In an earlier post, Revising By Grammar, we looked at the construction of the opening and closing sentences of a short descriptive paragraph. The writer, a student of mine, succeeded in capturing some fine images from her memory of a trip years ago to Thailand. As is ever the case with first drafts though, discoveries can be dusted and fitted together with some finer grammatical tools. Here’s her paragraph again:
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.
Let’s look at the second sentence. We can classify it as a compound sentence because it comprises two independent clauses, men had and men wore. The subject of the second clause has been omitted, asking the reader to supply what can be easily understood: the subject of the first clause, men, should also stand as the subject of the verb in the second clause, wore. This omission of a word which is otherwise logically and grammatically necessary is called ellipsis, and it is a good way to establish a more casual tone to a narrative; it’s a regular feature of our conversational voice. And because a good distance separates the first verb had from this second elliptical clause, the comma before and is a good idea too. I might get an argument about that (some might construe this as a simple sentence with a compound predicate, in which case there would be no comma), but I’d need some convincing.
Now if we stay with this second sentence and look more closely at its construction, the first verb, had, has three direct objects: dark leather skin, long unkempt hair, and dark stained teeth. Each of these three elements follows the same pattern: two adjectives + noun, instancing a style called (somewhat grandly) triadic parallelism. That means that the reader is invited to fall into a rhythm or cadence that continues three times, long enough for the ideas to appear in a significant shape before our attention. But watch what happens when the writer appends that second clause. Read the sentence again and stop at the word teeth. Then read it one more time as it was written. The four words and wore tattered clothes break the rhythm, and with that the smooth logical presentation of the three things the men had.
There is a way to correct this misalignment, and it involves looking at the very next sentence. This third sentence, like the second, is describing the men, so the two are related by function or intent. That gives us a way to see, then, that we can move the last element of the second sentence, that second elliptical clause, into the third sentence: The men had dark leathery skin, long unkempt hair, and dark stained teeth. They wore tattered clothes and communicated by hand gestures and a language I could not understand. Then, why not combine the two into one longer, balanced sentence: The men had dark leathery skin, long unkempt hair, and dark stained teeth; they wore tattered clothes and communicated by hand gestures and a language I could not understand. And, one step further: if we recognize that the men’s hand gestures were in fact the language the narrator could not understand, we can make that last clause appositional: The men had dark leathery skin, long unkempt hair, and dark stained teeth; they wore tattered clothes and communicated by hand gestures, a language I could not understand.
Once again, exactly what we have to say is presented by the structure of our sentences—the exact structure. Rewriting clauses as phrases, combining sentences, changing punctuation—all of this hones and sharpens the first images we discover about an idea or experience we want to communicate. The only real mistake we can make is to believe that our first draft is the final draft. Almost never.