Writers know the value of small things. What many of us might think to be inconsequential detail—a comma here or a few words there, for example—can make all the difference in reproducing the mental picture we give to someone else to see what we have perceived and felt.
A student of mine recently wrote a short story, only some six pages, he entitled “The Pilgrim.” It introduces the unexpected life of a homeless man in a large city, and holds before us the idea that unlooked-for insights—and their very real consequences—lie all around us, often in the unlikeliest of encounters, if we’d only take the time and attention to look. Midway through the story, the author has his protagonist say these few sentences to someone newly met, and when I first read them, I stumbled over the second sentence and tripped over the third:
It was a beautiful autumn day, a Tuesday, a little more than a year ago. Had I stayed home that day you and I would have never met. I had no classes (I teach at a small university) and I felt too good to go to work in any case. I went birdwatching. The crisp air, the fall colors, the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, a bright blue sky—it was a glorious day. I sat on the stump of a fallen tree and inhaled the beauty. If you want to see birds or any wildlife in the forest, it’s best to sit still and let them come to you.
The second sentence presents what is called a condition contrary to fact. Such sentences mean to hypothesize on what was not in fact the case, and like all conditional sentences, they have two clauses, condition and result. The conditional clause, here composed in a higher style appropriate to the character by omitting the conjunction if and inverting the subject (I) and auxiliary verb (had), sets up an imagined situation in the past, and the following result clause (I would have never met) states what would have happened in that hypothetical world had it been true in fact.
So far so good, but it is the construction of the verb phrase of the result clause that caused me to stumble when I read it: the adverb never is misplaced, and that produces a tone inconsistent with the higher diction already appropriately established in the first clause for the character. Verb phrases constitute a principal verb which is preceded by one or more auxiliary verbs, and if there is an adverb modifying the group, it is generally placed between the first and second auxiliaries; thus, would never have met, rather than would have never met. The latter construction is acceptable, of course, but it is a more casual configuration, and that is the cause of the inconsistent diction I detected.
More noteworthy, though, is the choice the writer made in constructing the third sentence. The obstacle I tripped over when I first read this sentence was the phrase in any case. This adverbial phrase means anyhow, anyway, this is true no matter what else may be true, and it emphasizes an idea we are to regard in opposition or contrast to some other idea either already said or about to be said. The first clause has asserted that the subject had no classes, and it states this as a fact. The following clause then asserts another fact, that the subject felt too good to go to work, and when the adverbal phrase in any case follows immediately, we are directed to put the second idea in contrast to the first—which would imply that the subject would not have gone to work even if he had had classes to teach that day.
That, however, was surely not what this responsible university teacher meant to say or do as a fact. Instead, perhaps, he might have suggested the idea of just walking away from his classes as a bit of humor, as an unlikely, outrageous thing to contemplate his ever doing. If so, this third sentence, then, is better constructed as another condition contrary to fact, perhaps with an exclamation point to mark its improbability: I had no classes (I teach at a small university) and I would have felt too good to go to work in any case! If we then rearrange the order of the fourth and fifth sentences so that the reason and result proceed more orderly, this revision of the passage presents itself:
Had I stayed home that day, you and I would never have met. I had no classes (I teach at a small university) and I would have felt too good to go to work in any case: the crisp air, the fall colors, the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, a bright blue sky—it was a glorious day! I went birdwatching instead. I sat on the stump of a fallen tree and inhaled the beauty. If you want to see birds or any wildlife in the forest, it’s best to sit still and let them come to you.
Other revisions, of course, are possible, so rich in ideas and characterization is the passage. Our examination, though, points to the practical importance of detailed analysis. A detail is a particular of something, what has been cut from some larger whole. The word is related to our word tailor, and derives from the French verb tailler, to cut. To see what we have written in detail, then, is to analyze our composition so closely that we see both the implications of what we have written and the possibilities for various revisions. And right there is where a knowledge of grammar and sentence structure serves its best purpose.