Detail is All

The line between knowing what matters and what doesn’t, the traditional distinction between learning and pedantry, can often be difficult to see in a subject as complex as grammar—difficult to see, but it’s there. The study of grammar holds a notorious reputation for caring overmuch about the smallest detail, but when the slightest change in phrase or punctuation will alter the very meaning of what we’re saying, there’s no arguing about the value of precision.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the opening sentence of a section called “Editors’ Choice” in a recent online issue of the New York Times. The headline read, 11 New Books We Recommend This Week, and the article began breezily like this:

We know, you turn to this space each week for a list of worthy new books—it’s kind of our thing, our mission even, summed up right there in the headline.

If I say as I do that this sentence is written breezily, I mean that it makes a certain informal, relaxed, nonchalant impression on me; and if I say that, I better be able to point to something objective in the sentence which I believe is responsible for having that effect on me. I can’t just say that’s how I feel about it, because we all feel something about everything. It goes with being alive. But if I can’t go the next step and say why, or how it is that, I feel as I do when I read something, I’m left alone with my feelings, with no way of knowing if I’m just fooling myself by reading in to what’s really there. This is one of the supreme values of studying language and literature: to see (or hear) the expression of thought and live for a time in the world someone else’s thoughts create. I get to put myself down for a while, set aside what I want to see and just watch another world unfold before me. My focus changes because I’m looking closely at something else.

So how is it I would come to the conclusion that this sentence has an informal and relaxed manner? Two reasons, and the first is that slight little comma after the second word. Commas cut. Their purpose is to separate elements, sometimes for clarity and sometimes to break the linear connection of the words in a sentence, to show that what follows one word is not necessarily grammatically or logically connected to the word that preceded it. And this latter is what’s going on with that one small comma after the verb know. It says, in effect, don’t read this sentence as if it were straightforwardly declaring, we know that you turn to this space each week for a list of worthy new books. Read it, hear it, instead more casually like this: We know, you don’t have to tell us. You turn to this space each week for a list of worthy new books. And I can know confidently that this is how the writer wanted me to hear the sentence because he is deliberately separating the independent clause (we know) from what would otherwise have to be construed as its direct object, the noun clause you turn to this space each week for a list of worthy new books. A direct object is not separated from its verb with a comma.

What results, then, is a tone more similar to a casual conversation between friends, a manner the author of this weekly section in the newspaper would have every reason to inculcate. And this informal style is reinforced by something else we can objectively identify: the colloquial phrase it’s kind of our thing. That turn of phrase is generally reserved for relaxed speech, never to be found in formal writing and not often in routine prose. But the writer’s choice to employ it here serves his purpose well: you and I, reader and writer, share a common interest, and I am here doing my part to promote it for us. Relax, he is saying, and let’s talk a bit together about something we both find important.

In the study of grammar, and probably in every study we take up seriously, merely getting the gist is never really satisfying. We are tempted to settle for generalities because seeing the detail and understanding the specifics is hard work. But despite how challenging it is at times, the leave-no-stone-unturned habit of mind can yield a deeper insight and pleasure, both fundamental values of language and literature.


In Case You Missed It

Understanding the grammatical structure of what we read is the foundation for appreciating more fully what an author intends to say and how we receive it. In an earlier post, The Essential Minimum, I tried to explain the first steps necessary in such an analysis. In case you missed it, you can read that post here.


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