Traditional wisdom has it that we are to worry over missing the forest for the trees, missing the meaning, that is to say, by too close an examination of the details. Sound advice, of course, but it is also true that forests are made of trees, that meaning is read by looking at something. Reading and writing well depend on understanding what makes up the ideas we think about, the form that is appropriate to a particular audience and purpose.
The three basic types of sentences—simple, compound, and complex—each have many shapes, or designs. One more elaborate such design is called the centered sentence. Here is an example from Franz Kafka’s psychologically troubling short story The Judgment (quoted from James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories, Dover, 2015):
For these reasons, if one was to maintain communication by letter at all, one could not send him any real news, as one would unhesitatingly do even to the most casual acquaintances.
This sentence follows a long paragraph in which the narrator is debating whether his friend, away and struggling in a foreign country, would be any better off returning home. He thinks not, and so does not wish to tell the friend any real news, which might in fact attract him back. The context of this centered sentence, then, is involved, thick with the psychological intricacies and the almost tortured self-consciousness we might expect from Kafka. Such a weightier scene supports the more complicated form of the centered sentence. Or better, the complicated shape of the centered sentence helps to make us feel the complications of the narrator’s interior deliberations.
Centered sentences are a kind of subordinated sentence, that is to say, their pattern includes substantial stretches of elements that support, but do not state themselves, a complete thought. They are, moreover, well named, for their principal assertion takes up position in the center of the sentence, with subordinate elements both before and after. Thus, in Kafka’s example, the main clause at the center is one could not send him any real news. Before it are two subordinate elements, the prepositional phrase for these reasons and a conditional clause beginning with the subordinating conjunction if; after it is another subordinate clause, this one beginning with the conjunction as, which announces a comparison of some sort. We might roughly see the outline of the design, then, as: condition (if), result (one could not send), comparison (as).
The presence of the conjunction if points to another defining element of this sentence. We can step away from our analysis of the compositional design of Kafka’s sentence and approach it again from a different angle, this time looking for the logic of the statement. The subordinating conjunction if introduces a conditional sentence, and indicates the proviso, the circumstances, in light of which something else might be true. Conditions and results and how the two are related are all ultimately matters of logical, not grammatical, concern. Logic has to do with statements making sense, rational sense. But in natural language, that logical sense is communicated by the grammatical form of a sentence, and so the two subjects, although academically separable, are little without the other if we wish to understand the deeper implication of what we read.
Close examination of this sort can teach us something important about analysis generally. The strength of analysis lies in its intense focus. We analyze one thing at a time, which means anything worth close scrutiny, like the language of literature and exposition, is likely to appear quite complicated. But the way past this difficulty is to remember not to confuse one line of analysis with another. Let there be a hundred things to be said about a sentence or passage; if we investigate one path at a time, resisting the temptation to take the cross paths, confusing grammar with logic or either with rhetoric, then we can steadily accrue a body of insights which, when we put them all back together, will give us a better understanding and deeper appreciation of the forest, the work at hand.
An inquiry: In Kafka’s sentence “…if one was… “ suggests a hypothetical. Shouldn’t the subjunctive “…if one were…” apply? Thanks for this excellent post. I learn something new every Tuesday and Thursday. DCL
The simplest way to understand English conditional sentences is to organize them into three categories. The traditional nomenclature is taken from Latin: logical, ideal, and unreal (or contrary to fact). A logical condition has an indicative verb in both the conditional and the result clause; it asserts an inevitable, almost mechanical, connection between what happens and what condition that depends upon. An ideal condition has a subjunctive verb in the conditional clause, and expresses the possibility or probability of some result. An unreal conditional sentence has a subjunctive verb in both clauses, and asserts something that is not in fact true. The sentence you are asking about here is a logical condition because it has an indicative verb in both clauses: was (the past indicative of be) and could (the past indicative of can). The sense of that conditional is similar to this situation: Imagine someone remarking how altruistically a friend used to spend his money, and someone else responds, I know. If someone needed money, he gave it to him. The notion is that there was an inevitable result that issued from a certain condition. You might take a look at an earlier post that discusses the conditional sentence in more detail: In an Ideal World
Thanks for your question.
Leave a comment