Finding New Designs

The point of learning how to analyze a sentence is to give ourselves choices in revising our work. Our ideas have to find forms to fit their meaning; change a phrase to a clause, or redesign a complex sentence into a compound one, and what we’re saying appears in a different light with a different effect.

It can be helpful, then, to understand how a more involved sentence works. Take, for example, this more elaborate, though still fairly conventional, sentence: I thought it odd that he suddenly quit his job and moved away. Where should we begin in understanding how a sentence like this is put together? There is actually a good, reliable answer to that question: not in the middle. Sentences unfold in English from left to right, and the meaning that words produce together has much to do with where the words stand in a sentence; this is called the principle of proximity. We analyze something best in conformance with its working structure, not by poking here and pinching there, hoping that we can figure something out. A solid rule in sentence analysis is, begin at the beginning and end at the end.

After reading the sentence through and sharpening your pencil, look in order for clauses, placing a vertical bar between subject and predicate. Every clause is a thought, and your thoughts, after all, are what you’re trying to communicate to someone else. In our example, the first clause is I | thought it odd. Why end the clause there? Because the next word, that, is a subordinating conjunction, a word that begins another clause, with he as the subject and quit as the verb. So to include the word that in this first group of words would be to insert the opening of the second clause into the conclusion of the first clause. Analysis works by isolating and separating, so it’s essential to know which parts of a sentence certain words comprise.

We can’t understand the second clause here, though, without comprehending the structure of the first—appreciating again the fact that English sentences move from left to right. The pronoun I is the subject of the first clause, and its verb, thought, is transitive: I thought something, namely, it. But merely to say I thought it does not yield a full idea to the reader, so the clause completes its meaning by adding the adjective odd: I thought it odd. That thought is grammatically complete, but what it’s referring to is not yet revealed. Stopping at the word odd, the reader would surely ask, What’s odd? That question is then answered by the second clause in the sentence, the one beginning with the conjunction that. What’s odd, the writer is asserting, is that [meaning the fact that] he suddenly quit his job and moved away. Notice that this second clause is answering the question what? To ask what? is to be looking for a thing, and things are nouns in grammar. That means, then, that the entire second clause, from the conjunction that to the period, is a noun clause, a clause acting as a noun in the sentence.

So if that’s the analysis, what’s the synthesis? We don’t just analyze to tear things apart; we analyze to see more clearly and understand more incisively—and then put it back together, perhaps differently. The first clause of the sentence needs the second clause to logically complete its meaning. The two work together by a construction called apposition, the placing of one element (here the clause beginning with that) next to another element (here the first clause of the sentence) so that the one amplifies the meaning of the other. And why was that necessary? Because the first clause, though it may not sound so, is rather lofty in design. The pronoun it in the clause I thought it odd has no antecedent, no earlier word to which the pronoun refers. This design is called an anticipatory object, meaning that the writer wants the reader to anticipate, to expect, the referent to come as the sentence is read through. And that’s just what happens. Exactly what is odd is answered by the entire second clause standing in apposition to the first.

Understanding all that structure, then, we have some choices to make. We could keep the sentence just as it is, a little involved, but still conventionally acceptable. Or we could retain the anticipatory function of the pronoun, but state it directly: It was odd that he suddenly quit his job and moved away. Or we could break that complex sentence in two: It was odd. He suddenly quit his job and moved away. Or we could unmake the anticipatory function entirely by inverting the order of these two separate statements and employing a conventional demonstrative pronoun: He suddenly quit his job and moved away: that was odd. The point is that all these choices are inspired by analysis. It may seem cumbrous now, but as you continue to analyze, the practice becomes unconscious. You will internalize your understanding of sentence construction, and that knowledge will work in the background of your mind as you draft and revise your work.


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