Detail is All

The line between knowing what matters and what doesn’t, the traditional distinction between learning and pedantry, can often be difficult to see in a subject as complex as grammar—difficult to see, but it’s there. The study of grammar holds a notorious reputation for caring overmuch about the smallest detail, but when the slightest change in phrase or punctuation will alter the very meaning of what we’re saying, there’s no arguing about the value of precision.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the opening sentence of a section called “Editors’ Choice” in a recent online issue of the New York Times. The headline read, 11 New Books We Recommend This Week, and the article began breezily like this:

We know, you turn to this space each week for a list of worthy new books—it’s kind of our thing, our mission even, summed up right there in the headline.

If I say as I do that this sentence is written breezily, I mean that it makes a certain informal, relaxed, nonchalant impression on me; and if I say that, I better be able to point to something objective in the sentence which I believe is responsible for having that effect on me. I can’t just say that’s how I feel about it, because we all feel something about everything. It goes with being alive. But if I can’t go the next step and say why, or how it is that, I feel as I do when I read something, I’m left alone with my feelings, with no way of knowing if I’m just fooling myself by reading in to what’s really there. This is one of the supreme values of studying language and literature: to see (or hear) the expression of thought and live for a time in the world someone else’s thoughts create. I get to put myself down for a while, set aside what I want to see and just watch another world unfold before me. My focus changes because I’m looking closely at something else.

So how is it I would come to the conclusion that this sentence has an informal and relaxed manner? Two reasons, and the first is that slight little comma after the second word. Commas cut. Their purpose is to separate elements, sometimes for clarity and sometimes to break the linear connection of the words in a sentence, to show that what follows one word is not necessarily grammatically or logically connected to the word that preceded it. And this latter is what’s going on with that one small comma after the verb know. It says, in effect, don’t read this sentence as if it were straightforwardly declaring, we know that you turn to this space each week for a list of worthy new books. Read it, hear it, instead more casually like this: We know, you don’t have to tell us. You turn to this space each week for a list of worthy new books. And I can know confidently that this is how the writer wanted me to hear the sentence because he is deliberately separating the independent clause (we know) from what would otherwise have to be construed as its direct object, the noun clause you turn to this space each week for a list of worthy new books. A direct object is not separated from its verb with a comma.

What results, then, is a tone more similar to a casual conversation between friends, a manner the author of this weekly section in the newspaper would have every reason to inculcate. And this informal style is reinforced by something else we can objectively identify: the colloquial phrase it’s kind of our thing. That turn of phrase is generally reserved for relaxed speech, never to be found in formal writing and not often in routine prose. But the writer’s choice to employ it here serves his purpose well: you and I, reader and writer, share a common interest, and I am here doing my part to promote it for us. Relax, he is saying, and let’s talk a bit together about something we both find important.

In the study of grammar, and probably in every study we take up seriously, merely getting the gist is never really satisfying. We are tempted to settle for generalities because seeing the detail and understanding the specifics is hard work. But despite how challenging it is at times, the leave-no-stone-unturned habit of mind can yield a deeper insight and pleasure, both fundamental values of language and literature.

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In Case You Missed It

Understanding the grammatical structure of what we read is the foundation for appreciating more fully what an author intends to say and how we receive it. In an earlier post, The Essential Minimum, I tried to explain the first steps necessary in such an analysis. In case you missed it, you can read that post here.

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From One Sentence to the Next

A well-written paragraph is said to exhibit cohesion. One sentence has to do with the next, and a collection of such closely related sentences creates a paragraph, one scene or set piece among others which together comprise a document. To cohere means to stick together, and when one sentence adheres to another, our reader sees one idea more richly, more concentratedly, thereby meeting the central requirement of a paragraph: unity.

So how do we write cohesively? That is a technical question and it has a technical, a formal, answer. Let’s begin by looking at a beautifully drawn illustration of cohesion in these two sentences from Carson McCullers’s short story “The Jockey” (quoted here from 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane, Bantam, 2005, p.70). These two sentences conclude the first paragraph of the story. A jockey has entered the dining room of a hotel, and is scanning the room “until at last his eyes reached a table in a corner diagonally across from him, at which three men were sitting”:

As he watched, the jockey raised his chin and tilted his head back to one side, his dwarfed body grew rigid, and his hands stiffened so that the fingers curled inward like gray claws. Tense against the wall of the dining room, he watched and waited in this way.

