The Power of Structure

I would venture to say that the first sentence of Charles Dickens’ Nobody’s Story will bring most anybody’s attention to a halt: He lived on the bank of a mighty river, broad and deep, which was always silently rolling on to a vast undiscovered ocean. The sentence opens a very short story (only six pages), and it glistens with a symbolism that sparkles meaning through the entire first paragraph. Sentences like this which are so well drawn are worth looking at more closely; their power lies in their structure, and it can be instructive to understand what at first appears to be unimportant detail.

Let’s concentrate first on the phrase broad and deep. Dickens is describing a river, the noun which immediately precedes these two adjectives. But he has also just described that same river as mighty, and he placed that adjective before the noun, not after it like broad and deep. Why? Adjectives that precede their noun are called attributive; they are meant to name an attribute, an essential and inseparable feature, of the noun they are describing. Here, Dickens intends to convey the idea that he is talking about a river (and perhaps something else) that is mighty in its very nature—all the time, not sometimes; it is a thing to be reckoned with in coming upon it, and it will be mighty every time we do. But when adjectives are placed after the noun they describe, they are called predicate; they stand in a predicate position (predicates usually follow their subjects), and they carry the power of a verb, whether that verb is actually present in the sentence or not. Dickens wrote a mighty river, broad and deep, not a mighty river which was broad and deep. It is the absence of the words which was that accounts for the power of the phrase broad and deep; we feel the beginning of a new clause with another verb, but we don’t see one. To imply but not explicitly say something can be a powerful thing.

Then there is the phrase rolling on to a vast undiscovered ocean. We might have expected to read onto, not on to, fusing the two words into one. The grammarians say this melding of the two words is a relatively recent phenomenon (see Bergen and Cornelia Evans’ A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, 1957, for a excellent brief discussion of this), but there is more to it than convention. To roll onto means to touch something and place oneself upon it, and it would be difficult to picture how a river and ocean could do just that. To roll on to, however, means something very different. The word on is an adverb here, not a preposition, which means on is working with the verb roll. The two words form what is called a phrasal verb, and the picture we are intended to see is the continuous movement of a mighty river, not its arriving and touching and joining itself to anything else. Onto would mean the river has reached the ocean; on to means it is ever moving toward the ocean. That slight detail accounts for another start of power in this one grand sentence, and it opens a way for a deeper implication.

All this grammatical dissection, of course, will serve us well only if it brings us back to the original, now more aware and sensitive to what might be going on. The predicate adjectives broad and deep are separated from their noun, and that separation suggests that they might also be referring to He, the first word of the sentence and the subject of the story. Likewise, the verb phrase roll on to, with its meaning of continuous movement, suggests that it might not be only the river that is ever flowing: perhaps it is also every life coming and going, just like the life of the anonymous protagonist. Good stories and fine writing overlap many meanings, and we can come to see the strands by understanding the structure of language.


The next Writing Smartly seminar, Nouns and Adjectives, will be held on Tuesday, October 20, at 7:00 p.m. This one-hour discussion will clarify the difference between count and collective nouns, and explain how that knowledge can keep your ideas exact and clear. Adjectives make nouns more specific, and using them skillfully depends on where they are placed and how they are punctuated. We will also discuss how best to use a comma in listing a series of nouns and adjectives, and highlight the misunderstanding that can result in not punctuating accurately. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the presentation, including exercises and answers for private study. You may now enroll directly through this registration link. Tuition is $25.


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1 Comment

  1. A wonderful and insightful post! Thank you. I love seeing such close analysis of writing that works; it’s a tremendous service to all readers and especially to those readers who are also writers.

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