Knowing the Why

It is not unusual for us to say about a picture we see or a song we hear, I like that. It is unusual, though, to go on then to say exactly why. If we ask why it is that a picture or song or anything else moves us, we are in pursuit of the cause of the reaction we are having. What, for example, did the writer do to produce my reaction, good or bad? Knowing why both deepens our experience and teaches us to be able to do the same.

Here, for example, is a wonderfully crafted sentence by the Irish author W. B. Yeats. It appears in his short story The Tables of the Law (I quote it here from James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories, Dover, 2016):

I did not reason with him that night, because his excitement was great and I feared to make him angry; and when I called at his house a few days later, he was gone and his house was locked up and empty.

If we read this sentence with some attention, keeping out what distractions we can to focus closely on both its sense and sound, we are likely to be affected by its balanced weight; it seems to stand up straight, we might say, sure of itself, poised, composed. We might perceive a rhythm or cadence to this one sentence, and we might likely conclude that it doesn’t sound the way we talk. Whether that is good or bad is not the question to ask, because matters of style don’t answer to the question of right or wrong. Content does answer that question, what we are saying can certainly be right or wrong, but the manner, the style, the design by which we are saying something can only be judged by how effectively that content, right or wrong, was presented for the circumstances. What we are after here is first to know the why, the cause, of what we sensed in reading the sentence.

Begin by trying to notice the largest features of the statement as a whole. Here we find that a semicolon stands just about midway in this sentence, 20 words before it and 22 words after it. That fairly strong punctuation device is meant to stabilize and balance the weight of the two halves, and that weight is appreciable: each half of the sentence comprises three clauses, which means three assertions of thought, which the reader is meant to comprehend and relate one to another—all in one sentence. A sentence of such a design—a center point with roughly equal word length on each side—is called, appropriately enough, a balanced sentence.

If from this larger view we next look into the composition of the clauses on either side of the semicolon, the fulcrum of the balance, we are well served first to determine the structure of each clause, independent or subordinate. The sentence begins with an independent clause (I did not reason), and continues to the midway point with two complex clauses (because his excitement was great and [because] I feared to make him angry). For the sake of easier analysis, let’s assign the letter A to independent clauses and the letter B to subordinate clauses; hence, the compositional layout of the first half is A, B, B. If we then turn to the second half of the sentence and analyze it in a similar way, we again find three clauses; this time, however, the first clause is subordinate (when I called at his house), followed by two independent clauses (he was gone and his house was locked up). This second half of the sentence, we discover, has a compositional layout of B, A, A, the exact reverse design of the first half. The fancy word for this kind of compositional design is chiasmus, or reverse parallelism.

It is self-evident that when things (whether objects or words) run in parallel, conflict and misunderstanding is less likely. Parallelism suggests order, control, steadiness, and parallelism in reverse develops the complexity of a statement without losing control over the progression and relationship of ideas. To compose a sentence of six clauses across 42 words means to be presenting the reader with six thoughts that are related to one another; were they not, they would not be in the same sentence. That’s a lot of thinking, and to assure that the attentive reader both comprehend and enjoy the complexity (for the simpler is not always the better), the author has, consciously or not, constructed a plan, an architecture, to communicate all that thinking intelligibly. It is the parallel structure here that creates this stately sentence, and it is the discovery of that structure that intensifies our reading.




The Controlling Idea

It is a principle of the classical approach to the art of language that clear thinking produces clear writing. Not everyone believes that. Some maintain that one’s passion for a topic will more powerfully sweep across a reader’s attention to fix an idea, that writing approximately, getting down just the gist, is all that is really necessary, believing that the reader will contribute what specifics are necessary to bring the idea to life.

That, to the traditional understanding, is to take the long way home, and is a way that bears with it some risk, because what I might be passionate about, you might not. Now that might be true of ideas as well, of course, and so the truth of the matter is that good writers worry about both ideas and passion; either one without the other should not be the goal or even the predominance. But without first being clear in our own mind about what it is we want to discuss, we run the additional and unwarranted risk of believing we have nothing to say when the road gets muddy in our mind. What we need before we begin is a clear direction to a clear idea.

This clear direction and point are sometimes called the controlling idea of a document. As the wheel has a hub from which its spokes radiate, so a piece of writing, each paragraph in itself and the entire composition that comprises those paragraphs, is to be written around a central notion; from there we elaborate or ramify that central idea with spokes or branches of related thoughts and attendant emotions. This concept of the controlling idea is addressed in a straightforward way by the authors Mary Lynn Kelsch and Thomas Kelsch in their book Writing Effectively: A Practical Guide (Prentice-Hall, 1981), and in the opening pages of their discussion, they specifically address the additional risk of confounding difficulty with ability:

Writers who don’t know where they are going or what they are trying to say will naturally get lost and discouraged. They will wander aimlessly through the byways and thickets until sooner or later they will give up trying to write well. They quit because they do not understand the nature of the problem. Fortunately, this problem, which haunts so many people who would like to write but think they are not good at it, is a solvable one.