Things are on a slant in this little scene (diagonally and tilted and to one side), and a slant is not normally conducive to the feeling of comfortable order. The first sentence is complicated and involved: grammatically, it is a complex sentence that begins with a subordinate clause, continues with no fewer than four independent clauses, and concludes with another subordinate clause—six clauses in all, designed as what is called a centered sentence, one in which the main elements sit framed by subordinate ones. Such a formidable presentation has the effect of building and piling and mounding a wall of tension that will have to, we suspect, break and give way at some point in the story. It is a grand sentence, and it ends with the foreboding images of curled fingers and curled claws. It ends, that is to say, with threat and tension.

And then how does the immediately next sentence begin? With the very word tense. This adjective begins an introductory phrase that will ultimately modify the subject, he, as we read along, but as we begin the sentence, we really don’t know who or what is tense, and that second of uncertainty only heightens the tension we’ve found ourselves in after reading the first elaborate sentence. Sentences like this second one which begin with a subordinate element in order to delay the main clause and satisfy the thought are called periodic, the word period meaning a circuit or winding path—the long way home to the complete assertion of the main clause. Periodic sentences are also called suspended sentences, because holding back the main thought (he waited and watched) is felt to create suspense.

A periodic sentence stands in contrast to what is called a loose sentence, its inverse. A loose sentence presents the independent clause, the main thought, first, and then lets follow in its train any subordinate elements. Had McCullers composed her second sentence in a loose design (He watched and waited in this way, tense against the wall of the dining room), she would have missed an opportunity to tie so tightly together—to cohere—the idea of tension between the two sentences. Instead, she has left no gap between the images of tension in the first sentence and the continuation of the emotion in the second sentence: she begins the second with a subordinate element in order to name the emotional quality depicted in the first, and that periodic design bridges the two closely and firmly.

Cohesion is an important quality of a paragraph because words and their arrangement carry the risk of deflecting the reader’s attention off onto tangents and angles of only distantly associated ideas. To say the obvious, our mental activity—what the philosophers call mentation—is a powerful force of, it seems, a never-ending energy. The good writer channels that activity with sentences that are connected by their respective design. That creates cohesion, and cohesion unity, and unity vision.

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Two More Revising Techniques

I was revising recently a few paragraphs a student had written about a little boy she knew of. He had not yet learned, it seems, how to wrestle down his anger and change it into some other behavior, but would instead just fall fiercely into a tantrum, “growling, kicking, hissing and spitting.” That was an interesting phrase my student had written, and there is something about its structure we can learn from.

The art of writing (and I would argue the arts universally) work to direct our attention, to gather our inborn proclivity to grow and expand and dissipate. A beautifully drawn picture or sentence gathers our dispersing energy, concentrating it into a focused awareness that can illuminate the world and its meaning. This is why writers take so much care about words all and several: each word alone evokes a world of ideas, and together whole constellations of ideas can come into existence. In revising our work, we proceed on these artistic assumptions, examining the structure of what we’ve drafted.

Doing so with my student’s phrase, then, we begin with the obvious: she has written a group of four words, all present participles, as she concludes a sentence. Artists and designers have long recognized the organizing power that resides is groups of threes, called triads (the subject of an earlier post, Designing by Groups of Three), and so the first revision we can consider here is to delete one of the four participial adjectives. But which one? As present participles, all four end with the suffix –ing, so we can’t use nonconformance with that structure as the reason to remove one from the group. But a second look, not at the end of each word but at its core, will reveal that three of the four comprise the same sound produced by the short vowel i. The first of the group, growling, does not conform, and so on the principle of assonance, or the repetition of similar vowel sounds (here internal to the words), we can confidently reduce the phrase of four words to three: kicking, hissing and spitting.

