Loosening It Apart

To analyze something means, originally, to loosen it apart. When we undertake an analysis, we are trying to find the basic elements, the components that make something what it is. You would think, then, that the best analysis of a sentence would be the most atomic, understanding how each individual word works grammatically to express meaning. Such a minute understanding, however, is often only one part of a more practical revision.

Let’s think about how we would usefully analyze this sentence, for example: It’s true it was a wonderful time for him then, graduating college, finding a good job, feeling hopeful about the future. We’re confronted with a string of words, twenty-one of them, and we want to understand how they work together in order to give ourselves more control should we want to change the sentence. To understand form means to understand its meaning. So let’s begin by resolving the contraction at the beginning (it is true). That reveals more clearly that the sentence has, in fact, two clauses, it is true and it was a wonderful time: two clauses, each with the same indefinite pronoun, it, as the subject. Every clause is an assertion of some sort, so what is it that is true? What is the subject of this first clause?

Here is where an overly precise analysis can lead us astray. To ask what is true does not mean we’re necessarily is search of one word, one noun. It is correct to say, of course, that every word must play a role in constructing a meaningful sentence, but some roles are subsidiary, some individual words are supernumeraries on the stage, working together with other words, but not standing in the spotlight themselves. And so it is here in the two clauses of our sentence. The subject of the first clause is the entire second clause, for what is true is the fact that it was a wonderful time for him. This sentence begins with what is called an anticipatory subject. The indefinite pronoun it, the subject of the first clause, has no antecedent, and although we were taught in school that such things should never be, in fact pronouns in English can, in certain constructions, have not an antecedent but what is called a postcedent, the referent following, not preceding, the pronoun.

Similarly, the subject of the second clause, also the indefinite pronoun it, looks forward for its referent. What was a wonderful time for him? The entire remainder of the sentence: graduating college, finding a good job, feeling hopeful about the future. This second occurrence of the pronoun it does not function exactly in the same way as the first, for although it too has a postcedent, it serves as what is called an impersonal subject, taking its place in the expected first position of a clause, but standing before its verb only to point to the specific activities that follow: graduating and finding and feeling. Both this impersonal use of the pronoun it and the earlier anticipatory use in the first clause bestow a more natural tone to a sentence; they take the long way home to the assertion, which is just what we do in more casual conversation.

All of this is important to understand, because sometimes a more wandering style is appropriate, and sometimes not. Stylistic choices, remember, unlike the grammatical and logical, do not answer to right or wrong; they conform instead to what is appropriate or inappropriate to the effect we wish to produce, given the purpose and circumstances of our writing. Always, though, we want to understand the shape of what we’ve written in a first draft so that we can knowingly compose our thoughts in another way should we discern the need. Analyzing form—the elements of word, phrase, and clause—can be a royal road to the right expression of our thoughts, the very reason we’re writing at all.

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