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(Code and Color Key)

From "A Letter from Birmingham Jail"
by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Analysis Key

     But [Adv. to "will understand" when you have seen vicious mobs lynch [#1] your

mothers and fathers {at will} and drown your sisters and brothers [#1] {at whim}];

[Adv. to "will understand" when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, 

and even kill your black brothers and sisters [#2] ]; [Adv. to "will understand" when 

you see the vast majority {of your twenty million Negro brothers} smothering [#3]

{in an airtight cage} {of poverty} {in the midst} {of an affluent society}]; [Adv. to "will 

understand" when you suddenly find your tongue twisted [#3] and your speech

stammering [#3] [Adv. to "find" or to "twisted" and "stammering" as you seek to 

explain [#4] {to your six-year-old daughter} [DO of "to explain" why she can't go

{to the public amusement park} [Adj. to "park" that has just been advertised (P)

{on the television}]] [#5], and see tears welling [#3] up {in her eyes} [Adv. to "welling"

when she is told (P) [ (R)DO [#6] of  "is told" that Funtown is closed (P) {to 

colored children},]] and see ominous clouds {of inferiority} beginning [#3] to 

form [#7] {in her little mental sky}, and see her beginning [#3] to distort her

personality [#8] {by developing an unconscious bitterness [#9]} {toward white 

people}]]; [Adv. to "will understand" when you have to concoct an answer

(DO) {for a five-year-old son} [Adj. to "son" who is asking, [DO of "is asking"

"Daddy [DirA], why do white people treat colored people (DO) so mean?"]]];

[Adv. to "will understand" when you take a cross-country drive (DO) and find

it necessary to sleep [#10] night [NuA] {after night} {in the uncomfortable corners}

{of your automobile} [Adv. to "necessary" because no motel will accept you

(DO)]]; [Adv. to "will understand" when you are humiliated (P) day [NuA] in

and day [NuA] out {by nagging signs} reading "white" and "colored" [#11] ];

[Adv. to "will understand" when your first name becomes "nigger," (PN) ][Adv.

to "will understand" *when* your middle name becomes "boy" (PN) ([ [#12

however old (PA) you are ])] and [Adv. to "will understand" *when* your last

name becomes "John," (PA) and [Adv. to "will understand" *when* your wife

and mother are never given (P) the respected title (RDO) "Mrs." [#13] ]; [Adv.

to "will understand" when you are harried (P) {by day} and haunted (P) {by 

night} {by the fact} [Adj. to "fact" that you are a Negro (PN), living [#14]

constantly {at tiptoe stance}, never quite knowing [#14] what to expect [#15] next],

and are plagued (P) {with inner fears and outer resentments}]; [Adv. to "will understand"

when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense (DO) {of "nobodiness"}] --