But a further revision presents itself. The phrase as it stands now is listing three participles serially (though not as strictly serially had the writer employed the Oxford comma, where a comma would precede the conjunction: kicking, hissing, and spitting), and we are reading, it seems, a record or catalog of behaviors which the little boy exhibits. Records and catalogs are unmoving objects in the world, and so the phrase as it stands brings with it a static, scientific quality which may, or may not, be the atmosphere the writer is looking to create in the larger paragraph. If not, if the intent is to keep the human moment empathetically to the fore, then another rhetorical device, expensively called polysyndeton, could be marshalled. This arrangement of words calls all conjunctions to the stage, resulting in a more energetic description: kicking and hissing and spitting. If we put this phrase, then, into its sentence (and note now the absence of commas), we can see how adding another and does not allow the sentence to end in a laboratory-like description, but swipes forcefully at the reader with three threatening acts, just as the subject might well be doing: He would suddenly glare at me, kicking and hissing and spitting.

All of which is to say, then, that the wide nets we must use in composing a first draft will almost always catch more ideas than are strictly necessary. Such profusion, and let’s go so far as to call it really a joyous abundance, is in the nature of creativity, never to be clipped and shorn in its arising. But once things have settled, once words are roughly in their place on a page, then cooler heads must prevail to organize and concentrate and sharpen the picture for the reader. And that is accomplished not by throwing a teeming draft out and starting impatiently again, but by examining closely, according to certain techniques, what arose pell-mell from our internal gaze into mind and memory. And so we write to gather and balance, gather and balance, gather and balance.

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Causing a Feeling

Moderation, as the ancient counsel has it, is best in all endeavors, and so we are well advised to remind ourselves from time to time what real purpose all the detail and technicalities of grammar—and the hard work necessary to understand them—serve in our pursuit of better thought and expression. To write or read a passage well involves more than getting the gist, the general idea; it involves, in fact, the appreciable ability to account for the reactions we have upon reading a sentence or passage. And that means we must be able to understand the craft that presents the ideas to our minds. We must begin with our feelings but end with an understanding of what caused them.

Some very good advice along these lines is to be found in Janet Gardner’s Writing about Literature (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009). This brief and excellent work, suitable for high school, college, and independent student alike, has this importance guidance on how to proceed in understanding more fully a sentence or passage—whether we’ve read it or written it—which has caught our attention:

A text may strike you as sad or lighthearted, formal or casual. It may make you feel nostalgic, or it may make your heart race will excitement. Somewhat more difficult, though, is isolating the elements of language that contribute to a particular tone or effect. Look for characteristic stylistic elements that create these effects. Is the diction elevated and difficult, or ordinary and simple? Are the sentences long and complex, or short and to the point?… Paying close attention to linguistic matters like these will take you far in your understanding of how a particular story achieves its effect. (pp. 60-61)

So what would “paying close attention to linguistic matters” look like if we read closely, for example, this brief paragraph from Ernst Hemingway’s short story “The Three-Day Blow” (I quote it here from 50 Great Short Stories, ed. by Milton Crane, Bantam, 2005):

The road came out of the orchard on to the top of the hill. There was the cottage, the porch bare, smoke coming from the chimney. In back was the garage, the chicken coop and the second-growth timber like a hedge against the woods behind. The big trees swayed far over in the wind as he watched. It was the first of the autumn storms. (p. 17)

This is the second paragraph in Hemingway’s little story, and the five sentences that make up this early passage have together constructed a world, a rural scene, wherein the story, about to begin, will unfold. What do we sense about this world, or better, how do we ourselves feel in this world that Hemingway has conjured? Literature asks us to let an author take us somewhere, not to be swept away to another world, but to be carried aware of ourselves elsewhere. Reading these sentences we might very well feel watchful, curious, perhaps even a little anxious about those autumn storms in the last one. Predominantly, though, I would think watchful, because very, very little happens in this passage, and most important to notice, absolutely nothing happens to anything else. No real action, no conflict, has arisen yet, and so we wonder watchfully why we are where we are: what is about to unfold?

All of this constitutes our reactions to the passage, but if we stop there in our reading, we are left with—just our reactions, which, as Gardner suggests, is not to go far enough in reading literature intelligently and appreciatively. We cannot, nor should we ever try to, gainsay our feelings, but without being able to account for how it is we feel what we feel in reading a passage (or in reacting to any form of art), we have no way to judge whether what we feel is only what we ourselves are bringing to the literary world from our personal history, or what, in fact, the author has put there for us to experience by provoking that feeling. We have been invited somewhere by the author, and to rest satisfied with our reactions without tying them to the text is to presume to tell the host how to give his own party.

