We do ourselves no favor in believing that learning to write well is something anyone should be able to accomplish quickly and easily. The art of writing, and with it the complementary arts of reading and speaking, requires a habit that the world we’ve made does not promote: patience. To be patient with our work means first to accept that our first draft will be just that, a first attempt at putting into words what we have in mind. But being patient also applies to revising that first draft, and it means quite practically to begin at the beginning of a sentence and think through it methodically to the period.

I say all this because we have a tendency to jump around a sentence when we take up the task of analyzing it. We want an answer to the grammatical questions we’ve learned to ask a sentence, and we forget that sentences will often interrupt themselves as they unfold their thoughts and ideas. Take a sentence like this, for example: The evening sun, setting just then over the top of the pine trees, were so beautiful. Our ear alerts us that something is amiss, but beyond setting off the alarm, the ear has no command of grammar or logic. So we read it again, begin at the beginning, and identify the phrase evening sun as the probable subject, probable because most sentences—but not all—begin with the subject. On that assumption we continue, looking for something to be said about the evening sun, looking, in other words, for the verb for that subject. And in our haste or need or impatience we land on the idea that the evening sun was setting, because setting feels like a verb and that’s the next verb-like word we come upon. So we conclude that thus far, the sentences is saying that the sun is setting.

Now it is right here that we find ourselves at the border of grammar and logic. Logically, sensibly, obviously, the writer means to communicate the idea that the sun was setting, but grammatically, and for purposes of style and effect, he has not asserted explicitly the thought that the sun was setting. This is a subtle point to appreciate. Setting is not a verb but a verbal, a grammatical device that fuses both verb and noun or adjective or adverb into one word. And if we move too quickly as we analyze the sentence, we risk not only misunderstanding how it has been constructed, but also misreading the impression it was meant to have on us. So what should we do instead? Work against the tendency to find an answer too quickly. That is the golden rule in grammatical analysis, because sentences do not always march their thoughts out in disciplined measure, but meander in a roundabout way, assembling and gathering both complete thoughts and incomplete suggestions.

So if we resist the temptation to promptly conclude that the sentence is saying outright that the sun is setting—for the word is does not appear anywhere in the sentence—we must hold the subject evening sun in our mind as we overlook the word setting and look further into the sentence. The two commas signal some kind of grammatical unit in its own right, and with that flashing indication we can justifiably set aside for a moment the entire phrase between them. That leaves us free to see, then, that the real verb for the subject evening sun is were, and with subject and verb now in proximity, we can more easily find the grammatical problem our ear had registered: the plural verb were should be the singular was in order to work in accord with the singular subject evening sun. Thus, the evening sun was so beautiful.

This mismatch of subject and verb is a very common mistake, one we are particularly prone to make when the subject stands far from its verb and a plural noun belonging to another grammatical structure happens to stand right next to the verb. And that is exactly the case here. The plural noun pine trees has nothing grammatically to do with the verb were; that plural noun is the object of the preposition of, which is the final element of the phrase we chose to overlook as we expected the verb for the subject evening sun. This phrase which has interposed itself between the subject and verb stands, in fact, on a lower semantic level of the sentence. It is a suggestion of an idea, not an assertion of a thought, and that is why it is essential to analyze a sentence in an orderly way. The writer could well have written The evening sun was setting just then over the top of the pine trees and it was so beautiful. That would have been a compound sentence of two independent clauses, and the effect would have been more like a report than an emotional impression. But he did not write it that way, and we will be able to see just what was lurking in his mind, his grammatical inadvertency notwithstanding, if we can analyze a sentence closely, methodically, and patiently.


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