Deep Down There

One of the reasons we try to learn to read closely is to cultivate the skill of discernment, the ability to make small but important distinctions between things that might first appear similar or even the same. In reading and writing, that means being aware not only of words and phrases, but just where those elements appear in a sentence and what that implies. The slightest change can make the subtlest difference.

If we can remember that our words are the outer expression of our inner thoughts (this is the classical understanding of just what language is for us human beings), that the shape of what we read and write on the outside reflects what we understand on the inside, then seeing sharply what we’re reading and writing becomes manifestly important, because expressing (the word means pushing out) the inner is not always an easy task. It is a difficult business to think clearly, and difficult again to get our words to match our thoughts. And even when it’s not a matter of just getting the rough idea across, understanding a sentence in detail can open unsuspected dimensions to what we think we understand, whether we’ve written it or not.

Here’s an example of a sentence that carries a subtle and unsuspected difference: A patient this morning canceled, so we can meet earlier for lunch if you’d like. Is the first half of this sentence saying that a patient canceled this morning, or that a morning patient canceled, whenever that might have happened? Or to put the same question grammatically, is the phrase this morning to be taken as an adverb or an adjective? We recognize an adverb when an element answers where?, when?, how? how much?, or why?, and the phrase this morning would, of course, answer to the question of just when the patient called to cancel. Such adverbs are called temporal, and temporal adverbs in English usually appear at the end of a clause. If we were to regard the phrase this morning, then, as a temporal adverb, we would expect to see this arrangement of the first clause: a patient canceled this morning.

But the sentence as we have it has placed this same phrase immediately next to the noun patient, and in doing so has changed the purpose of mentioning the idea of time at all. By moving the reference to the morning from the predicate (after the verb and at the end of the clause) to the subject (right beside the noun that represents the one who undertook the action of the verb), the idea of time is now to be understood as describing the patient (a morning patient), not as describing the circumstances of what the patient did (canceled this morning). Again put grammatically, by placing the phrase this morning next to patient, it is naming an attribute of that noun, not a complement of the verb canceled.

And why would such a close reading matter? Because of the insight the construction of the sentence gives us into the writer’s own relation to the ideas being expressed. The simple placing of the phrase this morning next to the noun, thereby using it as an adjective describing the patient, keeps the reader’s attention on the relevant idea: the fact that the patient was a morning patient has something directly to do with the time of the upcoming lunch. Had the writer employed the phrase as an adverb, placing it at the end of the predicate, the sentence would have taken on an odd shape, because when the patient canceled has less directly to do with the upcoming lunch than when the patient was originally scheduled to appear.

Form and content go always hand in hand. What we say and how we say it cannot be separated, and this gives us a reason to look closely at what we’re reading and writing. The richer meaning of the circumstances we find ourselves in is often to be found in what is not said explicitly, but merely implied. And that implication can be found deep in the way we construct—and read—our sentences.


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