A Clear Opposition

In working out a short story on the verities of love and moralism, a student of mine recently composed this passage, the last two sentences of which offer a chance to see how grammar and rhetoric work together with logic:

They still saw each other at work, but civility replaced genuine friendliness. He missed the walks, learning about the world through her eyes, and the sense of belonging that had been emerging from her friends and family. He no longer went to church, but continued to walk on his own, trying to be more observant, but his heart wasn’t really in it. He had no one to share his observations with.

We know that conjunctions join certain words in a sentence, and when they join clauses, they tell the reader how to connect one thought logically to another. English grammar recognizes some twelve different such relationships between thoughts, and every conjunction in the language can be classified under one of these twelve functions. We use the word and, for example, to extend one thought by means of another, as I just did in the previous sentence: the thought English grammar | recognizes was expanded by the addition of another thought, every conjunction | can be classified, and you know that I was enlarging the entire notion I wanted to communicate precisely because I used the conjunction and to join the two clauses. The word and is probably the most common conjunction, and (there it is again) it is called an additive conjunction because it adds, or increases, one thought by means of another.

If we look now at the third sentence of the passage above, we see another very common conjunction at work, the word but. This conjunction puts one thought in opposition to another, and so is classified (along with however, yet, and a few other words) as an adversative conjunction. In that sentence, the thought that the subject, he, no longer went to church, where presumably he found the sense of belonging that was referred to immediately before, is being contrasted with his walking on his own, so the opposition we are to understand through the conjunction but is between belonging and aloneness, or perhaps community and isolation. This first half of this third sentence works quite well, especially because of the way in which the writer has bridged the idea of belonging between this sentence and the previous one with the phrase from her friends and family.

That same third sentence, though, employs the conjunction but a second time, and now in such a way that its opening strength weakens as the sentence continues. If the first instance of the conjunction but is to contrast the subject’s no longer going to church with his walking alone, then what are the two thoughts which the second but intends to put into opposition? One of them is clear: his heart wasn’t really in it, where the pronoun it refers to the idea of being observant, which the writer has composed in the participial phrase trying to be more observant. This stylistic choice of a participial phrase, however, makes the second opposition difficult to see, because the grammatical elements of the two ideas being opposed are differently presented, the second with a clause and the first with a phrase. This imbalance causes the sentence to fall to its end rather than finish strongly.

And there is, moreover, another reason this participial phrase is troublesome. A participle is an adjective and an adjective modifies a noun or pronoun. The participle trying, which begins the first of the two ideas in this second opposition in the sentence, is ultimately modifying he, the subject of the first opposition the sentence presents. As a result, the two distinct oppositions overlap, the second taking its strength from the first rather than asserting its terms clearly on its own.

And so if we take these observations, along with seeing that the concluding sentence of the passage is meant to give the reason the character’s heart wasn’t interested in being more observant, we could revise this latter portion of the passage this way: He no longer went to church, but continued to walk on his own. He tried to be more observant, but his heart wasn’t really in it: he had no one to share his observations with. Each of the two contrasts is now given a sentence of its own to preserve the balance, and the second sentence erupts its conclusion by incorporating the reason for all this emotional conflict, originally put in a single sentence, immediately after a colon.

Revision work is meant to offer other possibilities, not conclusive answers, because so much depends on the vision and intent of the writer. But our style is ultimately inseparable from our grammar and logic, and so we should be alert to all three disciplines as we write and revise.


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