Style and usage manuals, those indispensable guides at our side as we write, advise us to consider just where we place phrases in a sentence. The casual voice, both written and spoken, tends to compile thoughts as they arise in our mind, tacking one onto the next as we discover what we want to say. Our sentences in a first draft, therefore, are often not as much constructed as they are glued together, and that’s why when we come to revise, we have to be able to identify and rearrange the elements that arose pell-mell amidst our musings. Short of the critical attention that requires, our first sentences can often surprise us.
Take these short sentences, for example: That bridge was built by a famous architect in a town called Steiner. Was the bridge built in the town of Steiner, or was the builder a famous architect in the town of Steiner? He confronted the man with a gun in his hand. Who had the gun in his hand, the subject or the object of the verb confronted? I cooked a turkey just back from work. What did that turkey do for a living? Each of these sentences gets into trouble because of at least one ambiguously placed phrase, and the way back to the royal road of clear vision begins with analysis.
Let’s look at the first example in detail. One simple sentence whose subject is bridge and whose verb is was built, a simple past tense in the passive voice. The predicate unfolds with two prepositional phrases, by a famous architect and in a town called Steiner. With these two elements in sight, then, we next determine their syntax—how each works grammatically in the sentence—in order to decide whether we have positioned them accurately. The first phrase constitutes what is called an agent phrase for the passive verb. A verb is said to be in the passive voice (as opposed to active) when its subject is not the agent, or doer, of the action of the verb. The subject bridge here certainly did not do anything (something, in fact, was done to it), and so that’s sufficient to conclude that the verb was built is passive. But where, then, is the agent? Displaced agents (as we might call them) regularly find themselves objects of the preposition by, and that is just what we come upon immediately after the passive verb: was built by a famous architect. Before we rearrange anything, though, we should analyze the remainder of the sentence.
There follows now another element, this one a prepositional phrase whose grammatical function is more ambiguous than the agent phrase before it. Prepositional phrases can work as either adjectives or adverbs, and which role they take on is much influenced by the word they are placed next to. Here, the prepositional phrase in a town called Steiner is proximate to the noun architect, and that means that in strict form, the phrase in a town called Steiner is an adjective modifying that noun: the architect was a Steinerian architect. Now, we might quickly retort that certainly the writer meant to say the bridge was built in the town of Steiner, but where would the preponderant evidence be for that passionately held position of ours? At best, the sentence is ambiguous.
So how can the sentence be revised unambiguously? By keeping a close eye on the principle of proximity: words that work together stay close together. On that principle, we can simply invert the order of the two prepositional phrases: That bridge was built in a town called Steiner by a famous architect. Now the prepositional phrase in a town called Steiner is adverbial, unambiguously modifying the passive verb phrase. And no uncertainty can result from putting the agent phrase at the end of the sentence, because the preposition by clearly identifies the function of the phrase. This is now a better sentence, on the assumption, of course, that we meant originally to say that the bridge, not the architect, was in Steiner. If not, how about this: A famous architect from Steiner built that bridge. Sometimes we have to be ready to radically revise the underlying structure of what we’ve first written—though, admittedly, the spirit is often willing while the will to revise is weak.
Today’s post will be the last of my Thursday musings about grammar and writing. Please look for my short pieces once each week now, every Tuesday morning, and also please remember that I offer private online instruction in English grammar, composition, and conversation. You may reach me for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.