If we say, then, that in reading this paragraph, we feel more watchful than surprised, more calm through the first few sentences but a little more anxious through the last two, we can account textually for these reactions by seeing that there is not one transitive verb across the entire passage. Transitive verbs have direct objects, which means that the subject of a transitive verb is aiming the action at something else: something is affected, conflict arises, consequences ensue. But here? What action there is (smoke coming from the chimney, trees swayed) has no object; these verbs—even the verb in the last clause of the fourth sentence, watched, meaning here to be attentive or vigilant—are all intransitive, not transitive, and so portray action that just rolls on like waves in the middle of the ocean, no shore to reach and collapse upon. That decided grammatical construction has a very real effect on us, its readers, and so we can objectively and justifiably conclude that there is a reason for our feelings of watchfulness, that we are not too quickly reading into a passage what we want to see, but seeing what is really, constructionally, there.

To read closely like this, as Gardner says, is a matter of “how a particular story achieves its effect.” The question how is answered by the terms and workmanship of the craft, the art, which is before us. Our reactions and feelings answer the question what, and every what, every effect, ultimately has a cause, a how. When those two, cause and effect, are kept in balance, in moderation, we can avoid the extremes of either pure subjectivity or pure objectivity, and so find ourselves somewhere better between the two in a richer, more meaningful world than just our own.

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The Relative Adjective

Go not too far into any grammar of English and you’ll come upon a chapter on the relative pronoun. This device—who, whose, whom, which, and that are the basic forms—gives us a way to refer to something again in a sentence without using the same noun over and over: Her new film, which opened last night, is outstanding. The relative pronoun which refers to the noun film, and with it we can avoid the simplicities of a compound sentence: Her new film opened last night and it is outstanding.

The relative pronoun which, though, has a near cousin called the relative adjective. Like its relative, this relative refers to a noun in the immediately previous clause, but goes on in its own individuality to modify a noun in its own clause: His proof depended on three receipts, which vital evidence he had lost. Here, the word which is bridging an independent clause (proof depended) with a subordinate clause (evidence he had lost), and this is exactly what grammatical relatives are meant to do. But as an adjective—and it is an adjective because it is modifying the noun evidence—the word which has the further effect of emphasizing the meaning that attends on its antecedent, the three receipts. With that relative adjective modifying an already modified noun (which vital evidence), the writer is taking no chances that we readers miss the point: those three receipts were more than incidental; they constituted the core evidence the unfortunate defendant needed to prove his case. And so the written scene is enriched.

Here’s another example, this one a bit longer: His three-year tenure as CEO had been marred by scandal, and the board of directors had finally had enough. They confronted him at the fall meeting, at which time, surprisingly, he offered his resignation without objection. Once again the word which, as an adjective, is modifying the noun time in the subordinate clause, while also bringing our attention, subtly and surreptitiously, back to the fall meeting, the originating antecedent of the relative adjective. This hearkening back to an idea, simultaneously referring to it by way of a synonym, is what marks this a richer, plusher sentence. The writer wants us to understand that there and then the embattled CEO decided to get out without a fight. That was a surprise, no doubt, and the writer did not want to risk our misunderstanding the unusual turn of events. Hence the more involved construction to match the involved corporate intrigue.

It is common to object to less common constructions like these by suggesting they be reduced to simpler forms. Why not just this: His proof depended on three receipts, and he had lost them; or this: They confronted him at the fall meeting, and he offered his resignation without objection: No one revision can be judged the better choice without understanding more of the context in which the sentence in question appears, but we can safely assert that simplicity for the sake of simplicity is not the right direction. Simple is good, but simplistic is not, and we can too easily slip from one to the other across a paragraph, or even an entire document, when our sentences show little variety. Form must conform to its content, which means we must do more than communicate the bare simple meaning; we must also allude or intimate or suggest the other forces that surround the ideas we’re writing about. We may wish life were simple, but it and we in it are not. And whether we call life complicated or dynamic, our thoughts about it are all the richer and our writing the more robust when we strike with sentences which in their own structure—sometimes simple, sometimes complex—mirror the whirling world in which they, and we, arise.

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