The Circumstances Surrounding

In an exercise to write a paragraph of balanced sentences, each statement having a center point with clauses on either side, a student of mine recently composed this interesting design: An older man, an oversized ruck sack on his back and his head bent down, negotiated the steps carefully; a younger athlete jogged up to the top, then bounced down. That’s a fairly sophisticated sentence, particularly to appear in a rough draft, and the first half of it baffled even the writer himself. Let’s try to understand what he wrote.

To speak of a balanced sentence is to name its design, how a writer has arranged the grammatical elements to produce both meaning and effect. There are a good number of recognized sentence designs in English—loose, periodic, cumulative, centered, among many others—and it can be useful to distinguish between sentence designs and sentence types. To recognize our example as a balanced sentence means we’re seeing its layout of phrases, clauses, and punctuation. These elements are arranged, though, on a grammatical frame, or type, and there are only three such types: simple, compound, and complex. These three are defined according to the kinds of clauses that make up the sentence (independent or subordinate), and since there are only independent clauses in our example (man negotiated, athlete jogged, and athlete bounced), its type is compound. Those three clauses are organized around a semicolon roughly in the middle of the sentence (the layout is not mathematically perfect, nor should it necessarily be), and that is why we name this design a balanced sentence.

Notice, though, that in determining the sentence type, we did not take account of the section an oversized ruck sack on his back and his head bent down. That’s because these twelve words do not include a verb, even though we certainly supply some verb-like word logically as we read it: an oversized ruck sack hanging on his back, his head being bent down. Hanging and being, or any other such word we might read into the sentence, are not verbs as we normally think of a verb; they each have a subject (the ruck sack is hanging and the head is bent down), but they do not indicate a specific, chronological time. The time they point to, in other words, is not actual according to the clock but relative to what else is happening in the clause, and so these words are not specific, or finite, verbs—and finite verbs are the only kind we use to count and determine grammatical type.

So if the section an oversized ruck sack on his back and his head bent down has no real, finite verb, we can’t call this section a clause at all; we must name it a phrase, and see that the two words we need to supply to make the statement coherent, hanging and being, are participles. Participles are not verbs but adjectives built from verbs; they don’t assert anything outright, but merely suggest or intimate an action or state of being. And when a participle with its own noun is placed within a clause with its own subject and finite verb, it accomplishes a construction called the nominative absolute—nominative because the noun is the subject of the participle, and absolute because the entire phrase stands outside the grammatical frame of the larger clause to which it refers.

What? Here’s what all that means in our example: An older man negotiated the steps carefully is the first independent clause of this compound sentence, and between man and negotiated, the real subject and finite verb of the clause, the writer has inserted the phrase an oversized ruck sack on his back and his head bent down. That phrase has no finite verb, and it is therefore describing the situation within which the subject of the clause, older man, is negotiating the steps so carefully. Because the subjects of the phrase, ruck sack and head, are not the same as the subject of the clause in which they are nested, the phrase stands grammatically isolated, and from that solitary, or absolute, position, points to what are called the attendant circumstances, what’s going on scenically as the real action unfolds. That’s why we were correct in supplying the participles hanging and being in order to bring some measure of logical completion to the phrase, because participles merely suggest where verbs plainly assert.

That’s quite an incisive perception of things, particularly for a first draft. All the more credit to the student who wrote the sentence, and a good reminder that we don’t write so much with a style as in a style, that our words arrange themselves to accord with the way we are seeing an event in our mind. The finer the perception, the finer the writing. And when we find that happening even in our early drafts, we know we’re on our way.


You will find more information on this topic
in three earlier posts:
Absolutes, The Nominative Absolute, and Stage Directions.


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