The Importance of Relationships

If so much of writing is about striking the right relationship between author and subject, then we can’t neglect thinking about how we shape and punctuate our sentences. To be related means to be connected, to be tied in some way to someone or something else in a situation. A relationship has to do with the manner in which we act and exist before someone else. The way we speak to a friend can be very different from the way we speak to someone we’ve never met before, and in writing, that change shows up in the choices we make in vocabulary, the shape of our sentences, and the way we punctuate phrases and clauses.

Let’s imagine this set of circumstances: Sarah, David, and Steve work together. The three have a meeting scheduled for Thursday, and Sarah tells David that Rebecca, whom David does not know, will be attending as well. David mentions this in an email to Steve, writing, I understand that Rebecca (whom I haven’t met) will be joining us. The sentence intends to communicate two ideas: that David is aware that Rebecca will be attending the meeting, and that David does not know her. How can we see the writer’s relationship to these ideas in the way he has structured and punctuated the sentence? Are the two ideas of equal importance in the writer’s mind?

Those questions are answered by looking closely at the structure of the sentence, because design points to meaning. The one idea David wanted to communicate above all in composing the sentence was the fact that he was aware Rebecca would be attending; we know this because that is the idea he put in the main clause (I understand). The fact that he has not met Rebecca is incidental, or subordinate, to that main fact, and we know this in turn because the writer put that idea in a subordinate clause (whom I haven’t met). Indeed, we can go one step further and conclude that not only was the idea minor, it was of no particular consequence to the writer because the subordinate clause has been put in parentheses, which presents the idea as an aside, something said casually along the way.

What other choices did the writer have? First, he could have punctuated the subordinate clause with commas instead of parentheses: I understand that Rebecca, whom I haven’t met, will be joining us. This would have heightened the subordinate idea a litle, suggesting it was of some importance to him, greater at least than a casual mention. Or the writer could have replaced the parentheses with dashes, magnifying his emotional response to the decision: I understand that Rebecca—whom I haven’t met—will be joining us. Or he could have transformed the subordinate clause into an independent clause, isolating the idea and thereby heightening even more its consequence to him: I understand that Rebecca will be joining us; I have not met her.

Listen closely to the overtones of each of these revisions, and you will be able to see how the compositional choices we make determine the way in which our reader sees the larger circumstances within which we are saying something.  All the connections, or relationships, we’re involved in together create a context, and so it is important to be clear in our own minds about the circumstances of the moment we are communicating. Who is who to whom and what? This will help keep our written voice natural and far from that pretense that produces an artificial written personality that only distances our reader from the reality—the truth—of what we’re trying to say.


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