Finishing the HatCollected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes is such an attractive title, such a colorful string of vivid nouns (each of which immediately resonated with me), such a promising memoir, that I felt I needed to order it immediately. Still waiting on its arrival, I began to muse on its wonderfulness.


Stephen Sondheim is a master of lyrics, but I would not attempt a syntactical analysis. Lyrics, like poetry, work with wordplay, alliteration, synecdoche, metonymy--all sorts of things, but they are not expected to be grammatical in the way that a sentence in, say, the New York Times is. Standard Edited American English is the language of journalism, narrative prose, essays, and much public discourse, but the language of musical theater is something beyond that. Often deceptively simple, it gains much of its power from delivery, pacing, and, of course, melody.


Nevertheless the title of Sondheim's new book, which is not only a collection of his song lyrics but a recollection of how and when they came to be created, with accompanying photos of the people he worked with, Playbills, and more, plus his musings on the process, is worth noting for its grammar.


"Finishing the Hat" comes from his musical Sunday in the Park with George, about the late-19th-century French painter Georges Seurat and his thoughts as he paintsBut grammatically, what is the phrase, exactly? 


It is the -ing form of the verb "finish," of course, which is used to

1) form the present progressive and past progressive tenses (am finishing, was finishing, is finishing, were finishing, et al.)

2) form verbals: the present participle and gerund forms.


Participles and gerunds are two of the three verbals in English; the other is the infinitive. Verbals are forms of verbs not used as verbs.


Whew! What is it in this case? The -ing form is a gerund when it's used as a noun, a participle when used as an adjective.


If finishing the hat is important to one, and one thinks, "Finishing the hat is important," it's the subject of that sentence, a noun, and thus a gerund. If one thinks, "I am finishing the hat right now," it is part of the present progressive tense, and if one thinks, "Finishing touches make the hat, and now I will proceed directly to the bakery for several tasty croissants," then "finishing" modifies "touches" and is a participle.


I will now move on  to the bakery for several tasty bonbons, it being a bit late in the day for certain bits of pastry.





What are some of your favorite lyrics, grammatically speaking? For extra points, what quotes from Sondheim songs did I use in my last sentence, about the bakery?


Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.


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