereading The Land that Time
Forgot for the symposium on that book. On page 309 Burroughs tells
us: “The two men circled about the camp twice and on the last lap Bradley
stooped and picked up an object which had lain about ten yards beyond the
fire—it was Brady’s cap.” Properly, Bradley should have picked up an object
that lay ten yards beyond the fire (simple past tense); there’s
no reason to use the past perfect there. The second example appears on
page 410: “So quickly was the thing done and so quick the withdrawal that
Olson had wheeled to take on another adversary before the German’s corpse
had toppled to the ground.” Here two time periods are being compared, and
so the past perfect is called for in one of the actions, not in both. This
should properly read, “Olson had wheeled . . . before the German’s corpse
toppled to the ground.” However minor an error this may be, the second
past perfect is awkward, confusing, and wrong.
I have noticed similar errors in other Burroughs stories, particularly
the early ones. They occur in both of his most important works, Tarzan
of the Apes and Princess of Mars (though a quick, fifteen-minute
search failed to rediscover them). Paul Spencer has occasionally pointed
out other types of grammatical lapses (and I hope he’ll treat the subject
in more detail on some future occasion), and Porges mentions lapses having
to do with who and whom, so the charges against Burroughs
are not completely without merit. Such errors, though, can’t be too significant,
since so few people have noticed them over the last three-quarters of a
The writing in LTF, by the way, struck me as just about ERB’s best of this
period, a very highly evolved prose. He makes excellent use of the dash
to break up sentences, and his paragraphs are often composed of long, “oral”
sentences that seem quite natural in the reading.
The book also boasts some memorable lines. Here are two:
“. . . there is a certain amount of fool in every man . . .”—p. 188.
“. . . she combined all of the finest lines that one sees in the typical
American girl’s face rather than the pronounced sheeplike physiognomy of
the Greek goddess.”—p. 166.
This observation about Greek statuary is devastatingly accurate.
TYLER McCULLOCH: I’m sure neither of us wants to continue indefinitely
our ERB-inspired discussion of evolution/
so I’ll say the following, then next mailing move on to other matters:
My remarks concerning the self-contradictions of the Bible were addressed
specifically to the notion of Biblical literalism. If one says that every
word of the Bible is literally true, as many fundamentalists do, then the
Bible cannot contradict itself without disproving that concept (or, at
the very least, forcing the determined literalist into all sorts of hopelessly
tortuous attempts at explanation). In Genesis 1:24-26 God first creates
animals, then man. In 2:18 God creates animals after man has been created.
The sequences of events in the two accounts do not agree. To maintain that
the Bible is literally true is to ignore many such contradictions, and
common sense. It’s also an insult to attribute such clumsy mistakes to
God. One may, however, say that the sense of the passages is true, even
if the words have to be accepted somewhat figuratively; but once a figurative
interpretation is allowed, all types of beliefs can be accommodated, including
You realize, of course, that nowhere in the Bible does the Bible tell us
that it is the word of God—literal, inspired, or otherwise. Tradition tells
us that—which is to say, we have only hearsay evidence. What the Bible
does clearly tell us is that it was written by human beings, many of whom
are named as authors of the different books.
When I said that religious frauds such as McPherson and Bakker don’t invalidate
religion, I was making a point of logic. If a bum tells you that your car
is being stolen, the man’s disreputable appearance is not sufficient reason
to ignore his warning. A bad messenger does not automatically invalidate
You wrote, “If there is no God, then religion is a lie and all of its practitioners
are charlatans! I don’t know of any other way of looking at it.” Well,
I certainly do. (And I’ll bet ERB recognized the difference, too, despite
all the religious charlatans that can be found in his books—remember the
old Jew in “The Moon Men”?) Those practitioners are only charlatans if
they knowingly deceive others. Their basic nature is what it is, whether
God exists or not, and most them are decent, well meaning people, dedicated
to the welfare of others. For all the harm it has done (as in the religious
wars of Europe), religion has also done a great deal of good, in charitable
works and in the solace it has brought to suffering mortals. For every
Torquemada there have been ten thousand selfless, unrecognized Mother Teresas.
This says a great deal about the basic goodness of people, religious and
otherwise, but absolutely nothing about the validity of religious beliefs.
Note: The discussion of ERB's grammar never fails to stir controversy
(as you'll see in a later installment); let's just agree to disagree on
this one. Tyler informed me of a passage in the New Testament supporting
the Bible as divinely inspired, so I stand corrected on that point.