Principles at work. I read that phrase the other day and thought how well it expresses the classical method of learning to write. To work from a principle means to create according to the laws of a craft, the body of practices and customs that make an art, including the art of composition, effective. Those laws, so called, are the principles that guide the choices we make in revision, and which give us at the same time a measure against which we can judge one choice better than another.
One such principle of English composition is that the energy of a sentence spins off from its verbs. The reason a sentence with too many phrases is judged weak is because phrases, by definition, do not include verbs (specifically what are called finite verbs, that is, verbs with person and number; phrases do often include verbals, which is the class name for participles, infinitives, and gerunds, all devices built from verbs). Clauses, in contrast to phrases, are groups of words with a subject and verb, and exactly because clauses include a verb, they give us a way to strengthen a sentence which has too many phrases and abstract nouns.
Take, for example, this clumsy sentence: After the bridge collapse, there was an inspection by an engineering firm which was hired by the state. Clumsy means inefficient and awkward, not in control of one’s actions, so what about this sentence justifies this judgment? Notice first that it begins with a prepositional phrase, after the bridge collapse. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but in combination here with the weak verb construction there was (more on that in a moment) and two other prepositional phrases (by an engineering firm and by the state), this opening phrase begins the sentence on the wrong foot: it brings the reader’s attention to some thing, a bridge collapse, rather than to some event: a bridge collapsed. So if we change the original phrase to a clause, the sentence begins with a surer sense of itself: after the bridge collapsed.
Next, just what is the complaint about the phrase there was? First, let’s note that we’re correct in calling those two words a phrase, because even though there is a verb, there is no subject, and we must have both subject and verb to name something a clause. And it is just the fact that the adverb there is taking the place of the subject, an inspection, that accounts for the flat and uninteresting tone that results. We use this there is, there are, there were construction more often in conversation or in writing that is meant to be conversational in tone, and on the assumption that the sentence we’re analyzing was written for a more formal context, it is missing an opportunity to declare its intent loud and clear. If instead we take the abstract noun inspection and convert it to its corresponding transitive verb inspect, we can unwrite the adverb there and again turn the reader’s attention not to what was, but to what happened: an engineering firm inspected the scene to determine the cause.
Notice, importantly, that this change to a transitive verb put us in a position to be more specific. Transitive verbs have direct objects, and so in writing inspected, we were compelled to next write the object scene, which in turn suggested the purpose of the action, to determine the cause. That, then, brings us to ask whether the balance of the original, which was hired by the state, is really necessary, or whether we had written that simply to fill out the statement. This is a common problem. It may be true that the firm was hired by the state, but not every truth is relevant, and a good part of writing strongly is a matter of conserving energy, not saying what doesn’t need to be said at the moment. Should we decide, though, that this information is indeed pertinent to the larger paragraph which will unfold, we should at least notice that the original put the clause in the passive voice. Changing that to the active voice, the state hired an engineering firm, would suggest an entirely new statement.
We have, thus, two brighter, more intense versions to choose from, each with more energy than the original because we changed a phrase to a clause, and a noun to an active transitive verb with a direct object: After the bridge collapsed, an engineering firm inspected the scene to determine the cause, and After the bridge collapsed, the state hired an engineering firm to determine the cause. Which we choose will depend on the shape and intent of the larger paragraph in which the sentence will sit, but analyzing the grammar of the original gave us two stronger versions to choose between, each having accumulated more specific energy to attract and direct the reader’s attention.