A Clause Versus a Phrase

Though it might offend our pride to realize, not everything we have to say is as important as we might think. We draw breath to speak a simple sentence because a thought has occurred to us, but that one thought doesn’t live alone; it takes its life along with other thoughts, some only half expressed, and together a sentence appears that communicates a world of ideas.

Let’s throw ourselves into the present, passionate world of the Covid vaccine, and with the sciences of grammar and rhetoric (there seems to be no science of logic in this current confusion) let’s examine a sentence like this one: The controversy, begun by those who question science and promoted by others who have much to gain for themselves, has reached across the country, from home to school to legislature. That’s quite an assemblage of ideas, not excessively so, but enough in number for us to wonder how we might see the organization of the sentence. The point of sentence analysis is ultimately to gain awareness of the thoughts and ideas being presented to us, so that we are in a position to make an independent judgment of things and not be carried along and out to sea by the undertow of emotions and assumptions. Can you think of something more important at the moment?

As is ever the case, we begin an analysis by seeing clearly what we’re examining. We should read the sentence in its entirety, from capital letter to period, looking first for clauses. A clause is the combining of a subject with a verb, and when we do that, we are asserting something (the word assert means, in fact, to join in Latin). What we’re asserting with a subject and verb joined together is a thought, and so our first pass over a sentence is looking for the one or more thoughts (in the form of clauses) that the sentence really intends to convey. In the 30-word sentence we are analyzing here, there is only one independent clause (the controversy has reached), and so, though substantial in volume and organization, the statement can be classified grammatically as a simple sentence (whether the two subordinate clauses who question and who have within the participial phrases are enough to define this sentence as complex is, thankfully, a subject for another time).

Simple in sentence structure, but not so simple in the number of ideas it presents. We commonly tend to use the words thoughts and ideas synonymously, but in language analysis, the two are to be carefully distinguished. A thought is properly represented by a clause (subject + verb), and a clause may be independent or subordinate, which means some thoughts need no help in communicating their ideas while others do. But when we see a group of words that do not combine a subject with a verb but still obviously work together in some way—begun by those who question science, for example, or promoted by those who have much to gain for themselves, we don’t have what we could call a clause, but we do have what is called a phrase. A phrase is a group of words that are related in some way without a subject and verb, and the all-important distinction between clause and phrase is this: a clause expresses a thought and a phrase only suggests one. Both are trying to communicate ideas, but only a clause declares its idea explicitly.

And it is a very good thing there is a difference between a clause and a phrase, because writing clause after clause in a sentence, with no relief from one positive declaration after the next, would pound the reader silly. The world we live in is not dominatingly monochromatic but wondrously multicolored, with some ideas a shade less important in the moment of the sentence than others. Phrases, the suggestion of ideas, build out the linguistic world for the clause of the sentence; they are the planets around the sun of the main idea, the supporting characters to the lead actor appearing in the costume of a clause. Together phrases and clauses stage a world for us to enter, a presentation of ideas for us to think about.

And so our simple sentence is really only making one simple assertion: the controversy has reached, and that one skeletal thought is supported, or contextualized, by the prepositional phrases across the country and from home to school to legislature, together with the participial phrases begun by those who question science and promoted by others who have much to gain for themselves. Not one of these supporting phrases is declaring any idea outright, but each is powerfully implying something, and that is reason enough to be aware of the ideas they are winking.

Every phrase is a potential thought, but only made actually so when converted into a clause. As writers, we create an involved and interesting world with color and shades of ideas by weaving clauses with phrases. As readers, we understand that written world rationally by seeing every idea as a thought, the better to understand the many implications of what is being suggested to us to believe. And so it is then that we can come to our beliefs confidently and independently.


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