I would like to take up another sentence a student recently composed as part of a paragraph assignment. He was asked to think closely about design, about where and why he was positioning phrases and clauses across the sentences he was writing. In this one, he was trying to postpone the main assertion to the final position. Here is his original:
Since selfies have catapulted into popularity, selfie-takers, aiming for a perfect pose, fighting to duck and avoid being hit by each other, as if two adroit sword masters are fighting, are a common scene.
Let’s analyze quickly the outlines of what we have here. The sentence begins with a subordinate clause (Since selfies have catapulted into popularity), followed by the subject—and only the subject—of the main clause (selfie-takers). Remembering that the writer’s intention was to postpone the main assertion (with something called a suspensive sentence), we have to work our way through three other elements until we arrive at the predicate of the main clause (are a common scene). That’s the overview, and we can schematize it like this: subordinate clause + main subject + two participial phrases + subordinate clause + main predicate. That’s a complicated lot.
Not all sentence designs are always possible. A suspensive sentence intends to clang the cymbals on the final note of a sentence, leaving a substantial idea ringing in our minds. But look at the scheme of this sentence structure again: the final element, the predicate, which is to say the very assertion of the main clause, only sparkles like a triangle: are a common scene. There’s just not enough there for strong percussion. So let’s change the design and see what happens.
If we instead put the main subject and predicate back together again, we can begin the sentence this way: Since selfies have catapulted into popularity, selfie-takers are a common scene. This is indeed the humble heart of what the writer wants to say. He also wants, appropriately enough, to compare that assertion to a metaphorical world; he sees something about all the jostling around groups of selfie-takers that reminds him of two sword fighters contending with each other. That’s a nice image, and the writer has made the right choice, I think, to build a bridge to this comparison by composing participial phrases (the two groups of words that begin aiming and fighting): phrases suggest where clauses assert. So if we take those two phrases, along with the remaining subordinate clause, and assemble all of that after the main assertion, our next revision looks like this:
Since selfies have catapulted into popularity, selfie-takers are a common scene, aiming for a perfect pose and fighting to duck and avoid being hit by each other, as if two adroit sword masters are fighting.
We should not, though, rest contented yet, because that last clause (beginning as if ), is a little heavy handed. Once again, clauses state thoughts; they combine a subject and a predicate, which together make up an assertion. But what the writer is expressing in a clause is merely the metaphorical world, and so the comparison is being made too brashly; rather, we should transform this loud clause into a quieter phrase, while at the same time trimming up a bit what precedes it:
Since selfies have catapulted into popularity, selfie-takers are a common scene, aiming for a perfect pose and sparring with each other, like two adroit sword masters.
And from that, one last revision that will draw the real and imagined worlds together more closely and tighten up the entire sentence, with a little flourish at the end:
Since selfies have lunged into popularity, selfie-takers are everywhere, all sparring with one another for the perfect pose, like adroit sword masters contending.
Remember, we are trying with all this revision work to rebalance a sentence, to put the thoughts and ideas that make up a particular statement into their appropriate grammatical forms. According to the classical precept, the form must fit the content; balance, or proportion, is all. And that, really, is the final justification for the study of grammar. For if we can identify sentence structure and understand how its elements work, we will have the means to write in a way that is faithful to the balance and relationship of our own good thoughts and ideas.