Changing the Angle

One of the reasons traditional writing instruction puts so much emphasis on sentence structure is that most of the ideas we’re writing about can be seen from many different angles. In that sentence I just wrote, for example, I’m talking about reasons and traditional writing instruction, emphasis and sentence structure, ideas and writing and angles. I chose to launch out broadly (and some good writers might say not too adroitly), beginning with the indefinite pronoun one instead of cutting to the chase with the real subject and presenting all those many ideas more directly: Traditional writing instruction emphasizes the importance of sentence structure because most of the ideas we’re writing about can be seen from many different angles. We can learn to revise by hit or miss, or we can take some time to understand the basics of sentences and get home a bit more quickly.

The bedrock basics of sentence structure are subjects and predicates. When these two get together, worlds are created, which is just what we’re trying to do when we write: organize a world and invite our readers to step into it for a while to see what we see. We think with subjects and predicates—here’s what I’m talking about and here’s what I’m saying about it, and in thinking like this we create whole universes of meaning seen from the direction and shape of the sentences we compose. Our minds can do more than think in only this way, but the rationality that results from combining a subject with a predicate characterizes, for better or worse, the world we live in every day under the sun. It is surely what gives us a common sense of what is real.

Now the philosophers will quarrel over how we know what is ultimately real, but we can all agree that the world seems to be a fairly complicated place. Complication makes organization a must, and to get organized we need a point of view, an angle and purpose from which we see how the many ideas we put into a sentence (and paragraph) connect with one another. When I said earlier that my first sentence began broadly, I meant that I felt myself standing there at the door of this essay with you; I was trying to welcome you courteously into the topic, not swing the door open and command you to get in here. The generality of the indefinite pronoun one produced that welcome, and you, I trusted, would accept that generality as long as I soon followed up with what I was referring to: reasons. That broad choice, however, with its own intention and manner, set up the conditions for a certain sentence structure, a structure I could change and in changing rearrange the world I was inviting you to enter.

So when I knowingly chose to include the conjunction because in my possible revision, I was changing the noun clause that most of the ideas we’re writing about into a subordinate clause of reason: because most of the ideas we’re writing about can be seen. That changed my point of view, and your angle of observation, from a simple statement of equation (one of the reasons is) to a more complex statement of cause and effect (traditional writing instruction emphasizes…because); the idea in the noun reasons moved into the subordinating conjunction because. That changed how I saw things in the little world of that sentence, and it changed the way you, the reader, saw those ideas too. Sometimes beginning with a broad generality is the better choice—and sometimes not. And therein lies the difficulty—or is it better to call it play?—of learning the art of language.

All this talk of subjects and predicates and pronouns and clauses is more than technical gibberish. Understanding what these basic elements are and how we can use them skillfully to construct our own sentences frees us from the trap of writing in the same old way all the time, which really means seeing things in the same way all the time. The novelist Katherine Anne Porter says in her short piece “On Writing” that “it is a good thing to know all the rules, but remember they are not the wings of Pegasus, but mere step-ladders, stilts, or even crutches, if you rely on them as such.” Her point is well taken, but Pegasus could fly so wondrously because his wings were so carefully designed.


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