Analyzing a Sentence, Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, we learned that analyzing a sentence involves two distinct projects: understanding the form of what we’re analyzing and determining the syntax of that form. Form means shape, and there are only three grammatical forms: word, phrase, and clause. Syntax means grammatical function, and when we determine the part of speech the form we’re examining is acting as, we know its syntax and our analysis is complete.

So why in the world would one do all this? For much the same reason that trainers isolate muscle groups or break down complex movements for athletes. Theory is the complement of practice; it’s what we do off field consciously in order to perform better on field unconsciously. The aim is to transform the intellectual understanding of how a sentence works into second-nature action: we write and revise more insightfully and efficiently by virtue of once having understood consciously just how words work together to produce meaning. We absorb that knowledge into our mental muscles, so to speak, and we find ourselves writing ever closer to our goal.

To demonstrate all this, let’s look at this fairly straightforward compound sentence: Chicago has many beautiful parks, and we go to Lake Michigan in the summertime. Let’s assume that for one reason or another, we can’t really say why yet, the sentence isn’t doing what we want it to do. We don’t suspect a grammatical mistake anywhere, but it’s not expressing what we perceive or think or feel about Chicago and its parks and the summertime. Something isn’t working, and that something is some form that we have put somewhere in the sentence. So we begin first—always, always—by identifying the number of clauses in the sentence, because each clause must be analyzed separately. We see plainly enough that this sentence has two clauses (Chicago has and we go), but let’s say that in isolating the clauses, we suspect the problem lies in the second one. So that’s where we decide to concentrate our attention.

The second clause in full is we go to Lake Michigan in the summertime. First, the forms: one clause (we go) and two phrases (to Lake Michigan and in the summertime). We’re analyzing, in other words, three forms, not eight words, and that realization should make our work more manageable. We don’t suspect any problem with the simple clause we go, so we turn our attention more closely to the two phrases sitting next to each other. A phrase is named by the kind of word it begins with, and so we can now be more precise in identifying each here as a prepositional phrase, because the words to and in are prepositions. Prepositions are, of course, one of the eight parts of speech, but in naming these two forms prepositional phrases, we’re not yet accounting for their syntax; we’re just identifying each more precisely so that we can revise more exactly.

A prepositional phrase in its entirety (not any one word in it, but the whole phrase regarded as one unit of words) can act as an adjective or an adverb, and when we now go on to ask how a form acts, what grammatical role it is playing in a sentence, we know we’ve passed in our analysis from identifying a form to understanding its syntax. Adjectives describe nouns, but neither of the prepositional phrases in our sentence is doing that; the two nouns we see, Lake Michigan and summertime, are objects of their respective prepositions and make up part of the phrases themselves. So these two prepositional phrases must be acting as adverbs, and that becomes certain when we realize that to Lake Michigan answers where? and in the summertime answers when?, both adverbial questions. So this second clause of the sentence has two adverbs, each in the form of a prepositional phrase—what we can call, in short, two adverbial phrases.

And what does that get us? It may just be that what we really wanted to suggest was that Chicago’s parks are beautiful at any time of year, even in winter, in which case the second adverbial phrase, in the summertime, could be moved closer to the verb to suggest that contrast more vividly: and in the summertime we go to Lake Michigan, or even and we go in the summertime to Lake Michigan. Just where that form might ultimately best be placed is less the point here than that we know what we’re moving and why we’re moving it. That knowledge is the knowledge worth having when we’re revising, not necessarily consciously at hand, but in the back of our minds somewhere, directing our attention and suggesting, so quietly, new ideas and their expression in new forms.


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