Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Importance of Context (and Prepositional phrases!)

This post is quite a technical but interesting one. It talks about clause structure and hopes to show how prepositional phrases help us identify ambiguity and in doing so show us the importance of context.
(Yes I did get it from a supervisor but where's the harm in sharing the fun?)

Let's analyse the following sentence on a phrasal level:

I saw a man with a telescope in the park

Most noticeably, there are four noun phrases
(noun phrases tell us what exactly we are talking about in terms of entities/things):
-'I' (remember phrases can in fact be one word when dealing with clause structure),
-'a man',
-'a telescope', and
-'the park'.

There are also two prepositional phrases
(I have recently been enlightened that these tell us not only about spatial relationships- 'on', 'above', 'underneath', etc- but also relationships regarding general awareness of things i.e. 'with', and 'between'):
-'with a telescope', and
-'in the park.'

(I tried to argue that 'saw a man' was a verb phrase but I was told that was pushing it, so we'll disregard those but post if you agree with me that it so could be identified as one! Moving on Charissa..)

Prepositional phrases (pps) are meant to tell us something about how these nouns and entities are related to each other right? Like what they are doing and who has them and stuff.
Now, bearing this is mind-
where is the man? I looked at my supervisor like duh- the man is in the park stupid.
Where are you if you are referring to yourself as 'I'? 'I'm watching the man in the park with me.'
Where is the park? 'Around me'
Where's the telescope? My response: 'it belongs to the man, so it's in the park also?' (by this time I'm not even sure myself now- there is a term for this which I really need to revise. Anyhow..) The argument goes thus:

Is it not possible, that the pps have decieved you? You cannot possibly know where the man is and the park is etc simply by looking at the sentence- that is if we assume this is a complete sentence, as we have been given no punctuation to signal this is so.
-What if the park was one of those parks with telescopes fitted in? you could be watching the man with the park's telescope but the man may not be in the park himself.
-What if the telescope was by your bedroom window? You could be looking into the park through the telescope at the man, the man doesn't necessarily have to have the telescope.

Didn't really enjoy the insinuations that I'd be the one watching men through telescopes (I don't for the record), nevertheless the point is clear. With literature, and indeed the texts we get in textual analysis papers, this ambiguity is removed and we wouldn't even be considering what the circumstances of these entities were. Literature builds up characters and tells us more about what we need to know, so that language becomes revealing of situations and places and events. Literature, in a way, makes pps safe and reassuring to us because it serves an adverbial or adjectival function. But, if we get one of those texts that begin with clauses such as the one given above, then these prepositional phrases become important for us to analyse as it'd be a major part as to how we're recieving the text and why we're making the technical judgements we are about the text at work.

Of course this is just one example of how language complicates literature in an interesting way.
Honestly, I'm not sure can't tell you how to directly apply this complication to a question, but perhaps if we consider what doesn't add up about the text given, pps would be a way in. What do you think?

Farewell for now..


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