Some Basics

Let’s return to some basics to remind ourselves how best to approach a sentence we want to revise. To revise something means, literally, to look at it again, and revising a sentence begins by analyzing it. When we analyze a sentence, we are said to be loosening it apart (that is the derivation of the word), disassembling it in order to see more exactly the sections that make up the statement. It’s usually enough for all practical purposes to keep on the hunt for three main elements: word, phrase, and clause.

A word is a group of letters we take together to symbolize an idea: the letters p + a + r + k become the word park. If we combine a number of words to symbolize another, larger idea, we produce a phrase: through the park. And if a combination of words includes a subject and a verb, we produce a clause: The dog ran through the park. A clause that states a complete thought on its own is called a sentence. If a sentence has one such independent clause, it’s called a simple sentence; if a sentence has two or more independent clauses, it’s called a compound sentence.

Because sentences can have more than one clause, it is best to analyze a troublesome statement clause by clause. Most of us, unfortunately, have gotten into the habit of jumping around a sentence in answer to a problem we haven’t really identified: the sentence just doesn’t work, we say; we just don’t like it. We have to begin with such immediate impressions, of course, but merely reacting to something we like or don’t like is not analysis. The loosening apart that is at the heart of analysis is achieved by methodical investigation. We should first read the sentence we don’t like from beginning to end. Then we go back to the beginning, and if it is a compound sentence, we read it clause by clause. Each clause, which means each group of words with its own subject and verb, is a separate project for analysis. Proceeding methodically this way through a longer sentence will keep the words upright, so to speak; or, to change the metaphor, it will keep the waves of the sentence from inundating us like a tsunami.

With one clause in view, then, we next separate it into subject and predicate. The subject is the element about which something is being said. In the clause the dog ran through the park, something is being said about the dog, so the dog is the subject of the clause. Then, what it is that is being said about the subject is called the predicate. The term predicate means to speak forth, and so the predicate of a clause will consist of the verb and all the other words that go with it to complete what is being said about the subject: ran through the park. It is customary and helpful practically to place a vertical bar (literally or with the mind’s eye) between the subject and predicate. Doing this will isolate these two essential foundations of every rational thought we will ever have, and it will give us certain control over our own thoughts and those of anyone else who might wish us to believe what they believe.

Control is good, but totalitarian control is not, and so it is imperative to remember that the other half of analysis, its inevitable complement, is synthesis. If analysis means to take apart, synthesis means to put together. Synthesis, we might say, is the whole point of analysis and the ultimate justification for taking the time and trouble to learn the terms and methods of an art, here the art of grammar or writing. To analyze is to pause, to take intelligent stock of what we have written and what, we feel at first, is not as good as it could be. We sharpen our analytical tools, cut this and trim that, and in fitting a sentence more suitably to the idea we have in mind, we set it about its own life to carry an idea to someone else. The hope is that working thoughtfully this way will not only be more enjoyable, but more in keeping too with the natural rhythm of things: always appearing, changing, and appearing again.


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion