A Perfect Future

The future can be a strange state of affairs, if it is really anything at all. Every time we get there, we call it the present, and then that present doesn’t last long without more future. Like the past, the future is tied to the present, and from where we are now in our minds, we can even think about what will be past in the future.

Strange, indeed, and some suspect that the whole tangled web is the work of language. Writers know that language creates a world of its own, and good writers writing for the sake of fact and clarity watch their verbs closely, so that their written world conforms to the one we actually experience together. The leading characteristic, or property, of verbs is tense (there are five properties of a verb: person, number, tense, voice, and mood), and the tense, or time, of a verb pitches the pole around which the fabric of a particular world of words, called a clause, unfolds. Because we humans seem to have this peculiar way of projecting ourselves into a world that doesn’t really yet exist, manipulating verb tenses can be tricky. But every trick, of course, has its solution.

English has two future tenses (setting aside the question of shall and will, which requires some real magic to solve): the simple future and the future perfect. The simple future means just what it says: here is what is going to happen at some time subsequent to the one we’re in right now. If I say that I will speak with him this afternoon, you know that such an event is yet to transpire. The verb phrase will speak is composed of the principal verb speak (a principal verb is the one that carries the actual idea we want to communicate), along with the auxiliary verb will (an auxiliary verb aids a principal verb in building the tense, and it always precedes its principal verb). The simple future conveys the sense that something yet to happen will at some moment in fact be happening.

But what if the future is not so simple? If I say instead that I will have spoken with him by 4:00 this afternoon, I am still referring to a future time, 4:00 this afternoon, but the act of speaking with him is to occur at some time before that late afternoon hour. That is to say, I am projecting a time (4:00 this afternoon) which is future in relation to the present moment at which I’m writing or speaking the sentence, and that future moment is to mark the boundary before which something else is yet to occur, namely, speaking with him. The future itself, in other words, contains something that will be past, and that is exactly what the future perfect tense is meant to denote. The term perfect in grammar means finished or completed, and although at first sight the name of the future perfect tense might appear to be a contradiction in terms—how can something yet to occur also be completed?—we can see from our example that such a mysterious conception is in fact possible for our mind and its language.

Time, then, can be relative, and that is of quite practical importance in writing clear sentences. It may be true as some wise philosophers aver that the truth is ultimately simple, but the path that language takes to the truth is often winding and spiral. The kind of language most of us write most of the time, what is called expository prose, tries to represent the world we live and act in, a world which, as far as our minds are concerned, is made up of both space and time. Clause by clause and sentence by sentence, we write world-like scenes for our readers to enter and live in for a moment. The more accurately we construct those linguistic worlds, the more easily our readers can see what we see and know what we know—all to the point of understanding one another all the better.


Upcoming Seminar

The Passive Voice: When and When Not to Use It
Tuesday, December 8
7:00 to 8:00 p.m. CT

Who’s doing what seems to be an almost irresistible attraction for us. Good writers know this, and they prefer sentences that show the subject acting rather than being acted upon—what is known in grammar as the active and passive voice of a verb. Still, there are times when the passive voice is the better choice, and a little attention to how we are constructing our verbs can make all the difference in the clarity and force of our sentences. Writing Smartly’s next seminar will explain how to form the active and passive voices, and what to look for in deciding between them. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the presentation, including exercises and answers for private study. You may enroll now through this registration link. Tuition is $25.


Something Is Missing

No sooner do we recognize that a well-written sentence is clear and exact than we come upon good writers not saying everything they mean. Look closely at a perfectly fine sentence like she thinks the package will be delivered today, and you can see that something grammatical is not quite right: what does it mean to think the package? Not much, says the schoolmarm or martinet missing, as they often do, the forest for the trees. We know in our bones that she thinks the package means she thinks that the package, and we don’t stumble over a sentence when a word that is otherwise technically necessary has been omitted. But why is it all right to leave a word out if our goal is to be clear and exact?

