Criticizing by Intention

To criticize—in the good sense of the word—means to evaluate something according to its intention. Criticizing is part and parcel of revising a draft composition, and to the degree that no one knows better than we ourselves what we mean to say, we are our own best critics. Often, though, what we’ve written does not accord with what we had in mind, and just trying to begin all over again from scratch will not necessarily produce another sentence any better than the original. Another route is open, however, and that is to look closely at the construction of what we have written, evaluate it in light of our intention, and then recompose it.

Here’s a short passage from a student’s paper that can illustrate the technique; the first sentence sets the scene: Word of the record-breaking pitch traveled quickly. Tom had not been at the game, but watching it anxiously on television. His immediate reaction was to jump for joy. We can pass over the first sentence without comment, other than to say that the writer has correctly hyphenated the adjective phrase record-breaking to modify the noun pitch: a compound adjective standing before its noun is hyphenated.

Our attention pauses, though, at the second sentence when we read the verb phrase had not been. We should always confirm what is called the sequence of tenses when we find we’ve written a past perfect tense. This concept of tense sequence is meant to assure that we are narrating events in their correct chronological order (that is, as they actually happened), and the past perfect tense is meant to depict an action that occurred before another action in the past—even if the other action is spelled out in another sentence. The first clause of this second sentence (had not been) passes the test, on the assumption that the writer wanted to bring the reader back to a time before the pitch was thrown and before word of it traveled quickly. That’s good, because it suggests an uneasy tension about the unknown, which is then relieved in the third sentence.

What doesn’t work, though, is the second half of this second sentence: but watching it anxiously on television. The word but is a conjunction, and a conjunction introduces a clause, a group of words with a subject and verb. We can’t call these six words a clause, though, because watching is a participle, not a verb, and so it is not clear whether the writer had intended to assert a thought or describe a situation. If the former, he should have written but he had been watching it, employing again the past perfect tense to parallel the earlier had not been (although an argument for was watching could be made); but if the latter, he should have left out but and let watching begin a participial phrase: watching it anxiously on television.

But still we’re not home. Our first revision of Tom had not been at the game, but he had been watching it anxiously on television could be smoothed out by omitting the subject pronoun: Tom had not been at the game, but had been watching it anxiously on television. And our second revision, Tom had not been at the game, watching it anxiously on television, stumbles because of the lingering force of the negative adverb not, which implies a contrast or alternative. Our revision does, in fact, give an alternative, but we should add the adverb instead to make Tom’s choice clear: Tom had not been at the game, instead watching it anxiously on television.

Finally, the third sentence, which will brook no grammatical complaint but can be criticized on rhetorical grounds. When the verb to be is used with an infinitive (was to jump), we can often find what we really want to say hidden in the infinitive. The writer intends here ultimately to assert what Tom did, not what Tom felt (his immediate reaction) before he acted. Recognizing that, we can construct a grammatical balance of subordinate and independent clauses which both proportions the thoughts in clear images before the reader’s eye (the main idea in an independent clause and an attending thought in a subordinate clause) and expands the scene concretely: And when he saw the umpire signal the final strike, he leapt for joy.

We construct sentences by technique. We put words together into recognizable grammatical patterns, and in revision we test whether the arrangements we’ve created actually communicate what we intend. It is correct to say, I think, that revising has two sides: the exterior of grammatical production and the interior of our intentions. Our goal is to match the two.


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