Wrote or Was Writing?

What is the difference between these two sentences: He was writing a letter when someone knocked on the door and He wrote a letter when someone knocked on the door. Something’s just not quite right about the second sentence, but what exactly and why? Here’s where we can demonstrate the practical application of a little grammatical analysis and understand the difference between two very common verb forms.

The first thing to remember about revising is that you can’t be in a hurry. Our habit is to jump at some one word and hold it up to the light of our mind to find out what it is and what’s wrong with it. In the first sentence, for example, we might choose the word writing and ask whether that’s the correct form. But words work because they work together, and so it is important to look around a word we alight on in our analysis to determine its life with other words in the larger statement. That means that it’s better to single out a sentence in its entirety, then identify its clauses. From there, take one clause, find its verb, and then move to the phrases and words that fill out that clause. It’s not as elaborate as it sounds; it is, though, methodical.

So if we take the first sentence, we should see two clauses: the independent clause he was writing a letter, and the subordinate clause when someone knocked on the door. (This second clause is subordinate because it begins with the subordinating conjunction when.) The verb of the first clause is not one word, but a phrase, was writing. Let’s examine this closely. When more words than one are necessary to formulate a verb, the principal, or notional, verb—what it is we’re really talking about—always comes last in the verb phrase. So what this clause wants to say about the subject he has something to do with the act of writing. When a verb, in the form of a present participle (a verb form that ends –ing), is combined with some form of the verb to be (the verb was here), the construction that results is called the progressive aspect.

The term progressive refers to the fact that the action of the verb is seen to be ongoing, incomplete, continuing—all the notions that some other languages collect under a tense called the imperfect. English does not have an imperfect tense, and the progressive aspect is not (as some grammar books have it) a tense. Verb aspect refers to the manner—not time—in which the action of a verb is to be understood. If he, the subject, was writing, the grammar intends to create a mental picture in which we are to see something going on or continuing: there someone is at his desk, writing and writing when suddenly something very definite and defined occurred: someone knocked.

The verb knocked works alone. It is not part of a phrase, and that observation marks it as the simple past tense. Its aspect is called terminate, which means the action is to be seen as having both a beginning and an end; it’s complete: the knocking started and it stopped, unlike all that writing the subject he was doing in the first clause. The terminate aspect of a verb is the simple verb form (whatever its tense) used alone. We are to see, then, that the progressive aspect of the first clause is creating the space, so to speak, in which the piercing action of knocked occurred. The progressive was writing is the fabric, and the terminate knocked is the needle. And thus a context is woven.

Now if we examine the verb phrases of the second sentence, the verb of the second clause there, knocked, has remained the same, but the verb of the first independent clause has changed aspects. The verb wrote is now standing alone for the subject he, which means its aspect is no longer progressive, but terminate, just like the verb knocked in the subordinate clause. And what’s the result of that? The two actions are portrayed as complete, but are being connected at the same time with the word when, a conjunction that means just at the very moment. Now there’s nothing wrong with using the conjunction when, but things can go existentially awry when grammatical construction works against reality as we experience it. We don’t usually write a letter in a moment, and so to construct that verb in the terminate aspect suggests that it was, well, a pretty short letter. We can say that he dropped a plate when someone knocked at the door, because the act of dropping has a quick beginning and end. But writing is usually ongoing, taking up a stretch of time, and so that reality, and the thought that represents it, needs a grammatical structure that conforms to it.

Grammar serves thought, not the other way around. Our ideas, which come from the world as we know it, take shape in a sentence, so if what we’ve written doesn’t seem to say what we want to say, we can examine the form to find where the problem lies. Verb aspect, terminate and progressive, has a subtlety we might think at first unnecessary, but what’s going on around us, what we’re involved in from moment to moment, is a much more nuanced affair that we are usually inclined to believe. And sometimes that’s apparent when a sentence just doesn’t seem right.


You might also find this earlier post, Wrote or Has Written, helpful. And if you would like to subscribe to this blog to receive a new post free every Tuesday and Thursday morning, you may do so at the bottom of this page. Thank you for reading Writing Smartly.


Freewriting, Then Revising

As an exercise in freewriting, a student of mine recently wrote this droll little sentence about two birds she imagined sitting, for quite some time as it happens, on the branch of a tall oak tree:

After fifteen minutes of waiting for Marty to start building a nest Clare took it upon herself to gather lint from the neighbors dryer, loose dry grass on the baseball field, mud from the small puddle at the base of the tree, and piled them all close to Marty, so he could at least begin to build.

Freewriting is a technique to help writers face the open infinity of a blank screen or clean sheet of paper: no rules, just write; no corrections, just keep going. It’s meant to unstick us when we’re stuck, when we find ourselves saying that we’ve got so much to say but just can’t put it all into words. Freewriting, though, is never (ever) the finished product, if for no other reason that it can be so idiosyncratic and peculiar and all our own. We write, though, to communicate (the verb means to share, to make common), and if our readers are unclear about what we’re sharing, there’s no communication going on. We just end up talking to ourselves.