The authors define this essential controlling idea as “a brief statement of what the finished work will be and what it will try to accomplish.” And I would make the further point that we write this important statement of purpose and direction first for ourselves and second, if explicitly at all, for the reader. There will be times, of course, when the subject at hand is so involved that an overt statement of the plan of treatment will be necessary for the reader. But more often we want to remember that only the tailor turns the garment over to inspect the stitching; the rest of us, just like our readers, want to be shown something rightly made and finished, the better to consider it and be affected by it.

A controlling idea, then, may be (and probably should most often be) one brief sentence or phrase that tells you, the writer, what the point of the document is. That point will involve another important consideration, namely, the audience for whom you are writing, for this will help you decide on the diction, or word choice and sentence structure, of the piece as it unfolds. And very importantly as well, the controlling statement will keep your writing defined—focused to the task at hand for the specific audience intended.

The authors make one more point worth considering closely: “most people will begin writing prematurely.” We think we have nothing to say, get frustrated, and quit when the truth of the matter might be we are trying to say too much all at once. Or (a more bitter pill to swallow) in truth we don’t have yet anything to say—yet, in which case we step back from the writing to reflect more deeply on the what and why of the subject. And it is in that pausing to reflect that we bring ourselves back to the main road to what we really want to say.


First This, Then That

It can be very helpful to understand that the work of writing (or, as it is too often clumsily called, the writing process) is best seen in two parts: drafting and revision. Drafting means filling the blank page or screen with all the ruminations that come to mind when you first cast your attention to the idea you want to say something about. Drafting at heart is the creative moment, which means it is a moment, long or short, of allowing thoughts to assemble themselves. No!, and no! again, will drive a stake into that creative heart.

Revision, on the other hand, is what we do to the draft when we have said our piece to some extent about the idea we are holding forth on. If drafting is creative, revising is shaping, fitting, measuring—all to the point of presenting our readers with a meaningful and attractive design of our thoughts. Properly speaking, we write only one draft; but that one draft will undergo as many revisions as might be necessary to polish the rough-hewn first thoughts that made up the draft. And what is called a final draft is merely the last revision of our work.

I recently came across an interesting description of this draft and revision understanding of composition by Alan Pryce-Jones in his essay entitled “The Freedom of the Imagination,” which appeared as a chapter in a work called The Arts, Artists and Thinkers, a symposium of thoughtful essays edited by John Todd (Longmans, 1958). We are prone to equate creativity with imagination, and Pryce-Jones is making the point that the imagination itself, free though it is, must be tempered by the purpose it is being called to serve: “in any of the arts” he says, “the more strictly the imagination is controlled, with an end in view, the more powerful are its operations.” “The imagination,” he goes on to say, “must be kept in focus as one part, and no more, of the creative temperament.”

The imagination is at work, and dominantly so, in our drafting of a composition; this is what it means to allow thoughts to arrive. But all the phrases and clauses and sentences that we do freely permit to take their place in our first writing are not always of presentable appearance. Creation is messy—almost always so, and so it is the work of revising that tailors some of them and sends others packing. Pryce-Jones refers to this as the work of the “organizing faculties,” and his explanation of this complementary partnership in what he calls the “creative temperament” is worth quoting in full:

That temperament says, in effect, ‘I require to make a house, or a book, or a picture, or a symphony.’ In order to do any of these things it will need much more than imagination, and to begin with there can be no harm in letting the imagination soar away as high as it can reach. That will leave room for the organizing faculties to get to work, and for some relation to be established between supply and demand. Then the imagination has to be hauled back, like a balloon on its string. It has to take the concrete problem in hand, and compose a plan for the organizing faculties to carry out. In fact, whether it likes it or not, it already finds itself far from free.

“Compose a plan for the organizing faculties to carry out.” That, I think, says well what the second stage of critical revision is about. Without principles to follow, the imagination wants ever more in all directions, such is its zest for life. With principles—the rules that organize a particular art—all that unbounded imaginative energy is shaped, made into a means to communicate the thoughts and ideas in our minds. That is the work of grammar and its application in revision, and the very point in gathering slowly and methodically an understanding of the structure that can carry our imagination to good effect.



If it is true that creativity is akin to play, then it should not surprise us, and indeed we should expect, that writers will play with words. We know this game of word play as punning, where we use the same word in different senses in the same context. There are, in fact, many different kinds of puns, but this general term will serve us to become aware of the game in a sentence by the American author Kate Chopin.

Mrs. Sommers is the protagonist of Chopin’s short story A Pair of Silk Stockings, and having come unexpectedly into some little bit of money, Mrs. Sommers goes on a shopping spree of sorts, in search of something which ultimately cannot be found and bought amidst all the things that attract her attention. She finds herself eventually at a newsstand, where Chopin writes this interesting sentence (I quote it from James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories, Dover, 2015): “Mrs. Sommers bought two high-priced magazines such as she had been accustomed to read in the days when she had been accustomed to other pleasant things.” Our attention catches on the two instances of the word accustomed, each close to the other and each used in a different sense, the very work of a pun.

