Seeing What Choices We Have

Writing is not an easy affair for most of us. There are some few, of course, from whom sentences fall like water over a cliff, but for many of us (and I think most), the struggle to put our thoughts into words is not a chance we jump at. This is why it is important to remember that writing is an art, a craft, something that requires skill. It’s something that gets done in a certain way, which means there are things to be learned and techniques to apply.

We should linger for a moment on the word skill, because it has an interesting background that can shed some light on the importance of understanding sentence structure. The word skill derives from a verb meaning to cut apart or separate, and so it points to the idea of discernment, of being able to perceive all the things that make up a complicated set of circumstances. If we are skilled in doing something, we can see what’s going on, and see it so deftly that we know how to move this over there, and that back over here, rearranging parts we can identify and name. In writing—or to be more exact, in revising—those parts are elements and syntax: the three elements of word, phrase, and clause, and the grammatical role any one of them might be playing at the moment.

One of the skills a good writer develops is the ability to exchange one element for another while not changing the grammatical function of the element. Grammatical function, or role, means the part of speech the element is assuming on the stage of the sentence. Say, for example, we write a sentence like this: She always explained problems clearly. In this simple sentence, we have wanted to say something more about the way in which the subject always explained problems, and so we have included an adverb in the form of a single word at the end of the sentence. To speak of the form of a single word means to identify the element, and to name it an adverb means to understand which part of speech, or grammatical role, it is acting as.

Being able to see this structure or frame of the sentence then gives us a way to discover other possibilities, and it is just the inability to see what else is possible as we revise that causes writing to be such a struggle at times. Should we decide, for example, that the one word clearly doesn’t sufficiently emphasize the manner in which the subject explained problems, we could seek and find another way to express the idea by first seeing the adverb in the form of a single word, and then changing it to a phrase: She always explained problems in a clear way. And if we judged that this revision still does not make the point sufficiently, we could keep our eye on this new adverbial phrase and know that an adverb can also be expressed in a clause: She always explained problems when we were confused. The skill to understand the structure of words has given us here two possible revisions to our original draft, two ways to change what we might not have been happy with.

And there’s no stopping there. This skill of cutting apart, or analyzing, can carry us even further. If she always explained problems clearly, perhaps she always explained problems clearly when we were confused. Here we have retained the original adverb in the form of a single word, clearly, but now we have qualified that single word by placing the adverbial clause, when we were confused, right beside it. We have given ourselves, then, yet another choice to consider, a choice that has arisen by thinking structurally. Of course, the same skill can be applied in reverse, analyzing long sentences and reducing them by separating out elements we can identify. And when we are able to do that, we’re clearing the bramble, and making the way to our ideas simple and direct.


Upcoming Seminar

Seeing the Action: The Three Aspects of Verbs
Tuesday, December 15
7:00 to 8:00 p.m. CT

What is the difference between I read, I am reading, and I do read? Good writers remember that they can control how their readers see and react to the ideas they’re writing about. One grammatical device that shapes the way we depict the action of a verb is called aspect. This next Writing Smartly seminar will explain the three aspects of a verb in English, and illustrate the very different effect each has on the picture we are painting in words for our readers. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the presentation, including exercises and answers for private study. You may enroll now through this registration link. Tuition is $25.



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