Take a Stand

To think about language is to think about thinking, and the only qualification that pronouncement needs is that by language we mean prose, not poetry. Poetry is the work of our intuition, but prose is our everyday language, the way we speak and write to accomplish our day’s work and pleasure. The term prose originates in a Latin adjective meaning straightforward, and that is exactly what should characterize the basic language we use to think and speak about the world.

In order to be straightforward, however, we have to hold to a certain particular perspective; we have to take a stand on what it is we’re talking about, and tell the reader in so many words that this is how we see real things. Revision work is a matter of gaining and maintaining a perspective, sometimes simply and directly, sometimes from an oblique angle that presents a richer, more varied scene. But no matter how simple or complex, the shape our sentences take can always remain straightforward; and with even a modicum of knowledge about syntax and structure, we can stand up and move around and see the scene from another vantage point that will change the reader’s view of what we’re trying to depict.

Take, for example, this statement: The day was so beautiful and we went to the beach. We have here two clauses—two thoughts—joined simply by the most common of conjunctions, and. That arrangement means you want the reader to see the two clauses even and balanced, straight before them with the light of their attention fixed first on this thought and then on that thought, no connection between them being made explicit: there was this and there was that, and that’s that.

Straightforward, yes, and very simple. And sometimes that’s exactly what a writer wants; there can be strength in unspoken implication, and putting down plainly two thoughts one next to the other keeps the lights hot and the shadows away. But now you want to change the balance a bit to show the background against which going to the beach took life. You can transform the first clause into a phrase, employing what is called an absolute construction, a noun combined with a participle: The day being so beautiful, we went to the beach. A loftier tone perhaps, but then perhaps the purpose of the piece and the audience for whom you are writing will both support that more sophisticated voice. Good writers have many voices.

But if that revision overshoots the mark, you can return to the original compound sentence, regain your bearings, and launch out in a different direction, converting the first main clause to a subordinate one to show that the beautiful day was the reason for going to the beach: Because the day was so beautiful, we went to the beach. Or, since every reason has a result, you could shine a brighter light on what happened by explicitly announcing the outcome with the conjunction so in the second clause: The day was so beautiful, so we went to the beach. Whereupon you might change the first so, an adverb, to just to avoid too close a reoccurrence of the word: The day was just beautiful, so we went to the beach.

Each of these revisions—absolute phrase, subordinate clause of cause, main clause of result—sees the same two ideas, a beautiful day and a trip to the beach, from quite different angles. This wordcraft is the very stuff of writing and thinking, because as we change the construction of a sentence, we change how we think about the actuality of what happened. It was a fact that the day was beautiful, and a fact that we went to the beach; those realities will not change. But how we choose to present or logically connect those realities makes the writing of prose what it is: a means to take a stand amidst the facts of life and tell someone else how reality appears to us.


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