The Spice of Life

Cast your mind back to a time when we could leave our homes and travel anywhere at will (a time, let us remember, that will return) and imagine this sentence: I worked hard for a long time and I decided to take a vacation. On the face of it, there’s nothing special to see here: a workaday compound sentence of two independent clauses connected by the coordinating conjunction and. Basic and obvious—and that’s just the problem if too many of our sentences look like this.

Whether we are inclined to admit it or not, the world is an imponderable place, where first this happens and then that, where we perceive a million things in a day and try our best to connect and order them to make (or find) some sense of it all. And if we wish to communicate those experiences that make up our days, we have to compose sentences that are neither too complicated nor too simple, sentences that befit the complexity we are a part of. And the word complexity here is revealing, for it derives from a Latin verb that means to entwine or fold or pleat—all of which are actions that give dimension and interest to an otherwise flat surface.

We never experience the world, in other words, as a monotone, as an uninterrupted series of unvarying repetitions. Instead, one thing is always greater than another for the moment: this causes that; if this happens, then that will happen. We are, as the philosophers say, axiological creatures; we cannot help but value things, seeing one thing more important than another. We are rarely neutral in our estimations, and we respond vigorously to variety, which we even call the spice of life.

And this proclivity for diversity makes its way into good writing. There are times for simplicity and balance, of course, but if too many of our sentences take on a staid and constrained character, a paragraph will languish for lack of vigor. When things are everywhere all the same, there is no diversity, no vitality; there is instead only a totalitarian rigor. Strength and animation come from creative tension, our working to reconcile opposing forces, whether opposing muscle groups when we exercise or opposing ideas when we think and write.

In revising our work, then, we should examine our sentences to make sure we have built into them a complexity that is adequate to the thought we want to communicate. The steady balance of the sentence I worked hard for a long time and I decided to take a vacation does not accurately represent the enfolding or entwining of my working hard and my deciding to take a vacation. What happened, in actuality, was that one thing preceded the other, that it was the very fact of having worked hard that caused me to decide to take a vacation. Causes precede results; the two are not simultaneous, and so the balance of a compound sentence is not the better choice to depict the interlacing of the two actions.

Instead, we could redesign our original compound sentence into a complex one, changing the first independent clause into a subordinate one: Because I had worked so hard for a long time, I decided to take a vacation, where the combination of subordinate and independent clauses enriches the variety of the statement. Or we could heighten the diversity even more by introducing the independent clause with a participial phrase: Working so hard for so long, I decided to take a vacation. Since clauses assert and phrases only suggest, combining these two very different elements in one structure brings an even greater distinctiveness of style.

We should try, then, always to conform style to content; what we are saying cannot be separated from how we are saying it. And that, of course, is rarely achieved in casual conversation or a rough draft. When we have the chance to revise, though, changing the structure of a sentence can change the reader’s vision of what we have in mind, and that can make all the difference in the world.



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