The word accustomed is an adjective, and it stands as a predicate adjective in two identical verb phrases here: she had been accustomed. In the first instance, Mrs. Sommers is said to have been accustomed to read a certain kind of magazine, high-priced ones, which means she was used to reading them, it was her habit or custom or wont to read them. The adjective in this first use is followed by an infinitive, to read, and this alerts us to the idea of ongoing past action: reading a certain kind of magazine was something she did regularly, a common practice for Mrs. Sommers in which we can begin to see the kind of person she was, for what we do is what we are, a traditional principle that dramatic writers build from and elaborate.

The second instance of this same adjective, however, turns things to a slightly different light. To say that Mrs. Sommers had been accustomed to other pleasant things means to say that such things were customary or characteristic of her, not merely the doing of something, but the very having of certain pleasant things. Notice here that in this second use, the adjective accustomed is followed not by a verb, but by a noun, things, the object of the prepositional phrase to other pleasant things. It is one thing to be in the habit of doing something; it is another to be used to something, expectant, waiting, even perhaps feeling deserving of certain very pleasant things.

The difference in meaning between these two uses of the same adjective is slight, but that is exactly where a pun finds its power. The term pun is derived from the Italian noun puntiglio, a fine point or a point of careful distinction (whence our words punctilio, the close observance of ceremony or conduct, and punctilious, being ceremoniously correct). It is that slight difference here, the fine point of distinction between being used to doing something and regularly having certain things that draws the outline of Mrs. Sommers’ character in bright relief. We come to learn in the final sentence of Chopin’s story that “poignant wish” and “powerful longing” were the very heart of Mrs. Sommers in the life she is living, having lost once-accustomed things, and so having lost in part herself.


Feeling Meaning

One great benefit of studying grammar can be (or should be) a more subtle awareness of how rich and robust can be the meaning of common perceptions. We look to writers, and perhaps aspire ourselves to be such writers, to see more deeply into things, to bring before us more colorful pictures than the gray black-and-whites we live in from day to day. Good writers can come with a trove of such ways of seeing the world, and their effects can be all the greater if we have some idea of how good writers use language.

If grammar is the bony structure, or skeleton, of a particular language, logic is the way that structure is organized into a functioning organism. Grammar says, this is how you say something in this language, and logic replies, this is how you say something that makes sense. But saying something that only makes sense keeps us at the level of computer or robot, and so the traditional study of language has included a third study called rhetoric, or style, whose worry it is to combine sense with sentiment, recognizing the need we have as humans, not robots, to feel and not merely react to our perceptions.

Now there is a great difference between feeling something and emotionalizing it, and psychologists and philosophers alike have much to say about this. Writers can sensationalize a moment with bold language that describes the big features of a scene, and we readers will rise to the obvious word pictures they want us to react to. But betters writers will present us with a richer color scheme, a world of deeper implication, by using our common language in an uncommon way, compelling us to discover something we didn’t even suspect was there. The study of rhetoric is concerned with figures of speech, the many different configurations we can contrive for our words and phrases and clauses in an appeal to our feeling, our sentiment. Some figures, called schemes, have to do with the effects that result from where we place those elements; others, called tropes, have to do with the multiple meanings that a word or phrase can carry.

Take, for example, this single sentence from a short story by the American author O. Henry. It comes from his The Last Leaf, and I quote it here from James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories, Dover, 2015. The scene is a doctor about to speak to the close friend of a patient he has just examined for pneumonia: “One morning the busy doctor invited Sue into the hallway with a shaggy, gray eyebrow.” The moment is a serious one, a doctor giving news to a caring friend, and our attention is held and the moment heightened when our natural expectation of the grammatical layout of the sentence is upset. To speak of someone inviting someone else into a hallway is a scene whose meaning would lead us to expect that the preposition with will point to another independent something that will accompany the two into the hallway, with another doctor, perhaps, or worse, with some papers to sign. This idea of accompaniment is the most common meaning of the preposition with.

Instead, though, the author has given the preposition with a most unexpected object, a shaggy, gray eyebrow, and in doing so, he has changed the meaning of that preposition from accompaniment to manner. An eyebrow that is shaggy and gray is by suggestion one that has been weathered with time and experience, and experience and time sometimes signal authority and wise judgment. Such qualities, however, do not exist on their own, so they cannot properly be said to accompany two people into a hallway. They do exist, however, in the very manner of the doctor, and so being a part of him, they are to be seen, the author suggests, in his very gestures and bearing. The way, the manner, in which the doctor comports himself has been isolated in the unforeseen image of a shaggy, gray eyebrow—unforeseen and therefore suddenly revealing of a richer meaning to the scene.

This kind of subtle but skillful and commanding change in the meaning of words is the very pilothouse of rhetoric. If the art of writing intends to capture the movement of life for a moment so that we can see the common life about us more subtly, then it is the work of rhetoric to tend the resources of grammar and logic, its two allied disciplines, toward the earth, the place of concrete realities that ultimately generate our feelings. For our deepest satisfaction as human beings seems to lie at once in thinking and feeling something meaningful.