Grammar in Dr Seuss’s ‘Green eggs and ham’

English has a generally clear distinction between positive statements, negative statements, positive questions and negative questions. Statements generally contain a subject and a verb in that order, and usually together:

I am Sam (usual), Sam I am (possible)

Negative statements usually require ‘not’:

I am not Sam

But the verb ‘be’ (which includes ‘are/am/is/were/was’) is an unusual verb in many ways. A more typical main verb is ‘like’:

I like Sam

With main verbs other than ‘be’, negative statements are not made with ‘not’ by itself (though they were earlier in the history of English, and may still be in some regional varieties of English):

I like not Sam (usual in earlier English)

In modern standard English, negative statements require ‘do’ before not:

I do not like that Sam-I-am
I do not like green eggs and ham
I do not like them … in a house … with a mouse (etc)

Positive questions with verb ‘be’ simply invert the subject and the verb:

Am I Sam? (or more likely: Are you Sam? Answer: Yes, I am. I’m Sam-I-am. (Seussian rhymes are catchy!))

Positive questions with most other main verbs need ‘do’, which then inverts with the verb:

You like green eggs and ham > (You do like green eggs and ham) > Do you like green eggs and ham?

So far we have had positive statements, negative statements and positive questions with verb ‘be’ and with a typical main verb ‘like’. The book also has many statements and questions with modal verbs. Modal verbs (can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would) do not need ‘do’ to make negative statements and questions. Negative statements simply add ‘not’ after the modal verb, and questions invert the subject and the modal verb:
Would you like them here or there? … in a house? … with a mouse?
I would not like them here or there … in a house … with a mouse
I would not like them anywhere
I will not eat them anywhere

The book also has positive statements with modal verbs:
You may like them.
You will see.
You may like them in a tree!

Once a question has been asked, the answer can leave out some of the words (the technical term for this is ‘ellipsis’; the non-technical term for this is ‘a short answer’).
Would you eat them in a box … with a fox? (etc)
Not in a box (understood: I would not eat them in a box … with a fox). Later, with emphasis: Not on a train! Not in a tree!

Once a context has been established, a question can be short:
Would you? Could you? In a car? (understood: Would you eat them in a car? Could you eat them in a car?).
A train! A train! A train! A train! Could you, would you on a train?
In the dark? Here in the dark! Would you, could you, in the dark?

It is unusual to include two modal verbs in one clause, but here the effect is emphasis:
I would not (eat them), (in fact, I) could not (eat them) in a car … not on a train.

Later, Dr Seuss repeats ‘will’:
I will not, will not (do you hear me?), with a goat.

And once a context has been established, even a statement can be short:
You do not like them. So you say. Try them! Try them! And you may (like them).

Sometimes questions occur without changing the subject and verb:
You do not like green eggs and ham?

Without the question mark, this would be a statement:
You do not like green eggs and ham. You do not like them. (Why am I telling you this about you? You already know this about you.)

With the question mark, it becomes a question. When spoken, there is an upward inflection in the voice at the end. In some languages, for example Korean, this is the standard way of making a question. In English, it is possible but not standard. It has an element of disbelief.

Another form of the verb is the imperative, which is the plain form of the verb. Usually, it is used without a subject, the understood subject is ‘you’:
Eat them! Eat them!
Try them! Try them!

Sometimes ‘you’ is included, or a name:
You let me be … Sam! Let me be!

(The next most likely subject is ‘Someone’: ‘Someone help me!’)

One more advanced construction in English is the conditional sentence:
If you will let me be, I will try them.

Standard modern English grammar (‘first conditional’) does not use ‘will’ in the ‘if’ half of the sentence:
If you let me be, I will try them.

Conditional sentences can always be switched around:
I will try them, if you let me be.

As well as being used in negative statements and questions, ‘do’ can also be used in a short statement, or as emphasis in a complete statement:
I like green eggs and ham! I do! I do like green eggs and ham!

Emphasis can also be added using ‘so’ or ‘very’:
They are so good! (= They are very good!) I do so like green eggs and ham! (*I do very like green eggs and ham! I like green eggs and ham very much!)

While I was writing this post, I searched the internet to see if anyone else had written along these lines. As far as I can see, they haven’t, but the American linguist Arnold Zwicky briefly discusses the ambiguity of the title, which could be ‘[green eggs] and [(colour unspecified) ham], or it could be ‘green [eggs and ham]’, that is, ‘green eggs and green ham’. In real life, there is no way of telling. In this book, we only have to look at the cover: the eggs are green and the ham is green.

Zwicky also includes a cartoon of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy asking a guilty-looking Sam-I-am: ‘Our son is missing. Have you seen him anywhere?’. He makes the point that we should not endlessly forward cartoons (or other creative work) across the internet without regard to crediting the creator.

Text © Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P. and Random House Inc., New York used under the ‘fair dealing’ provisions of s 40(1) of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth)

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