Doing something well, like writing a good sentence, involves two things: theory and practice. They are two sides of the same coin. We can write all day every day, but without some understanding of what constitutes standard English, we could very well end up writing a language all our own. By the same token, all the theory in the world won’t by itself produce good writing. We have to write, to practice, for all that theory to come alive. Theory, so to speak, is passive and practice is active.
Between passive theory and active practice, though, stands what we can call practical analysis. We learn to write by reading, but we can supercharge our reading by pausing from time to time to actively analyze an interesting sentence we come upon. To analyze something means to loosen it apart; the word derives from classical Greek, and the activity complementary to it is to synthesize, another Greek verb, meaning to put together. We analyze a sentence, then, to find out how it manages to produce the effect it has had on us in reading it. Understanding the sentence structure of good writers gives us models to emulate as we practice our own work.
Here is a sentence from the late Scottish literary critic David Daiches. It is the very first sentence of the introduction to his Critical Approaches to Literature (Prentice-Hall, 1956), a work often read in university courses. Read the sentence aloud and take note of your immediate impression of the style:
To illuminate both the nature of literature and the nature of criticism, this book presents some of the more important ways in which literature has been discussed.
If your reaction was like mine, you knew you’d be in for something if you decided to find the book and read it. It’s loftily (but not haughtily) composed; it’s sitting up straight, serious, ready to get going on a long trip into rugged territory. Those were my thoughts, at least, and so the question practical analysis poses is, what did the author do to produce that impression? Do. If we can understand a little of that, we give ourselves the means to do the same, or at least something similar to it. Practical analysis is not a matter of literally imitating or copying what someone else has written, of course; it’s a matter of understanding the structure, the form or shape, of what has confronted us. The grammatical form of a sentence shapes and presents the idea we want to communicate, and the more forms we have at our disposal, the likelier it is we will find the right one for the right occasion.
Much could be said about such a fine sentence, but let’s focus on the twelve words that introduce the main clause. I said that Daiches’ sentence struck me as serious, and I would point to this long introductory phrase as one thing the writer did to produce that impression. What basic question does this opening phrase answer? Let’s understand first that the main clause of the sentence, the one chief thought the writer wanted to communicate, is this book presents. It presents something, and that something is named by all the words that follow the verb presents; those words, from some to the period, constitute the direct object of that transitive verb, and they clearly answer the question what does this book present?
But why? Why does this book, or more properly the writer, want to present some of these important ways? That question why? is exactly what the introductory phrase is answering. The infinitive verb to illuminate, the very first element of the sentence, carries with it the idea in order to illuminate. This is the reason for the book, the author is saying, and he is writing the reason, the why, before the who and what, before the main clause this book presents. The question why? is answered grammatically by an adverb, and so these opening twelve words comprise one long adverbial phrase.
Now adverbs says something about the circumstances of the action a verb produces. A verb makes up the predicate of a statement, and so the natural place to expect an adverb is in the predicate: This book presents some of the more important ways in which literature has been discussed in order to illuminate both the nature of literature and the nature of criticism. But that would have been a lesser accomplishment for the object the writer had in view. Its natural arrangement produces a tone too casual for the occasion, which, if not formal tux, at least calls for more than blue jeans. Daiches has something in mind and it will take him 400 pages to say it. We’ve got to pay attention, and with such a more-than-causal sentence structure, he is in effect suggesting the frame of mind we should assume as we continue into his thought.
Practical analysis is a method of questioning, of interrogating a sentence, and we can employ it not only to understand more fully what we’re reading, but also to revise what we ourselves have written. Pose the basic questions of who, what, where, when, how, how much, why to any of the three elements of composition: word, phrase, and clause. That will loosen the sentence apart so you can see just what any one particular element is doing in relation to any other element of the sentence. And with that knowledge, you might just find yourself in a position to better synthesize what you’ve read or written.