Analyzing a Sentence, Part One

I am convinced that one reason so many of us shy away from grammar is that we don’t know how to look at a sentence—not read a sentence, of course, but analyze it. What exactly does it mean to analyze a sentence, and how does analysis help us write a better one?

When we get ourselves into a particularly rational frame of mind, when we’re not singing or dreaming but talking and thinking, we are looking for the parts of something, the pieces or sections that make something what it appears to be. That’s what an engineer does in examining a structure, and it’s what a writer does in revising a draft. We are trying, in other words, to loosen something apart, and that is exactly what the word analyze means, to loosen or dissolve something into its elements. Analysis is the opposite of composition, the putting together of something, and the two complement each other. We analyze when something’s gone wrong so we can rearrange, or compose, the elements differently.

There are only three elements in grammar: word, phrase, and clause. That might sound strange, because aren’t sentences really what writing is all about? Certainly so, but grammatical analysis is interested in what makes a sentence what it is, what gives it the shape we read and what accounts for whether it is effective or not in communicating what we want to say. That means we have to look past appearances and into the elemental structure of a sentence. We are looking, that is to say, for what is called form, the three elemental forms of word, phrase, and clause. A word is the symbol of an idea, a phrase is a group of words, and a clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb.

To illustrate what we mean by form, let’s analyze this jumbly sentence: He had related to me that flying was one of the greatest sources of his anxiety in life. Let’s imagine for a moment that we wrote this sentence in our first draft. It arrived as it was dressed: casual in its eighteen words, but a bit self-conscious too inasmuch as the subject had related instead of simply told. Those eighteen words are arranged in four phrases (not counting the verb phrase) and two clauses, and if we simply put parentheses around the phrases and a vertical bar between the subject and verb of each clause, our quick analysis would look like this: He | had related (to me) that flying | was one (of the greatest sources) (of his anxiety) (in life).

We can see more easily now that the casual appearance of the sentence might very well lie in the three phrases set up next to one another in the second half of the sentence. Too many phrases are a symptom of imprecision, the sworn enemy of good style, and when we find that we have written a succession of phrases, it could be that we are overwriting, that we’re saying what doesn’t need to be said. And so it is with the last phrase, in life. If flying was one of the greatest sources of his anxiety, where else would his anxiety be but in his life? With that obvious realization, we simply strike the last phrase entirely: He had related to me that flying was one of the greatest sources of his anxiety. And if we keep to that prosecutorial questioning, was flying the source of his anxiety, or was it really the anxiety itself (understanding anxiety in this context to mean a fear)? And so another revision presents itself: He had related to me that flying was one of his greatest anxieties. And if we then include our earlier observation that had related simply means told, we can revise the sentence even one step further, unwriting yet another phrase: He told me that flying was one of his greatest anxieties.

Identifying the forms of a sentence can offer us ways to revise our work, but form really works together with syntax, the grammatical role that a form is playing in a particular sentence. Syntax involves the arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses, and that brings us close to composition, the way a sentence ultimately presents itself to the reader. There’s much to say about syntax, and we’ll look at that half of grammatical analysis in Part Two of this post next time.


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