Grammatical Observation

A student of mine is an avid runner and he often sets out along the lakeshore here in Chicago. More than once he has observed how beautifully the light of the sun strikes through the trees along his path, and recently he decided to put together a short paragraph describing the sight. Here is an extract:

I stopped and looked up. In the midair, fluttering leaves flickered as rays of sunlight pierced through its translucent blades. I was enamored with its midair beauty.

These three sentences are part of the writer’s rough draft, so he knew, in looking at it again, that he would likely have to make both corrections and adjustments. The frame of mind that takes us back to our memory to fetch the images that were part of an experience does not like to pause in careful, critical judgment; it’s after abundance, exuberantly welling up this idea after that, with little concern to show how all those shooting fragments are ultimately best caught and arranged. That fitting together into a meaningful coherence is left to another frame of mind that is guided by matters of grammatical design and structure, one that is more rational and critical (in the good sense of the word). So what changes might result in applying some grammatical observations to this writer’s draft?

To begin, let’s see the big picture of the three sentences together. The first puts our attention somewhere, namely, up and away from the running path and into the air. The second sentence begins by referring specifically to that location, and then tells what the writer saw there. And the last sentence speaks of the effect the bright sight of light in the leaves had on the writer. The three sentences are related, therefore, and that unity is all to the good.

Now let’s look more closely at the phrase that introduces the second sentence, in the midair. The writer has included the definite article, the, altering the more common locution in midair. The definite article in English is a weakened form of the demonstrative adjective that, so modifying the noun midair with the directs the reader to look for something specific, not something as clearly defined as that midair, but a tract of space more definite than the general direction of in midair. And the difference in effect between in midair and in the midair is significant. The latter phrase encourages the reader to look for a specific part of the atmosphere when no such exact region was intended. We readers get nothing for our trouble, and so our attention stumbles over an introductory phrase that should otherwise just gently turn our attention in the general direction indicated by the first sentence. So, in midair, fluttering leaves flickered….

As the second sentence proceeds, the main clause, fluttering leaves flickered carries an alliteration in the repetition of the consonant f, a nice choice, I think. The writer has modified the subject, leaves, with the participial adjective fluttering, and that quick grammatical observation can suggest a revision to at least consider. Participles are adjectives built from verbs (words ending with the suffix –ing are very often, but not always, participles), which means that there is an originating verb to be found related to any given participle. Fluttering derives, of course, from the verb flutter, and that realization suggests the possibility of composing a compound predicate for the now bare leaves: leaves fluttered and flickered. We now have two finite verbs, not just one, for the subject.

Why consider that change? Two reasons. First, verbs are always stronger than adjectives, even participial adjectives, because verbs propel the meaning of a sentence by asserting what’s happening. Adjectives, on the other hand, name qualities that are features of something; they say what something is, not what it is doing, and so they stand lower in the scale of linguistic strength. Convert adjectives to verbs, and you energize a sentence. Second, the revision leaves fluttered and flickered brings the two f-sounds into closer proximity, thereby strengthening the alliterative effect. And if we consider changing the subsequent verb pierced to something like flashed or flushed, we could heighten the alliteration even more: leaves fluttered and flickered as rays of sunlight flashed through its translucent blades. That might be a bridge too far in the direction of alliteration, but even just knowing what grammatical changes and effects are possible is what revision is all about.

There is, though, one last comment to make about that second sentence, and here no negotiation is possible. The pronoun its in the phrase its translucent blades is singular in number, so it intends to direct the reader’s attention to a singular antecedent, which can only be sunlight. But what are translucent are the blades of the leaves, the very image that arrested the writer’s attention on his run, and so the singular pronoun its must be revised to the plural their: through their translucent blades.

Grammatical structure and rhetorical design work complementarily with the abounding energy of our imagination and memory. Neither play without discipline nor discipline without play is sufficient alone to represent our human experience. Together, though, much is possible. Not that we should necessarily make every change we discover we could in revising our work; but what we want above all is a way to evaluate a draft that will suggest intelligent changes. That’s where grammatical observation can help us.

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