The Dream Vaults of Opar

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 century.

    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/
creationism, 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 theistic evolution.
     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 the message.
     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.

—December 4, 1991

 1999 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.
Edgar Rice Burroughs'
Miscellaneous Works
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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.