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I am currently analysing a poem, and I have come across two sentences that are obviously grammatically incorrect, but I can't figure out how to describe what is wrong with them.

  1. "Beside him, the greyheaded man has let one arm slide awkwardly over his shoulder, is talking and pointing at whatever it is."

  2. "Where mountains are clouds, lightning, but no rain."

They're from the poem "Utah" by Anne Stevenson.

Like I said, they're obviously syntactically incorrect, but I'm rubbish at describing grammar! If anyone could point me in the right direction I would be very grateful!

Update

It is for an assignment, yes, but by no means mandatory. Also, I'm not expecting a straight out "sentence a is wrong because there is no x", but I have never been taught to describe grammar, so I find myself floundering a bit.

In regards to intuitions, yes, I do have some, but my failures lie in how to describe them! I would say that both sentences are questions of ellipsis, but that is not really syntactical but rather cohesion.

For sentence 1 the problem clearly lies with the add-on clause "[...]is talking and pointing [...]". I would say that perhaps there are two verb phrases attached to a single noun phrase without the proper conjunction?

For sentence 2, I would say much the same. A missing conjunction, or verb phrase (?), but again, that depends on how you read the sentence.

Also, thank you for the welcome! I'm not quite sure how I should explain the context? I am personally looking at the ambiguity in the poem, and in relation to that I am discussing the ambiguity that the syntax produces. I also just realised that perhaps this is too "grammar-oriented" to fit onto this forum, so my apologies if so!

EDIT 2: In response to StoneyB - thank you for your input, it was enlightening! I was just wondering what your take on alternative 'corrections' were, so e.g. "the greyheaded man [who] has let one arm slide awkwardly over his shoulder, is talking and pointing at whatever it is" or "In the distance, where mountains are [are] clouds, lightning, but no rain".

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    Is this homework? Do you have any intuitions? Can you tell us what you think is wrong with it or at least which parts you feel are weird? – acattle Mar 8 '13 at 16:58
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    Wewlcome! What Acattle says, and I would like to see the context explained a little bit, because these sentences are hard to properly interpret without. – Cerberus Mar 8 '13 at 17:09
  • I cannot make a one-character edit: but that "lightening" should be "lightning". (It makes a difference!) – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 8 '13 at 19:08
  • Taneko, please don't answer in your question (unless you implement it). If you just need to answer to a comment, just click on "add comment" :) Also, your accounts have been merged so don't worry about it. – Alenanno Mar 8 '13 at 21:15
  • Thank you! It took me forever to find out why I couldn't comment, and then I couldn't get on to the account that I had apparently posted with. Won't happen again, but didn't know how else to say thank you to Stoney for their response! – Taneko Mar 8 '13 at 21:35
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Beside him, the greyheaded man has let one arm slide
awkwardly over his shoulder, [and] is talking and pointing
at whatever it is ...

Your first quote is in fact one of only two full sentences in the poem; the greyheaded man is the subject of both clauses, and it omits a conjunction between two clauses, which impels the poem forward and really associates the two actions more intimately.

The second really needs its introductory phrase:

       In the distance, where
mountains are clouds, lightning, but no rain.

Here, as in most of the periods of the poem, the verb (implicitly is or are) is omitted. The sense is In the distance, where mountains are clouds, [is] lightning, but no rain.


AFTERTHOUGHT:
The syntax is actually not particularly unusual - just missing copulas. What's really interesting is the meter: there are two feet missing in that final line. I'd be inclined to read them as pauses on either side of lightning. And lightning and but no are, I think, spondees.

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  • Thank you for your input, it was enlightening! I was just wondering what your take on alternative 'corrections' were, so e.g. "the greyheaded man [who] has let one arm slide awkwardly over his shoulder, is talking and pointing at whatever it is" or "In the distance, where mountains are [are] clouds, lightning, but no rain". I suppose that it might not be equally as syntactically correct, but I still find them equally likely sentences. – Taneko Mar 8 '13 at 21:36
  • @Taneko The who is possible, but it messes up that nice sense of the two gestures coming simultaneously. An ellipted are in the last line seems metrically impossible to me; that demands a read which kills three feet. ... By the way, thanks for introducing us to this work! – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 8 '13 at 21:47
  • I see, I was specifically told to ignore the meter of the poem so I haven't taken that into consideration while looking at the syntax. Thank you for explaining your reasoning! I personally preferred the ellipted 'are' because it gave a sense of the magical "list of three". And you're welcome! It has given me quite a headache, but by now I'm beginning to appreciate it. – Taneko Mar 8 '13 at 21:53
  • @Taneko It's a great pity to ignore the meter: it's the classical dactylic hexameter (adapted to a stress language) and very rare in English. – StoneyB on hiatus Mar 8 '13 at 22:00
  • I know, I study both literature and linguistics, so I was surprised when she told us ignore it, but she felt that it was too comprehensive for a linguistics paper, I believe. – Taneko Mar 8 '13 at 22:02

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