Moving Words Around

Discussions about sentence design and stylistic effects can risk giving the impression that these are matters only for imaginative literature, not for language in its workaday character. Here’s an example of an interestingly constructed sentence in an ordinary (by which I do not mean undistinguished) college textbook on critical thinking of some years ago.

At the conclusion of a thorough treatment of logic and the scientific method, the author (W. Ward Fearnside in his About Thinking, Prentice Hall, 1997) begins his last paragraph with this sentence: Loud though our praise has been for the methods of science, we must end by acknowledging ethical values that lie beyond the perceptions of science. That’s a fine and stately sentence (emphasis on the word ethical is in the original), and after 22 hefty paragraphs on the history of explaining the mechanics of how it is we come to believe what we think, it raises the reader’s attention to the higher plane of character and worth. That elevation in tone is the effect of the design of this one sentence.

Standard English word order (sometimes helpfully abbreviated SVO) in an everyday sentence is subject, then verb, then object if there is one. Transitive verbs, as we know, take direct objects, so a sentence like the storm flooded the streets carries its uncomplicated thought straight to the reader: subject (the storm) + transitive verb (flooded) + direct object (the streets). Not all sentences, of course, employ a transitive verb, so sometimes the SVO acronym defers to SVC: subject + verb + complement. A grammatical complement is an element in the predicate of a clause that completes (hence the word complement) the assertion being made about the subject. Direct objects do just that, of course, and so the term SVC is more inclusive in accounting for what’s going on in the predicate. We might say, for example, that last night’s storm was unusually violent, where the word violent stands as a predicate adjective in complement to the copulative verb was. There is no direct object here because there is no transitive verb, but the predicate still contains words needed to fill out the thought, and those words are called complements.

All of this is at issue here because we first have to see that the initial clause of Fearnside’s sentence does not conform to this standard SVC word order. Loud though our praise has been for the methods of science is a deliberate reordering of the standard though our praise for the methods of science has been loud. The word though is a subordinating conjunction, and conjunctions usually begin their clause. If we look closely at the standard word order version, we can see that the word loud is a predicate adjective for the subject praise. But if we compare this standard version to the author’s, we observe that this same predicate adjective has moved from the final position in the subordinate clause to the initial one; our acronym for this design, then, would have to be CSV: loud + our praise + has been.

This reordering is called inversion, and writers undertake the construction when they want to guard against our falling into a lockstep—and unmindful—reading, sentence after sentence. Inversion takes us by surprise, shakes up both our grammatical and conceptual expectations, and in so doing forces us, or at least gives us the opportunity, to see the larger shape and consequences of an idea. And is that not the hypothesis we began with? After more than 350 pages of classroom discussion on deduction, induction, and evidence, Fearnside’s concern in the last paragraph of his book is that we not lose sight of realities higher than logic—despite all that he’s just said about it. His use of inversion helps him emphasize this idea of in spite of, raising our sights to greater things as he closes his work. That brings both interest and perspective to his ideas, and suggests to us a path we might want to take next in thinking about science and its real-world consequences. A higher idea in an inverted style.


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