A Grammatical Routine

Exercise is good, both physical and mental. So here’s a one-sentence workout to try your grammatical flexibility. If we can increase the range of our mental motion, so to speak, we’ll be better able to appreciate the subtleties of language in the hands of a master.

And yes, the passage we’re about to look at is one sentence, right before the oh-you-didn’t-just-do-that turning point in John O’Hara’s short story “Graven Image” (quoted here from 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane, Bantam, 2005). A Washington outsider, Charles Browning, wants in, and he has approached a friend, an Under Secretary in the current administration, for a job. Things are looking good:

He told Browning that he thought there might be some little trouble with a certain character but that that character could be handled, because the real say so, the green light, was controlled by a man who was a friend of the Under Secretary’s, and the Under Secretary could almost say at this moment that the matter could be arranged.

Whether it should be or not, politics as we have it is a world of complication and intricacy. And so is this sentence. What appears plainly in front of us is not always what it appears to be, and much depends on understanding its indirect statements and oblique intimations. Squaring form and content like this is the mark of good writing, because it presents unity, that distinctly inalienable human need.

This 60-word sentence has only one independent clause, the first two words he told. The verb told is transitive, which means it must have a direct object: he told Browning something. But if we think that the something can only be a simple noun, we’re heading off on a tangent, because entire subordinate clauses can be direct objects as well. And that’s what is going on here, the better to depict a world of indirection if not always outright deceitfulness. The verb told, and others like it that carry a meaning of saying or knowing or perceiving, sets up a grammatical construction called indirect statement, wherein the direct object of the verb is in the form of a noun clause which is often—but not always—introduced by the word that, a subordinating conjunction. Thus, the first six words of this sentence form an indirect statement with an independent clause (he told Browning) followed by the direct object (that he thought).

From here, then, we stand to descend into ever deeper levels of complication and dependency. The direct object noun clause that he thought has itself a verb that triggers the construction of another indirect statement, and so we have to know what it is he thought. That direct object is to be found in the immediately following clause there might be some little trouble with a certain character, but this time, the subordinate clause is not introduced by the word that. Its presence is only suggested, not stated openly and forthrightly. This grammatical intrigue constitutes a regular way of work called ellipsis, the deliberate omission of a word or phrase that is otherwise grammatically or logically necessary. Elliptical language characterizes our more casual, conversational speech, where assumptions and the unspoken play so large a part. And so we are brought more surely into an uncertain world of unseen actors.

This downfall into indirect statement will continue now two (and arguably three) more times before its nadir is reached: that that character could be handled and that the matter could be arranged. The first of these clauses includes a locution we don’t see often, the phrase that that, which seems to be a duplication but really isn’t, because the first that is the subordinating conjunction which introduces the object clause, and the second that is a demonstrative adjective modifying the noun character. And though we find a brief relief from all this intricacy in some direct statements through the middle lines of the sentence (the green light was controlled by a man who was a friend of the Under Secretary’s), that clear light is quickly lost again as the sentence comes to its unforthcoming (could almost say) and passive (could be arranged) conclusion.

And in the end we’re a bit confused about who exactly will do what, as no doubt O’Hara had intended. We’re befogged a little at the vague indefiniteness of it all, matching so much of the world of those in higher places who purport the better.


In Case You Missed It

Close grammatical analysis like this depends on our understanding how words work together to produce meaning across a sentence. You’ll find a discussion of this topic in an earlier post entitled Parts of Speech and Thought.


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