From Phrase to Clause

Let’s say you’ve found yourself in an unworkable sentence, something like this, for example: One month into my vacation after not taking any time off for almost three years, I began to experience persistent thoughts about being away from work that plagued me. If we have agreed, as I think we should, that anything goes in a first draft, then we should accept our sentences as we find them there. The writer here has laid down ideas as they presented themselves to his first recollection, and the work of revision begins now with identifying those ideas and giving each its proper form and place.

It’s important to distinguish in writing between an idea and a thought, because each has a different form in the sentences we construct. An idea is a general meaning we want to express, some notion we conceive or imagine in our mind. A thought, on the other hand, is an idea made specific by the addition of a subject and verb. A noun or phrase will express an idea, but only a clause can express a thought, because a clause, by definition, is the joining of a subject with a verb. A phrase, on the other hand, is defined as a group of words related in some way without a subject and verb.

Our first step in revising a sentence, then, should be to identify the thoughts, the clauses, we have composed. In our example above, there are two clauses, I began (or to be more practicably complete, we could include the object of the verb: I began to experience) and that plagued (or again including the object, that plagued me). Now if those are the only two real thoughts this unwieldy sentence is communicating, all the other words make up phrases, which means they are ideas, not thoughts. An idea is a potential thought, the suggestion of a thought; a thought, whether complete or not, is an idea made specific in person and time to a particular situation.

Because the initial fourteen words before the first thought in our example have no subject and verb, we must conclude they comprise a phrase, an idea. But if we look more closely, we can see that those fourteen words make up two phrases, one having to do with the idea of being on vacation (one month into my vacation) and the other to do with the idea of not taking time off earlier (after not taking any time off for almost three years). The second idea begins with the preposition after; prepositions always begin phrases, and so they are a sure sign that we are beginning an idea. This second phrase, however, contains another phrase within it, beginning with the preposition for, and we could, were it practical, identify three phrases, not two, in these opening fourteen words. But since the two prepositions after and for work so closely together, no real gain is had by analyzing so minutely.

So what practical advantage does this analysis give us? Perhaps this first revision: One month into my vacation (I hadn’t taken any time off for almost three years), I began to experience…. Seeing that the opening fourteen words made up two large phrases, we realized we could convert the second group, the phrase beginning with the preposition after, into a clause. This transformed the idea into a thought, and the specificity of the subject and verb (I hadn’t taken) brought energy to the sentence, because we focused the reader’s attention on someone (I) who had actually done something (hadn’t taken any time off). And therein lies the all-important observation: phrases suggest but clauses assert. To assert is to be precise, and precision is the heart of style. Clauses equal energy.

There is more to say, though, about our example sentence. We found our orientation to the sentence by first identifying its two clauses, but those two assertions have troubles of their own. We’ll investigate the two clauses and question their imprecision in an upcoming post.


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