Where Things Stand

Rearranging what we’ve written makes up a large part of revising our work. Grammarians refer to what is called syntax, the arrangement of words across a sentence to produce meaning. Change the syntax and we change the meaning, or at least the angle from which the reader sees what we’re saying. So there’s some reason we should understand how an English sentence is put together.

It can be helpful to think of three elements as we look over what we’ve written. Sometimes called sentence units, these elements—words, phrases, and clauses—are the bricks, or components, or building blocks we assemble into certain patterns to represent our ideas. The problem with ideas is that they’re hard to see. We all have ideas, of course; they’re what our minds are made of. But if we’re looking at our draft and seeing a page filled with words, we know for sure we’re swimming in a world of ideas, because words symbolize ideas. The questions is whether we’ll swim or sink amidst them.

After we’ve jumped into that blank screen or bare piece of paper, it’s fine to thrash about for a while in the cold sheer shock of it all. Tread for a time and splash around with all the ideas that might arise as you turn your mind to the topic you want to write about. But soon enough will come the time to get going, to start swimming in some coordinated way to move away from shore. That’s where an eye to syntax comes in. And maybe that’s a good way to think about syntax: the coordinated movement of words. To coordinate means to put into order, to organize, to orchestrate for a certain effect. We don’t try to understand sentence structure just to understand the theory of sentence structure. The sun is shining, so we have to be outside doing things. By moving words around knowingly, we move through our sentences differently, trying to stay with the waves of ideas more gracefully and naturally.

It’s a strange thought at first: trying to be more graceful in our expression by understanding sentence structure. It sounds like a strange alchemy or the ancient mystery of trying to square the circle. What have grace and simplicity and naturalness to do with regulating syntax? Everything, really, because all those ideas in our head must take some form, some recognizable pattern in order for someone else outside our head to understand them. That is what art is: the skillful production of something which someone else can interpret in order to comprehend what we are thinking or seeing or simply joying in. Something well done is artful, no matter how mundane it might seem to be. It is inevitably social, because it takes us out of ourselves and puts us before others who share our world—and who too, ideally, know how the communicative art of language works.

Here’s a very simple example. If I tell you that the house is for sale, you’re likely to ask me which house, because I’ve done nothing to specify which of the tens of houses in the neighborhood I’m talking about. If I then place the prepositional phrase on the corner immediately next to the noun house, I’ve added an adjective (in the element of a phrase modifying a noun) that will make my assertion more specific: the house on the corner is for sale. And recognizing that phrase as an adjective, I could trim the sentence a bit and realize that on the corner means corner: the corner house is for sale. That may be a better choice in the paragraph I’m writing, or it may not. All we want is the ability—the knowledge of sentence structure—to change things knowingly if we wish. The more we read and write and rewrite, the more inevitably will we come into command of our art. Inevitably.

With all that, I’ve sharped the subject side of my statement and I’ve left the predication, is for sale, untouched. But what if I come to realize that what I really want to tell you is where the house is, not that it is for sale? That’s the kind of clarifying insight that often results from close sentence analysis, and so all I now have to do is change the order of the words: the house for sale is on the corner. Doing that changes the same prepositional phrase into an adverb; I still have the same words, but now in a different syntax with a different meaning. And that is important to realize, because shape is significant in art; and in the art of language, or at least in the art of the English language, where things stand determines both what we’re saying and how we’re saying it, substance and manner both. Now the study of grammar has moved off the dusty page, and we can splash around for a while in the wave of words and ideas.


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