A Sentence from Rachel Carson

I ask my students to keep a record of their reading by transcribing in a notebook a sentence or two which has caught their attention by the way it says what it says. This attentive copying (with appropriate quotation marks and citation, of course) holds the eye and mind to form, and furnishes a stock of grammatical shapes that will then be ready at hand as they revise their own work later.

Recently, a student brought to class this quote from the famed biologist and writer Rachel Carson, and it illustrates a good number of rhetorical designs in a mere twenty-eight words. The topic, for which Carson was to be an early and influential voice, is humankind’s relationship to (or estrangement from) the natural world with the use of chemical pesticides. This sentence is from her work Silent Spring, originally published in 1962: “I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself.” (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, 2002, p. 13). Let’s look first at the way the sentence ends.

The coda, or concluding section of the sentence, begins with the preposition on and continues to the period. That preposition has four objects, the nouns soil, water, wildlife, and man, and what we should note is the order in which the writer has put down these four conceptions. Carson’s entire topic involves the natural world, and to a scientific mind, whether biologist or metaphysician, our natural environment exhibits a hierarchy, a graded series of interconnected realities. Here, water presumes soil to contain it, so the noun soil begins the series and water follows. Wildlife is next in the chain because it depends on the two realities preceding it; and man concludes the ranking series not only because we depend on all three antecedents, but also because we regard ourselves as made up of (if not arising from) them. The addition of the intensive adjective himself only emphasizes the preeminent importance of Carson’s thesis—that we are taking our hand against ourselves.

The technical rhetorical term for this arrangement of words in order of increasing significance is climax. That term derives from the Greek noun for ladder, and just as we climb to new physical heights on a ladder, so we climb metaphorically to new heights of significance by arranging words climactically. We should note, too, that Carson did not keep to a formal triadic structure, where a series is limited to three items. Here we have four, the four prepositional noun objects, and that surely is the better choice, given the natural realities she was intending to connect. This points to the ever-important need to balance formal, or ideal, linguistic structures against the actualities one is writing about. That tension is present in every art: slavishly following the rules leads to a studied, self-conscious style, but too freely allowing our first drafts to stand as our final products evidences little concern for either the subject or the reader.

We should see as well in the coda the absence of conjunctions, with the exception of and before the concluding noun man. This rhetorical device is called asyndeton, and its effect is to speed a series of ideas before the reader in order to stress their importance. The opposite of asyndeton is polysyndeton, the full use of each and every conjunction logically necessary to the series. Here, that would have looked like this: on soil, and water, and wildlife, and man himself. The rhythm swings more, and in that mood trades seriousness for lyricism. And we should note that both these configurations build on ellipsis, the omission of the preposition on before all of its objects. Having restored the ellipsis, and the writer would have had yet another option to choose from: on soil, and on water, and on wildlife, and on man himself. Now we have a high-sounding denunciation of the harm man is causing the environment, a tone the author would no doubt likely have wished to avoid.

We can point, finally, to the placement of the adverb furthermore at the beginning of the sentence. When an adverb or conjunction is written not as the first word of a sentence, but somewhere closely therefrom, the arrangement is called postpositive and the effect is a degree or two more sophisticated literarily. The writer chooses not to announce that she is about to say something more (Furthermore, I contend that we have allowed), but instead confirms what she has already begun to do (I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed). The resulting tone is again less confrontational, and so invites the reader to consider dispassionately a difficult truth in which they, too, are involved.

The art of composition abounds in such technical devices, and they are most efficiently learned one by one as the occasion presents itself in our private reading. That is one of the best reasons for taking the time to transcribe a memorable sentence: to absorb the ways and means of good writers.


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion