50 Shades of Grammar

Guest Post 
by Anna Villeneuve

Anna Villeneuve is a Professor of English at Citrus College in Glendora, California. She writes romance for Bella Books under a pseudonym.


Who gets excited about grammar? When it’s time to talk subjects and verbs, I know that I am going to lose my students’ attention unless I do something dramatic. They already consider the study of sentence syntax nothing short of sadistic, so I use that to my advantage and use 50 Shades to keep their attention. They cannot believe that their literary-lesbian-feminist teacher would ever crack the spine of such a book, and I will admit it was a painful read. However, I have never seen grammar as clearly as I did when I read 50 Shades of Grey and use the book’s conflict to discuss the symbiotic relationship between grammar and romance. The first semester I used this idea, we even created a slogan for a shirt… Punctuation: Words in Bondage.

Anastasia is an independent clause. She went to school and has a job. Critics of the novel argue that she is an underdeveloped character, but all a simple sentence needs is a single subject and verb. Accept her, then, as a simple sentence, a single woman dreaming of another independent clause out there with whom she can coordinate. She’s thinking of all the ways they can become a compound sentence. Maybe a casual comma coordinating conjunction:

I like him, so we will get coffee.

Some nights they can dress it up with a conjunctive adverb:

We’ve been dating for a while; therefore, I will introduce him to my friends.

When they are really serious, she can see the single semi-colon signaling their togetherness:

We are perfect together; we shall marry and live happily ever after.

There’s only one problem.

He wants to subordinate. To be clear, here, he is the only independent clause in a complex sentence. Only dependent clauses need apply. Coordination is so vanilla. His special room is full of subordinating conjunctions:

Although she is beautiful, only docile women interest me.

He has relative pronouns in his pocket:

I am the one who is in control.

The interesting thing about subordinating conjunctions is that what we do intuitively as writers shapes the meaning of the sentence. I never noticed before I read 50 Shades, but when I viewed sentences as relationships, I could very clearly see how much power the independent clause holds over the dependent clause:

Even though he will be married in June, he is single now.
Even though he is single now, he will be married in June.

The first sentence says who cares about promises! Technically, no-one is breaking a code of honor. The second cautions the interested party to hold the value placed on engagements. The independent clause makes the call.

I am not critiquing S&M culture, but I think that it is important that people know what they are getting into. I do not judge Anastasia for trying things his way:

If… if I look at your room, could you… be gentle?

Remember, she is a virgin. But I do have a problem with Christian’s response:

We can be vanilla your first time, but then we do things my way.

What rankles me is that he refuses to acknowledge that without the joining words. Whether they coordinate or subordinate, she is her own person. As her own person, she can even choose to engage in a threesome:

After you play the dominant, we can talk about it, for communication is important.

We can invite as many independent clauses into the sentences as we want (as long as it’s punctuated properly i.e. be careful). The problem is that he sees only a dependent clause. That, in grammatical terms, is a fragment:

Because I let you take control of my life.

The story is not just about naughty sex. It’s about whether two consenting adults are engaging in actions that result in a complete relationship, a complete sentence. The storyline results in a woman sacrificing her identity. In academic writing, a sentence fragment is considered one of the major sentence errors. In life, to allow yourself to be as fragment is a major life error.

It is no accident that the movie was launched to the public for Valentine’s Day, a time when so many feel the pressure to be partnered. I also use my 50 Shades of Grammar to encourage my students to stand proud as the independent clauses they are. There is no shame in the simple sentence! When we partner, in writing and in life, we must remember that there are all sorts of different ways to hook up, each with its own rules of conduct. As long as we know the rules, we’re allowed to have some fun!

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