The short answer is that the science of grammar makes no claim for flawless precision. Arising from our perception of things and events in the world, where change or movement is the only thing constant, language must rely on more than a mechanical application of unassailable grammatical rules. Grammar works in concert with reason and rhetoric, and the three together fashion sentences that carry both objective meaning and lived experience. And we don’t live, or shouldn’t live, in a mysterious world like inerrant robots.

So when we write she thinks the package will be delivered today, we have omitted the subordinating conjunction that in order to mimic our conversational voice and produce a more natural style. Subordinate conjunctions begin clauses which can then function as a part of speech. If we restore the conjunction that in our sentence (she thinks that the package will be delivered today), we can see that the conjunction marks the beginning of the clause which, in its entirety, is the direct object of the transitive verb thinks. This omission of a word that is otherwise grammatically or logically necessary is called ellipsis, and it is a very common feature of English. The term comes from a Greek verb meaning to fall short (an oval, or ellipse, is thought to fall short of a perfect circle), and it is one of a number of related rhetorical figures (syllepsis and zeugma are two others) that help us stylize our sentences to certain effects.

In speaking with others, we do not state every last word we mean. We rely on the attentive and largely sympathetic awareness of those involved to fill in, from the richness of our common human experience, what can reasonably be assumed in omission. We point to ideas without detailing each in full; we linguistically wink at one another, knowing that they will see the meaning and supply what is needed. Elliptical statements depend on a certain degree of sophistication, a shared knowingness that comes from our experience together in the world. It creates, ironically, a forcefulness by not saying every last thing, by pulling in the reader or listener to restore what is meant. Not to permit ellipsis is to capitulate to the hypercritical.

The trick, of course, is to know when something can be omitted and when it can’t. The legal language of courts and contracts sounds tedious because that is not the time to ask the reader to supply what has obviously been omitted: what is missing for the buyer might be very different from what is missing for the seller. But when circumstances are not so consequential and there is a need to accelerate a sentence through a well-know terrain of ideas, then the rhetorical device of ellipsis can have a very useful and sophisticated effect. Learning how and when to use it can be as frustrating as the answer an accomplished cook gives to just how much salt he put in that delicious soup, but in writing there is only one good answer: read and read and read.


Who, Which, That, and What

In the space of about 600 words here, I would like to try to explain the basics of the four relative pronouns who, which, that, and what. We use these words constantly in conversation, changing the intonation of our voice easily and naturally to express quite subtle distinctions of meaning. These same distinctions have to be expressed when we write, and since we write when we can’t be there, we have to be able to employ skillfully other devices that the principles and rules of grammar and composition provide to express our exact meaning. Here we go.

A relative pronoun stands in place of a noun and joins it to a new clause. The relative who in the sentence the nurse who helped me was so caring is representing the noun nurse in the subordinate clause who helped me. The independent clause of this sentence is the nurse was so caring, and the subordinate clause has been inserted right into the middle of it to keep the relative pronoun close to its antecedent (the word to which a pronoun refers). English interrupts clauses like this all the time, and so it is all the more important to understand sentences clause by clause. Using a pronoun allows us to avoid the monotony of writing the nurse the nurse who helped me was so caring, an arrangement of words that would violate the principle of variety.

The relative pronoun who (or whom if it is working as an object of a verb or preposition) can only refer to a person. Which, on the other hand, works just like who but refers only to things: I followed the instructions which my doctor had given me. Which refers here to instructions in the independent clause, and is standing as the object of had given in its own subordinate clause. Next, the relative pronoun that functions just like who and which, but can refer to either a person or a thing: the nurse that helped me and the instructions that my doctor gave me. One peculiarity the relative that displays (and there are, of course, others) is that that cannot follow a preposition: the nurse to whom I am so grateful, never the nurse to that I am so grateful.

And finally, what. This relative pronoun is often called a double or compound relative because it really means that which. In the sentence what she did for me few would do, the antecedent for what actually follows in the next clause—an irregular arrangement because an antecedent (the term means goes before in Latin) usually precedes its pronoun. If we rewrite the sentence for purposes of analysis, substituting that which for the double relative what, we can see more clearly how it is really working: few would do that which she did for me. What, like which, can only refer to things.

