Grammatical Anatomy

Here is a sentence which illustrates an interesting problem in sentence design. The author is speaking of the frustrations of tourism (soon to be, happily, a problem again), and in a pitch of exasperation, he writes: Everyone is constantly competing, which is extremely stressful, with others to get to the same destinations. Something doesn’t work here; let’s figure out the what and why.

It is always good policy to begin a revision by identifying what it is we are about to analyze. We have here one sentence, and we observe that it comprises two clauses, two pairs of subjects and verbs: everyone is and which is. This reveals the grammatical foundation of the sentence, and with that in sight, we can then begin to focus on the clause which is extremely stressful, because these words seem to be interrupting a thought that began with the word competing. And right here is where the terminology of grammar can help us keep our analysis, which began with a hunch, under control.

The interrupting words make up a subordinate clause, and we know that because they begin with the word which, a relative pronoun. A relative pronoun (the three major relative pronouns are who, which, and that) produces a relative clause, and a relative clause is a kind of subordinate clause. A clause is subordinate when it cannot articulate a complete thought alone, and that is certainly the case here, because in merely saying which is extremely stressful, we don’t know what the relative pronoun which is referring to. The word to which a pronoun refers is called its antecedent, and the antecedent will appear in the independent clause with which the subordinate clause is working.

And with that brief grammatical understanding, we have a way to see the meaningful parts of which the sentence is composed. That, in turn, gives us a way to test whether those parts are working together as they should. If we are to look for the antecedent of a relative pronoun in the independent clause, we can see that the word which is referring to the fact that everyone is constantly competing with others; these six words (and really, as we will see, the other six words of the independent clause as well) represent the antecedent of which. And if that is true, we have confirmed our suspicion as to why the sentence does not work: the relative clause is interrupting the antecedent it is referring to.

So we would think that a simple change would change everything. But merely to move the relative clause past its apparent antecedent (Everyone is constantly competing with others, which is extremely stressful, to get to the same destinations) only displaces the same problem. As is often the case, though, this intermediate revision brings to light the next better correction. The real antecedent of which is the thought expressed by the entire independent clause, and so the proper place for the relative clause is after that complete thought: Everyone is constantly competing with others to get to the same destinations, which is extremely stressful. The sentence is in better shape now because its layout, its design, conforms to its logic, its bony mental structure. More could be done stylistically (Everyone is constantly competing with others to get to the same destinations, and this is extremely stressful, or Everyone is constantly competing for the same destinations, bringing stress and strife along with them), but this grammatical chiropractic (or sometimes even surgery) is a necessary first corrective.

Without a basic knowledge of sentence structure and the terminology that goes with it, we run the unwarrantable risk of starting over and over again and again. Here, surely, is where frustration with writing reaches its peak. Instead (and this is part of the traditional rationale for the study of grammar), we work more effectively, and therefore more pleasurably, when we can see conceptually what we have written in our draft. From that expectedly messy creation we bring order with understanding, and what results is closer, ever closer, to just what we wanted to say.


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