EducationThe Imperative Mood

The Imperative Mood

I have been responding to student papers.  Fifty of them.  I like to say responding rather than grading.  That’s what I am doing, grading, though I am respond to, and the two get all mixed up and confusing.  I don’t think the grading part helps a single student to learn a single thing.  Sure a bad grade might make a student put in more time on the paper; but there is such a thing as putting in bad time (trying to figure out what the teacher wants).  Students will also put in more time if they feel that somebody actually reads what they say and pays attention, not just to how they are saying it, but also to what they are saying.  I end up grading on the “how they say it” when I know damn well that the depth of response will in fact determine whether they will decide to work on how they say it because what they are saying is also valued.

I don’t know how to reconcile this.

Perhaps that’s why my brain turns to odd things when I get a batch of papers.  The other evening I was torturing myself trying to remember the grammatical name or the name in grammar for a certain sentence structure that does not contain a subject but is not, for that reason, a sentence fragment, but a complete sentence.  How can that be, since by definition, at least in most grammar books, a sentence is a fragment if it lacks either the subject or the verb.

But take this expression, “Fiat Lux,” translated in the Kings James Bible as “Let there be light.”  In Latin lux is the subject and fiat the verb and might be translated roughly “Light was made” or “Light was.”  So in Latin the sentence is complete and not a fragment because lux is the subject and fiat the verb.  But where is the subject in “Let there be light.”  The fact is—there is no subject, and yet this is not a fragment, but a complete and utterly whole sentence.

“Let there be light” is probably the most famous example of this particular and odd complete sentence structure.  “Fiat Lux” is the motto of the University of California; given the utter failure of this institution to meet its publicly mandated educational mission this should be changed to “Fiat Dim Bulb.”

I think the grammatical term for this particular sentence may be the “imperative mood.”  I understand “imperative” part because Let There Be Light sounds like a command or directive.  I don’t understand the “mood” part because I lack sufficient knowledge of grammar and also the patience and curiosity to acquire it.

Noodling over this issue I remembered a poem I liked to teach at one time, when poetry was still taught as part of the writing sequence:

 The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Excellent use I think of the “imperative mood.”

Does it help any to think this poem is probably a description of the funeral rituals occasioned by the death of a person of ill-repute?

Categories: Education


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