In the study of prose—that is, language in paragraphs as opposed to the metrical language of poetry—there is nowhere to go more fundamental than the idea of subject and predicate. In every fully formed sentence, we identify something and we say something about it. Two bricks with the mortar of punctuation between them, and up and up we go, placing one predicate onto another subject until sooner or later we have structure that supports, that represents, that is, our thoughts.
Every time we join a subject with a predicate, we have built a clause. A predicate (the word derives from a Latin verb meaning to speak forth) begins with a verb, and the standard word order of a declarative sentence in English is a subject followed by its verb. If we put, then, those two ideas together, its child’s play to identify the subject and the predicate: the sun | shines, the road | winds, the machine | grinds. And if we build out the predicate a little with another idea, we produce what is called the complement of the predicate. Complements complete, or at least elaborate, the idea that the verb has predicated: the sun shines all day, the road winds into the forest, the machine grinds the metal into a thousand pieces.
Now, of course, language is language, which means that things soon become grammatically complex in even the simplest-appearing statements. But since our grammatical choices have stylistic consequences, it is to our advantage to understand the basics of sentence construction. Without those basics (let’s admit it), we can write some clumsy prose. And when our sentences are awkward, our readers have to work harder to put the ideas in the logical order they have grown to expect them: subject, then predicate, then complement if there is one. We certainly want to read and write language more sophisticated than this, and no writer of any accomplishment would want every sentence to conform blindly to the subject-predicate word order. But the flair and fragrance of one’s own style arises in variation of this basic word order, and the trick is to find out how far we can move from this center without risking inelegance.
This was illustrated nicely in a recent headline over a story online: Under Construction Bridge Collapses. This is a headline, so we’re not expecting a complete sentence. But the headline fragments we do read have to conform to the grammar of a larger, unexpressed sentence. Here, we understand easily enough that a bridge has collapsed. The subject bridge is followed by its verb collapses, and so we comprehend the logic of the statement by recognizing the subject-predicate order. But the subject bridge has been modified by the prepositional phrase under construction, and so our eye reads this phrase as an adjective: what has collapsed, apparently, is an under construction bridge, as perhaps it was also a new bridge, a long bridge, a metal bridge. All of these additions to the subject bridge are adjectives.
But the prepositional phrase under construction points, more likely, to what was happening to the bridge, not to what it was. The predicate, then, because its ideas revolve around the verb, is the very place to put words and phrases that complement that action. And since that, in fact, is exactly what the prepositional phrase under construction is meant to do, that phrase should be in the predicate position after the noun, there to produce a much more dramatic outcome: bridge under construction collapses. This arrangement works on the expectation that we understand that another verb (an entire additional clause, really) is assumed between bridge and under: a bridge which was under construction collapses. Remove the which was, and you have a compressed statement both concise and logical, and therefore powerful.
And that’s one of the confounding difficulties of language: what we see often depends on what we can’t see, what’s assumed in the structure because the writer depends on our knowing how language works. All the more reason to understand the reasons behind the rules.
Two New Offerings
Reading Closely to Write
Wednesdays, September 27 through October 18
6:00 to 7:00 p.m. CT
It’s an open secret that we learn to write better and better by reading more and more closely. On Wednesday, September 27, Writing Smartly will begin another short course of four one-hour sessions called Reading Closely to Write. Each week we will examine the structure and stylistic design of sentences from one or two very short stories (each averaging about 16 pages) written by celebrated authors. We will analyze the grammar and composition of certain significant sentences, and consider how other designs the author could have chosen would have produced different effects. Our emphasis will be on the language of the readings, so that we can begin to develop an eye and ear for discovering our own written voice.
New selections this fall term will again be taken from The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, edited by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Publishers, 2008), readily available at Amazon and elsewhere. Tuition for this four-session online short course is $300 paid through Zelle (firstname.lastname@example.org), or $310 paid through PayPal.
If you have any questions, please email me directly. I hope you can join us.
Write With Me
Frustrated by writer’s block? No matter how much we want to do something, it can be very difficult to do it alone. And if we want to get started on our writing again, finding the discipline to sit down each day for even a few minutes can be daunting.
I work privately with students and professionals to help them discover their ideas and articulate their thoughts in clear and straightforward English. For those who are finding it difficult to complete those writing projects that just won’t go away, I offer an introductory 30-minute private session that combines 10 minutes of writing with 20 minutes of immediate review. This writing-and-review format helps you carve out the time you need to begin to get the writing done—right there in our working session. You compose a paragraph, and we then revise it together, looking at the grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure to make sure your language says what you mean to say. You’ll leave the session having learned something new about writing well and motivated to continue your work.
If you need to write more knowledgeably for a degree, for your profession, or just for yourself, this short introductory session of writing and review will help you begin in the right way what you’ve long wanted—and maybe even need—to do. Tuition is $50. Email me at email@example.com to schedule your private session.