More to Be Said

In a post last week (Finding New Designs), I tried to demonstrate how analyzing a sentence can reveal new ways to revise what we have written. No draft is ever a final draft; what springs from our memory or imagination will take the first sentence pattern that comes to mind, and often that way of saying something will not cut the best figure for the audience and purpose at hand.

The idea under consideration last time was something called a noun clause. We usually think of words working singly: this word is a noun, that word is a verb. But the truth is we’re usually constructing sentences that use groups of words as single parts of speech. Individual words are only one of the elements of language; phrases and clauses are the other two. A noun clause, then, is merely a group of words with a subject and verb (that’s the definition of a clause) which in and of itself is acting as a noun in a sentence. So in the sentence we were analyzing, I thought it odd that he suddenly quit his job and moved away, the clause that he suddenly quit his job and moved away is functioning as a noun in relation to the pronoun it, defining just what it was that was so odd.

That same sentence, though, illustrates another point of grammar which is worth understanding. If we can see now what the relationship is between the noun clause and the pronoun it, how is that same pronoun connected to the word odd? How, in other words, does the main clause, I thought it odd, work grammatically in its own right? The answer involves two constructions: indirect statement and predicate objective. That’s a lot to be going on in a clause of merely four words.

We put sentences together to say something, and traditional grammar says we can do that in two ways: either get to the point and say it: it was odd—this is called direct statement, or report that you are saying it: I thought it odd—a construction called indirect statement. The two are actually easy to differentiate, because in indirect statement, the verb of the clause will always have some idea of saying, knowing, or thinking. So in our example, the main verb, thought, should signal to us right away that we are about to enter indirect statement, which means, in turn, that some other element is going to have to come along quickly to explain the direct object of that transitive verb: saying merely I thought it does not convey a sufficiently complete idea.

Here, then, is where the second construction, predicate objective, comes to work. If it’s true that saying only I thought it leaves the reader hanging as to what it is I thought about the direct object it, then I need to say something more. That part of a sentence in which we say something about something else is called a predicate (the word means speak forth in Latin), and so if I fill out the clause I thought it by adding the word odd, that single adjective ends up constituting a predicate for the direct object it—hence, a predicate objective.

We usually think of predicates in constant companionship with subjects; indeed, the relationship of subject and predicate is the fundamental one in logical discourse: what are you talking about? (the subject), and what are you saying about it? (the predicate) are the two questions basic to any clear communication. In indirect statement, though, what we are really saying is introduced first by our saying that we thought it. As unnecessarily complicated as that may sound, there are reasons we do this, chief among them probably to qualify what we’re about to assert as a subjective perception. The indirect clause I thought it odd is a shade more cautious than the bold assertion it was odd, and caution can be just as much a matter of humility as of timidity.

One last point. The construction I thought it odd is really a clipped form of I thought that it was odd. The difference between the two would take us into another post, but in this fuller form we can see the word odd, the predicate objective, clearly in a predicate of its own—hence the name of the construction. So why did the writer not use this fuller construction in the first place? See for yourself: I thought that it was odd that he suddenly quit his job and moved away. That is a slippery slide of subordinate clauses which the predicate objective construction can help us avoid.


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