One of the reasons it’s good to learn a little grammar is for the insight it can give—creative and effective inside knowledge—into what we’ve written in a first draft. There’s no writing without rehearsing, but new ideas have got to come through somewhere, and often that can be through sentence structure.
Let’s say I am writing a paragraph to describe what happened to me one day when I was on vacation in a small hill town in a foreign country. It was dusk, I was returning to the room I had rented for the week, and I had not realized that the path I was on passed close by a large private estate of some sort with an imposing gate chained and locked. I continue my description for another sentence or two, and then I find myself writing that a dog approached me slowly, step by step. I’m not happy with the sentence, but I leave it there to look at again when I revise the draft.
When I do reread the draft later (and later can mean moments, hours, or days), I notice again, sure enough, that the sentence a dog approached me slowly, step by step just doesn’t do the job. Too abrupt, I decide, for what it is I’m trying to depict—suddenly a menacing animal in the dark on a country path. But when I cast my mind back to the moment, nothing avails to bring a new idea: what I already wrote is what did in fact happen, so invoking the memory just takes me into that mental motion that goes round and round without turning into something else. I’m locked in a circle instead of riding a spiral up and out and into something new.
But I do have something about the idea I want to communicate, and that’s the form and figure and shape of the very sentence I’m not happy with. So why not look closely and technically at what I have managed to write? If form and content go hand in hand, then maybe seeing into the form can get me to a fuller expression of the idea my memory had originally brought me. Ideas don’t have shape, but sentences do. So I analyze the sentence I’ve drafted, loosen it apart a little to see its composition, and I discover a main clause (a dog approached me slowly) followed by a phrase that fills out the clause (step by step). I note the shape (what is called a cumulative sentence), and this close look has given me the time and space to see that perhaps it was not that dog’s approach that was slow, but his steps, the way in which he slowly lifted one leg, only to step slowly to lift another as he gathered and concentrated his strength to pounce. The fright I felt lay in the anticipation slowly unfolding, but to have at first assigned that slowness to the animal’s approach was too broad, too general, and it produced a sentence too heady and thin.
So if now this dog approached me, slow step by slow step, did he approach or did he creep? I look next, that is, at the verb of the main clause, the central engine of the entire sentence. The verb creep does not quite work (I think of snakes and spiders creeping), but I stay with it and ponder it long enough to realize that what I’m trying to describe I have already portrayed in the phrase slow step by slow step. That phrase already points to the animal’s approaching or creeping, so what am I not saying that wants to be said in the main clause? Exactly that fright that was being assembled in me by each slow step. And so I realize that the verb approach produces a tone too abstract for the scene, and I try another verb that might carry both the action and the fright together: a dog menaced me, slow step by slow step. Then looking again closely at the phrase, a change in degree to the second adjective: a dog menaced me, slow step by even slower step. That small change then produces a new and fuller expression of the idea that was the reality that night: a guard dog menaced me as I passed by a private gate, step by even slower step. That, I decide, has just enough ambiguity about it to keep the reader unsure now whose steps they were. And in this descriptive context, that uncertainty is just and fitting.
Our sentences, then, carry all manner of possibilities in their first renditions, and one can say with much truth that the good writer is the one who keeps revising. With a close awareness of even simple structures like phrase and clause, we can make our first draft open into new shapes which in turn may bring us more deeply into what it is we’re trying to say—the scene we see with our imaginative eye, our mind. The grammatical structure of a sentence is the outward expression of an inward idea, and that linguistic architecture can be the path—let’s hope an unthreatening one—to new thought and expression.