Syntaxis and parataxis


One student heard a mother on the bus admonishing her small son with the words,
Do that again and see what happens.
Realising that this was not just two imperatives as the words might suggest, he raised the question of how Latin or Greek would express it.

We decided that Greek would use a participle:
αὖθις τοῦτο πράξας ἶδοις ἂν ὅτι γένοιτο.
whereas Latin might put the first clause in the subjunctive:
iterum hoc facias, ecce quid fiat.
The first of the two clauses is actually a conditional.

Similar is Fais bien crains rien, where there is perhaps deliberate ambiguity, as Wittgenstein noticed (see earlier post).  This is something common to French and English. The words can be taken simply as a double exhortation—as parataxis; but it is syntaxis if the second proposition is taken as contingent on the first.

This figure can cause misunderstanding if ambiguity is not intended.  Kingsley Amis* says, ‘…this archaic source of error treats two apparent imperatives as separate injunctions, whereas what we have in fact is a conditional sentence…’

Amis says that the error is less prevalent since the spread of the “show me an X and I’ll show you a Y” construction, a splendid Americanism which is not about two separate things. But, he adds, ‘it came along too late to save Edith Sitwell from seeing two apparent imperatives as separate injunctions when Lear is made to say
     Allow not nature more than nature needs,
     Man’s life is cheap as beast’s,
and reading the passage as a statement of elderly pessimism or a couple of them.’

What Amis calls a splendid Americanism is used in the Good News Translation of Proverbs 22:29:
Show me someone who does a good job, and I will show you someone who is better than most and worthy of the company of kings.

Other examples of syntaxis similarly expressed:

  •  Seek and you will find. Matthew 7:7
  • Let me catch you poaching here again, and I’ll set the dogs on you. Motif

  • Arf a shiner, miss, and the bird is yours for life. E. Nesbit, The Phoenix and the Carpet
  • Feed a cold and starve a fever. Proverb
  • unum cognoris, omnis noris  Terence, Phormio 265
  • No pain, no gain  Proverb

In these, the first proposition is a conditional. But with similar wording, a concessive is sometimes expressed:

  • Slice him where you like, a hellhound is always a hellhound. P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, Ch.1
  • naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret  Horace, Epist., I, 10, 24


Next post: Is it superstition?

*Kingsley Amis, The King’s English, HarperCollins, 1998, p.100

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