Put This Here, Put That There

There is an important principle in writing that is often overlooked, and that is something called proximity. We think, rightly enough, that we should attend to our grammar and punctuation in casting a sentence, but just as important is the arrangement of the elements of word, phrase, and clause. The principle of proximity maintains that both the meaning and the effect of what we write are determined by the closeness, or juxtaposition, of the elements we put together to build a sentence.

Here is a selection from Thomas McGuane’s short story “Cowboy” (from The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, Harper, 2008), and we can use it to illustrate this principle of proximity: Tony was a Border collie we got as a pup from a couple in Miles City that raised them. For purposes of analysis, we can divide the sentence into two main sections: an opening independent clause (Tony was a Border collie), and a longer concluding subordinate element (we got as a pup from a couple in Miles City that raised them). This subordinate structure actually begins with the relative pronoun which right after the noun collie, but the writer has suppressed this word according to yet another principle called ellipsis, the omission of a word or phrase otherwise grammatically necessary. Ellipsis produces a more casual and conversational tone, but we always have to be on the lookout for it in order to be able to analyze a sentence accurately.

It is this second section, the subordinate structure, which we are concerned with here, and specifically with the arrangement of its two prepositional phrases (from a couple and in Miles City) and the relative clause (that raised them) with which it finishes. Our object is not to correct the sentence, but to see how the meaning and effect would change in rearranging these three sections—the very technique we must use regularly in revising our own drafts. Let’s begin in order and see that the first prepositional phrase, from a couple, stands as an adverb modifying the preceding verb got. If we let that phrase remain where it is for a moment, the next prepositional element, in Miles City, is acting as an adjective modifying the noun couple, the object of the preceding phrase: that is to say, the pup was gotten from a Miles City couple. The last element, the relative clause that raised them, is also acting as an adjective, but looking back to the couple for its antecedent and skipping over the phrase in Miles City.

The classical design of structure wants to see a close arrangement of elements, both grammatically and logically, and with the principle of proximity in view, we could think of inverting the order of the first two phrases: in Miles City from a couple that raised them. This would bring the antecedent couple closer to its relative pronoun and emphasize where the subject we had gone to get the pup, but it would also imply that the couple might have raised the animal elsewhere, a strictly logical implication (which is always to be calculated in adjusting the placement of elements). Or we could move the first prepositional phrase of this revision to the last position, with yet another result: from a couple that raised them in Miles City. This version would put the stress on just where they got the pup by moving that information to the last position of the sentence, the point of emphasis.

Against these more classical arrangements, the author might very well argue that he deliberately did not want a closer classical structure, because that would not have been in keeping with the character speaking or the emotional moment being depicted (which, in fact, he had already established with ellipsis). Exactly so, and that is why we want to cultivate an insight into grammatical structure: to give ourselves the freedom to make confidently the minute changes that have major effects—both rhetorical and logical.


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