The project before us here is to analyze one sentence, something often typical of a first draft, and discover through a close look at rough structure what we could do to better the original. Let’s try to demonstrate for ourselves, in other words, the practicality of understanding the form of what we’ve written.
Here’s the sentence. Imagine, for context, a difficult moment between parents and child: There was a sense of guilt on the mother’s part of ineffectiveness and the father in his mind felt shame that he did not know what to do. We read the sentence in revision and we conclude that it is still struggling to say forthrightly what it means to communicate. We notice the beginnings of a balance to contrast the mother and father (twelve words about the mother before the central conjunction and, with fifteen words after it), but we also sense a woolliness to its texture, that it is too soft or careful for the serious matter it intends to discuss. How has the writer produced this unintended effect?
We can point first to the opening construction there was. The word there is an adverb, and in this use, called an expletive, it means to describe or fill out the general circumstances in which other action will be depicted in the clause. Here, though, the phrase does not lead to action but to an abstraction, a sense of guilt, and so the reader struggles to picture that object sharply in the scene. The writer has himself perceived how vague the phrase is, and that is why he has attempted to make the reference more specific by adding the prepositional phrase of ineffectiveness—to no avail, ultimately, because the object of the preposition is an abstract noun, only compounding the woolliness.
In situations like this, a way through can often be found by transforming a phrase into a clause. We remember that a phrase is a group of words without a subject and verb, a clause a group of words with both subject and verb. Phrases describe where clauses assert, and if our eye is on always writing close to the verb—preferring, that is, verbal constructions to nominal ones—we can often brighten a sentence in some appreciable way. To speak of there being a sense of guilt on the mother’s part of ineffectiveness means, in direct and open declaration, that the mother felt guilty that she had done nothing. We have revised the original abstract noun ineffectiveness into the clause that she had done nothing, and we have transformed the original portrayal of a general circumstance, there was a sense of guilt, into a straightforward assertion with subject and verb: the mother felt guilty. We know we’re going in the right direction because that is the clarity we demand of someone else when we are speaking face to face: say what you mean.
In the second half of the sentence, we can sharpen the statement with a simple question: where else would the father feel shame except in his mind? A prosecutorial questioning like this of our rough sentences will often open a passage for clear light to enter, and here the tough question reveals the redundancy of the prepositional phrase in his mind. If we combine our revisions, then, we have this new version: The mother felt guilty that she had done nothing, and the father felt ashamed that he did not know what he could have done. That’s still quite a jumble, but we’ve made significant improvement by changing the opening expletive to a clause, and by converting an abstract noun to another clause; and we can, moreover, see a parallelism between the two instances of felt and the two clauses that she had done nothing and that he did not know later in the sentence.
We can often have, though, too much of a good thing, and too strict a parallelism might account for the still jumbly character of the revision. If we go further and delete the verb felt after father on the principle of ellipsis, and if we then simplify the second clause, we can bring some measure of order to the statement: The mother felt guilty that she had done nothing, and the father ashamed that he had not known what to do. We have now two actors, mother and father, both feeling in a manner explained by a subordinate clause.
The lesson in all of this is that by analyzing form and understanding its function, new possibilities can arise, possibilities that might be closer to our living conversational voice—the essential source of a clear and simple and direct language.
I enjoy all of your posts but particularly those that are “diagnoses.” Prosecutorial questioning at its finest and most titillating!
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