Revising By Grammar

It’s all well and good to claim that a little knowledge of grammar can help in revising a draft, but how about a demonstration? Here is a first draft from a student who is envisioning a short piece about her travels to northern Thailand a number of years ago:

Three Hill Tribe men and a pregnant pig stood up to their knees in thick sludge that seemed like quicksand. The men had dark leathery skin, long unkempt hair, dark stained teeth, and wore tattered clothes. They communicated by hand gestures and a language I could not understand. But, from what I could see, was that their goal was to get that pig out of the mud and in the line of Hill Tribe people headed to the base of the mountain; the open market.

That first clause can’t be beat, and all four sentences of the paragraph turn together nicely, their themes moving from men and a pig to the men alone (in the second and third sentences), returning again to men and pig to conclude with the reason for it all: the open market. We should note that this movement of ideas has a shape; it is transitive, the themes of the sentences are going somewhere, and that renders to the paragraph a design and therefore a purpose. We read an expository paragraph like this in a rational frame of mind. The ideas, or themes, of the sentences, therefore, have to cohere, to cling together, in order for a paragraph to meet its essential requirement of unity.

Let’s remember, though, that this is a first draft, which means that we can test grammatically whether the construction of the individual sentences is each best serving the design of the paragraph we have discerned. The first sentence as it stands is complex, comprising both an independent clause (three Hill Tribe men and a pregnant pig stood) and a subordinate clause (that seemed). The sentence jets out strongly with an interesting subject and a simple independent action, but that power is pulled back too soon with the brief qualification made by the subordinate clause (that seemed like quicksand). That comparison is central to the paragraph; it creates the tension of the entire scene, but asserting it in a clause suggests that more can and will be said about it. That doesn’t happen, though, and so the sentence sputters on its launch.

Two revisions suggest themselves: we could change and expand the subordinate clause to an independent, appending it then to the first clause with a semicolon (Three Hill Tribe men and a pregnant pig stood up to their knees in thick sludge; it seemed like quicksand and could end their journey); or we could change the relative clause into a simple phrase and simply attach it with a comma (Three Hill Tribe men and a pregnant pig stood up to their knees in thick sludge, almost quicksand). What’s important to see is that sentence structure (along with vocabulary and punctuation) creates the energy and direction of the thinking. Clauses assert and phrases suggest, and knowing that difference can give us a way to balance and control the force of our ideas.

We could apply this same kind of close grammatical analysis to each sentence of this very good first draft, but let’s just look at the last phrase of the last sentence and the way the writer has punctuated it. The concluding phrase, the open market, is meant to expand the meaning of a previous reference; the writer has referred to the base of the mountain, and adjoining the phrase the open market explains what the base of the mountain means in this context. That is a very good choice, because it brings to a fine and sudden point the meaning (and consequence) of all the scenes depicted in the paragraph before it. Putting one grammatical element next to another like this is called apposition, and when the second element is meant, as here, simply to further describe the previous phrase it refers to, it is set off by a comma, not a semicolon. Thus, the line of Hill Tribe people headed to the base of the mountain, the open market. Because a semicolon includes a period in its construction (the mark is, after all, a period stacked over a comma), it has the strength (often but not always) to isolate the sections of a sentence. That is exactly what the writer does not want to do in this last sentence, for the base of the mountain, the open market, is the very destination of the entire paragraph.

Grammatical analysis should complement, not antagonize, our imaginative, creative impulse. It is true that what simply follows the rules can appear studied and lifeless, but creative vision undisciplined can too often soar up and out of control, missing a chance to share something closer to the way we once experienced it ourselves.

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  1. rultimo

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  1. A very helpful post. The linkages between grammar, logic, and rhetoric are clearly visible. I only wish my first drafts were as good as your student’s. DCL

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