Lab Work

Grammar can be a difficult sermon to preach sometimes, even to the choir. There’s lot of it, its intricacies can seem hairsplitting, and those two qualities alone conspire at times to convince us that it all might just be irrelevant anyway. But the rationale for thinking so much about grammatical structure is that the form carries the meaning. The way we say something can’t be separated from what we’re saying. And if that’s true, then the time we spend understanding grammatical structure is really time spent thinking about meaning.

But so much can depend on getting organized and proceeding methodically, qualities that do not seem to come to us naturally. Without these essential qualities, though, we are left looking across a sentence for some answer somewhere as to why our words are not saying what we want them to say. To analyze something means to loosen it apart, to separate this element from that, to isolate the parts and see what each is doing. With that detail, then, we can see what’s missing or what shouldn’t really be there at all. We give ourselves a chance to reorder, to reweave our original thought; we get behind the language, so to speak, not in front of it; we control what should be controlled and let fly what should be given its own flight to suggest and inspire. We analyze, in other words, for a time and for a purpose. Understanding structure is what the philosophers call instrumental work: it serves a purpose, but is not an end in itself.

Let’s see what proceeding methodically would look like in analyzing a sentence of some, but not unusually great, complexity. We are seated at a political rally, waiting for the charismatic candidate to approach the podium. I lean over to you and say, we are about to listen to the person many think will be the next president one day. The sentence works: the context is casual, the tone is conversational, and the elements of the sentence succeed in conveying rational meaning. But if we analyze the sentence more closely, if we isolate its elements in an effort to see how it works and so give ourselves other choices of style and design, we come upon a problem.

Working methodically above all means beginning at the beginning and undertaking our analysis in an orderly way through the sentence as it stands. If we do that here, we find first an independent clause (we are about to listen to the person), then another independent clause (many think), and then only one half a clause, a predicate without a subject (will be the next president one day). So who is it who will be the next president? The logical answer, of course, is the person we are about to listen to, but grammatically, the pronoun which would refer to that person is missing. To be grammatically complete, the sentence should include the relative pronoun who: we are about to listen to the person who many think will be the next president one day. In the living context, where gesture and intonation come to our help in communicating our thoughts, the sentence works just fine without the relative pronoun. And we can approve the sentence on the basis of ellipsis, the omission of words for stylistic reasons which would otherwise, for grammatical reasons, be necessary. But when we wish to understand the structure of a sentence, we cannot analyze what isn’t there. We must often, as here, restore what has been left out for reasons of style, and then proceed with our analysis to confirm that the sentence is saying what we mean it to say in the way we wish the meaning to carry.

It is important to remember that analyzing grammatical structure like this is a kind of laboratory work, a specialized thinking in a controlled environment that can help us find the answer to what might be going wrong in a sentence—as well as to what might be going right. Analysis works to complement synthesis, the putting back together what has been loosened apart. And there we have what is probably the eternal tension of any creative endeavor: living experience up against the rational understanding of it. And their amalgam can work wonders.



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