then you will understand [DO of "will understand" why we find it

difficult to wait [#16] ]. |

1. Some students will wonder why "mobs lynch" is not a subject and finite verb here. To explain, show them that, if we substitute a pronoun here, it would probably be an "object," not a "subject" pronoun -- When you have seen them lynch, not When you have seen they lynch. Note that the tense (have seen) and the meaning are also relevant here. We could analyze this sentence (and the next one about policemen) as constituted with subordinate clauses -- When you have seen *that* they lynch . . . ."  But doesn't the infinitive construction imply that they literally saw this, whereas the clause construction implies that they have seen evidence of it, but not necessarily seen it first hand? Thus "mobs" is the subject of the infinitive "lynch," and "mothers" and "fathers" are direct objects of that infinitive. The infinitive "drown" has the same subject, but its direct objects are "brothers" and "sisters." The infinitive constructions function as direct objects of "have seen."
2. This infinitive phrase functions just as the preceding one does.
3. When they get to KISS Level Five and Noun Absolutes, students have the option of explaining these constructions as noun absolute phrases that function as direct objects:
You see the majority smothering . . .
You find your tongue twisted . . . 
You find your speech stammering . . .
You see tears welling . . .
You see clouds beginning to form . . .
You see her beginning to distort . . .
This is not a traditional, or even a widely accepted explanation, but no linguist or grammarian has been able to explain why they should not be considered noun absolutes other than to say that they are not noun absolutes. And that is not an explanation.
     This is a particularly interesting passage for exploring noun absolutes that function as nouns because it includes a wide range of gerundives, some of which slide into absolutes and some of which do not. The primary question is one of meaning, and it involves nexus and modification. Gerundives are primarily modifiers, whereas, in a noun absolute, the relationship between the noun and participle is nexal. We can begin with one of the simple gerundives in the passage -- "reading." There is almost no, if there is any, change in meaning or emphasis if we change "signs reading 'white' and 'colored'" into a subordinate, adjectival clause -- "signs that read 'white' and "colored'." 
     The next two gerundives ("living" and "knowing") are set off from their noun ("Negro") by a comma. If you are familiar with the concepts of restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers, the comma here suggests that these are non-restrictive, i.e., simple gerundives. Note, however, that Brock Haussamen has explained that "restrictive" and "non-restrictive" are "Polarities, not Categories." (Revising, 90-97.) Our current examples ("living" and "knowing") are at one end of the polarity. The emphasis in this sentence is on "you are a Negro." The "living" and "knowing" can easily be reduced to subordinate clauses with little, if any, change in emphasis or meaning -- "a Negro, who is ... and who never knows . . . ." 
     We can now turn to the other end of the polarity, or, as I prefer to look at it, the continuum, and consider "tongue twisted." Would anyone seriously suggest that this could be rewritten as "you find you tongue which is twisted"? The "twisted" is as much an answer to "You find what?" as is "tongue." And the noun absolute gives us a way of explaining this. And close to the "tongue twisted" end of the continuum is "speech stammering." Slightly more toward the center is "majority smothering." We could replace the gerundive here with a subordinate clause, "you see the majority ... that is smothering...," but I would suggest that if we look at it in that way, we de-emphasize "smothering" by reducing it to a modifier. And the "smothering," in this phrase, is as important as "majority." Note that this discussion is highly concerned with meaning, and meaning can be subjective, but, for most people (but not all grammarians) meaning  is the primary purpose for studying grammar.
     I noted the subjectivity involved because I still see "tears welling" and "clouds beginning" as noun absolutes that function as direct objects, but they are close to the middle of the continuum. "welling" and "beginning" are not as important to the meaning as are "smothering," "twisted," and "stammering."
     The final example, "You see her beginning to distort . . . ," is even more interesting. Some grammar texts consider "her" (and "his," "its," etc.) as possessive adjectives, and other textbooks consider them to be possessive pronouns. Either explanation allows some grammarians to consider "beginning" as a gerund (not a gerundive) that functions as the direct object of "see." Thus we have three possible explanations -- 1) "her" is the direct object and "beginning" is a gerundive that modifies "her," 2) "beginning" is the direct object and "her" modifies (or is the subject of) "beginning," and 3) "her beginning to distort" is the core of a noun absolute phrase that functions as the direct object of "see." The choice is yours.
4. The infinitive "to explain" functions as the direct object of "seek."
5.  This could also be considered as the end of the "you seek" clause and thus have a third closing bracket. I have analyzed it on the assumption that the following "and" joins "seek" and "see." 
6. Students who have studied retained complements should catch this as a retained direct object after the passive "is told." Otherwise, let the students explain it as a direct object.
7. The infinitive "to form" is the direct object of "beginning."
8. "Personality" is the direct object of the infinitive "to distort" which is the object of "beginning."
9. "Bitterness" is the direct object of the gerund "developing" which is the object of the preposition "by."
10. "To sleep" is an infinitive that functions as a delayed subject to "it," which is the subject of an ellipsed infinitive *to be*, the predicate adjective of which is "necessary"-- to sleep , . . *to be* necessary. The infinitive phrase functions as the direct object of "find."
11. "White" and "colored" are direct objects of the gerundive "reading," which functions as an adjective to "signs."
12. This clause could be explained as adverbial to "becomes," but because it is in parentheses, and is thus interjected into the sentence, it can also be explained as an interjection.
13. "Mrs." is an appositive to "title."
14. "Living" and "knowing" are gerundives to "Negro."
15. The infinitive "to expect" functions as an adjective to "what," which functions as the direct object of "knowing."
16. The infinitive "to wait" is the delayed subject, chunking to "it." "It" is the subject, and "difficult" is the predicate adjective in an ellipsed infinitive phrase that functions as the direct object of "find" -- find to wait *to be* difficult.

     A 311-word main clause, and what a beautiful main clause it is. Rev. King was, of course, trained as a public speaker, and I have to wonder if the parallel construction may be more characteristic of formal oral discourse. When spoken, sentences with parallel constructions allow for rhythmic pauses while simultaneously giving the audience meaningful semantic units and raising their expectations for what follows. In this sentence from "A Letter from Birmingham Jail," Rev. King precedes a very short main clause pattern with ten adverbial clauses, each beginning with "when." In order to handle a clause like this, the normal rules of punctuation are simply inadequate. Thus King uses semicolons, for example to separate the ten adverbial "when" clauses.
     The repetition of the subordinate conjunction keeps the sentence clear and understandable, even though it is extremely long and irritating to read. The irritation results from the length -- most sentences are shorter, and we unconsciously expect the period that closes one sentence before we begin another. King thus uses his sentence structure to evoke frustration in the reader, thereby subtly suggesting the frustration that made him no longer want to wait. But if the reader is frustrated by the length of the sentence, how much more so must King and his colleagues have been -- they had to endure the insults listed in the sentence! 
     Yet the very structure of this sentence indicates that King -- and by association his fellow Blacks -- has controlled his frustration, has brought it into order. This is, after all, the kind of sentence that Walker Gibson was talking about in Tough, Sweet and Stuffy. The ten left-branching, parallel subordinate clauses, each of which details a reason for Black impatience, are clearly ordered in the writer's mind. He knows that each of them not just depends on, but also leads toward that final "then you will understand." King's syntax thus has a double "semantic" effect: it evokes frustration in the reader to parallel the frustration of the Blacks, and it reflects the calm control of King.