It can be enormously helpful to remember that English (and other languages as well) will use the same word in different ways. The relative pronoun who can also be used as an interrogative pronoun (who called?), and the relative that can be used as a demonstrative (that is the one I want). Because language can be so complex (which means, interestingly, that we can be so complex when we think), the art of writing has developed a canon of principles and rules that can make it easier to express exactly what we are thinking and feeling. But these rules of use and arrangement take on life only in the real sentences and paragraphs we write, so our first question in analyzing language should always be: what is the word doing? From that answer flows all the grammatical terminology that is meant simply to help us organize our words more efficiently and express ourselves more precisely.


Understanding the Six Tenses
Tuesday, December 1
7:00 to 8:00 p.m. CT

A well-written sentence orders its ideas logically for the reader, and one way to do that is by using verbs in the correct tense. English grammar employs six tenses, and the next Writing Smartly seminar will show you how to form each of them, explain some of the differences between them, and present a number of the rules that govern where to place an adverb, the part of speech that modifies a verb. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the one-hour presentation, along with exercises and answers for private study. You may enroll now through this registration link. Tuition is $25.


Slicing and Dicing

It always seems to be about the comma. What does this sentence mean, do you think: Be sure you peel the oranges before juicing; the rinds contain oils, which can cause an upset stomach. The first purpose of a comma is to separate. The word comma itself comes from a classical Greek word meaning to cut off, so when we see or write a comma, we should be thinking about how and why some element is being isolated from the words around it. Understanding this is not just a matter of style alone; it can also change the meaning.

The sentence we are analyzing is composed roughly in halves, the two sections separated neatly from each other by a semicolon (more on that later). The first half of the sentence is made up of one clause (be sure), and tells us what to do; the second half comprises two clauses, the first an independent clause (the rinds contain oils) and the second a subordinate clause (which can cause an upset stomach) which depends on the independent clause before it to make sense. Importantly, these two clauses in the second half of the sentence are separated by a comma.

Why? Because the author apparently means to say that oils—all oils—can cause an upset stomach. Now you may jump up from the table, brandishing a bottle of fine Italian olive oil, and object that such a statement cannot possibly be true, but that is what the comma in this sentence forces us to conclude. Remember, commas separate, and so the comma before which has separated that relative pronoun from its likely antecedent (oils), which means which now refers to the previous clause in its entirety (the rinds contain oils), not just the word oils. It’s quite an assertion to make.

Now if it is true that some oils, but not all, can upset the stomach, and that the rind of an orange contains a few of these offending oils, then some attempt must be made to limit or restrict the meaning of oils in this sentence in order to avoid the obviously indefensible contention that all oils cause an upset stomach. We limit or restrict the meaning of a word by abutting another element to it, by causing one element to touch another—without the intermediary of a comma. So the way to restrict the meaning of oils is to adjoin the which-clause directly to it: the rinds contain oils which can cause an upset the stomach. This has the effect of defining the kind of oils orange rinds contain—the kind that can upset the stomach—and it tones up the sentence by making it more logically precise. In exactitude lies strength.

The rule to remember, then, is that commas separate. When elements are set apart, each stands alone and can be rightfully held accountable for what it alone is saying—no help to qualify its meaning can be taken from another element because the comma has isolated it. Removing the comma in our example restores the word oils to the community of ideas that the complete sentence represents, putting it in touch with the qualifying assertion that follows it. The razor-sharp comma, so useful at times, can rip things apart if not wielded carefully.

As to that semicolon that separates the two halves of the sentence, note that it is standing in place of the conjunction because: Be sure you peel the oranges before juicing because the rinds contain oils. This is one of the most important functions of the semicolon, to take the place of an omitted conjunction, and a very common mistake is to use a comma here instead of the semicolon (producing the famous run-on sentence). If commas separate, semicolons separate and pause, which is just what is wanted at this point in the sentence in order to establish a balance and steady the reader halfway through the sentence. Punctuation is an integral part of composition, and the choices we make determine exactly what we’re saying.


Because of the holiday, this Thursday’s post will appear Friday. Happy Thanksgiving—and my thanks to you for reading Writing Smartly.