What Is an Element?

Grammar is often considered a rudimentary study, something necessary in its way, we’ll admit, but important more for avoiding mistakes than for helping us say what we really mean to say. Grammar’s for beginners, we think, not for those who just want to write. It’s basic, elementary. But what is an element?

Strange to say, the dictionary makers don’t know where the word element comes from. Latin has it and uses it in the plural to mean the first principles of a subject, the beginnings of a study, and even the individual letters of the alphabet. Lexicographers of English define it as a “component part,” or in chemistry the “substances that defy analysis” (Concise Oxford Dictionary), and by attaching the suffix –ary, we get the adjective meaning introductory. We’ll often use the adjective elementary to mean trivial, but when it comes to the study of writing, that is just what it doesn’t mean.

In fact, we’re better served (at least in writing most anything short of poetry) to think of grammatical elements metaphorically as mineral elements or as components, because these can give us a picture of things which are foundational, what other things stand on or are built from. There are really three, and only three, grammatical elements to concentrate on when we’re revising our work: words, phrases, and clauses. Why not sentences and paragraphs? Because both of those structures are composed of these three elements; sentences and paragraphs are not fundamental enough to be considered elements, and if we try to revise our work from their distance, we’ll make it more difficult for ourselves to find exactly what to change in a sentence that is coming up short. Can we write without a working knowledge of the grammatical elements? Certainly, but most of us, particularly as modern adults trained to think about things analytically, we won’t be leaning into our strength.

Here’s an example. The grammatical shape, not the content, of this sentence is identical to something I read recently in a rough draft of a professional document: With many complaints of repeated scenarios where customers were left waiting by staff that left them growing impatient, management instituted new policies about customer care. So how can a knowledge of the three grammatical elements help us revise this sentence? First by helping us sectionalize it. We begin by reading the sentence aloud, looking for the independent clause, the combination of subject and verb that supports the statement like a central column. The skeleton of that main clause, we discover, is composed of the words management instituted, and the remainder, new policies about customer care, should cause us no difficulties for the moment.

We return, then, to the beginning of the sentence, ready now to sectionalize it one level more deeply by looking for phrases, which are groups of words without a subject and a verb. Phrases often begin with a preposition and end with a noun, so if we parenthesize those elements, we find in the first half of the sentence the phrases with many complaints and of repeated scenarios. Then we come to the word where, which begins a subordinate clause (customers were left), then to another phrase (by staff), and finally to the word that, which begins another subordinate clause (that left). With these elements now in hand and mind, we can find out straightaway how to begin to revise this sentence.

The writer wants to say that management instituted new policies; we know that because that’s what he put in the main clause. All of the subordinate elements before that main clause—all the phrases and subordinate clauses we identified—mean to suggest the conditions and therefore causes of one action in the main clause, that managed instituted new policies. The trouble here, then, could very well be that the writer is suggesting more than he is asserting, because he has written more phrases and subordinate clauses than he has independent clauses. So if we simply change some of those subordinate elements into independents, we improve the sentence at least one first step: Customers complained repeatedly that staff left them waiting, so management instituted new policies about customer care. We have now a compound sentence of two independent clauses in place of the original simple sentence introduced by a string of phrases and subordinate clauses.

We’ve improved the health of our original sentence, but it’s not dischargeable yet. In another round of revision, we would have to look again more deeply into other phrases (customer care) and even into individual words (instituted), but the point has been made: elementary in writing means having to do with the elements, those three linguistic components of word, phrase, and clause which we combine over and over again in different ways to catch and hold some of the thoughts that stream by in our minds as we first direct it to a subject. The beginnings of something can rarely be forgotten, and help us even more, ironically, the more we write and advance.


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