So what could a first revision of this student’s freewriting look like? How could we move from imaginative vision to public presentation? First let’s note that there’s quite a lot of structure already to this freely written sentence: it begins with a sustained introductory phrase, in the middle there’s a neat triadic structure to the items Clare gathered, and commas are present here and there to control parts of the statement as it arose. Freewriting is often freer than this, but how freely we should write is ultimately a matter of degree: whatever amount of freedom is necessary to allow ourselves to see what’s really going on inside and about us. So this sentence might be closer to the final draft than others.

It can be very helpful to begin revising by reading a sentence aloud. The written word is trying to follow the spoken word by combining grammar (and logic) with rhetoric, putting to what the eye can see what the ear has heard deep inside ourselves. Hearing the sentence, we can glean its shape and intent, its push and then release, and it’s just this living movement that the arts of language try to replicate in print. So one thing we could do is recognize the long (twelve-word) introductory phrase and place a comma after nest; that would isolate the element and set the reader ready for the main clause (Clare took it). And then we might look more closely at that triadic arrangement of the things Clare gathered (lint, loose dry grass, and mud), and really hone the three by deleting the two adjectives loose and dry from mud, the second of the three nouns. This would bring the triadic series into parallel (three single nouns each without an attributive adjective) and build a natural rhythm into the statement. Read the two versions aloud and see for yourself.

And finally we could look at that comma after Marty. The word so is a conjunction and it can introduce both purpose and result clauses. These two logical conceptions can appear very similar at times, making it difficult to decide which is present. Here, though, we can conclude that the conjunction so is beginning a result clause because there is an adverb of degree (close) in the main clause. To what end, then, is Clare gathering all these useful items from the urban landscape: so that, that, to the end that her mate could finally get to work. But should a comma introduce that result clause? The grammarian in us will say yes, because the result clause is essential to the action (piled) of the main clause with which it works: action and result are two sides of the same coin. The rhetorician in us, though, will argue convincingly that a comma can introduce a result clause when the clause is sufficiently long and winding and in need of some control. But that is not the case here, and so deleting the comma after Marty is, I judge, the better choice.

Freewriting is gathering the stuff to write with, just as Clare gathered all those oddities for Marty to build a nest with. We are all both Clare and Marty when we write, observing and collecting, organizing and composing. Or think of the imagination as a never-ceasing fountainhead, a spring or source that is always jetting out ideas and associations whether we are watching it or not. Freewriting is what results when we turn in the direction of our imagination, ready to watch and transcribe what we see arising—this, then that and that and that—knowing that it would be futile to control or catch it all, but knowing too that we must try bring or find some order for it all, finally, to make sense. Just like life.


When Exactly Didn’t It Happen?

Here’s a pop quiz. Read the following passage and determine whether the tenses in the third sentence are correct—and why (what’s a quiz without the question why):

I went to Chicago for a week’s vacation last year. The weather was just outstanding—sun and blue sky every day. If I traveled the week before, I would not have been so lucky. It rained for three days straight.

It’s not a trick question, but it’s not easy, either. The third sentence begins with the word if, a subordinating conjunction that signals what is called a conditional sentence. A basic conditional sentence has two clauses, one which gives the circumstance, or condition, that is to be assumed, and another which gives the consequence that results from that condition. The first clause, more often than not beginning with the word if, is called the antecedent; the second clause, often (but often not, as here) beginning with the word then, is called the consequent. These two parts, antecedent and consequent, can appear in that order, or they can be reversed. Either way, the logic stays the same.

The odd thing about a conditional sentence is that neither clause in itself is actually asserting anything. The point of a clause is to present something (the subject) and then say something about it (the predicate), and in doing that, declare that the thought of the clause is true. In a conditional sentence, though, the assertion we’re making lies in the connection between the two clauses, not in the statement either clause, antecedent or consequent, is making alone. Human experience is such that there are all manner of ways in which these conditional clauses can be connected. The one that concerns us in our example here is called a condition contrary to fact.

The writer says, if I traveled the week before, I would not have been so lucky. Did he in fact travel the week before? Of course not; that is the point of his conditional sentence: to assume, or hypothesize, for a moment that he did, and to state what would have resulted from having done so. The sentence begins with the conjunction if and is asserting something that didn’t happen, so it is clear that this sentence is indeed a condition contrary to fact. But what about the tenses in each clause? The verb traveled in the antecedent is simple past, and the verb phrase would not have been in the consequent is past perfect. That is all important to understand in analyzing a conditional sentence, but so too is the mood of each verb.

Contrary-to-fact conditions require that their verbs be in the subjunctive mood. That makes sense because the only other practical option would be the indicative mood; but the point of the indicative is to assert fact, and that’s exactly not what a contrary-to-fact condition (aptly named) wants to do. So in our analysis, we have to account for both the tense and the mood of the verbs. Here, both verbs are in fact in the subjunctive mood, so the complete analysis we need is this: the verb of antecedent clause is simple past subjunctive, and the verb of the consequent clause is past perfect subjunctive.

Contrary-to-fact conditions have two forms, present and past, and each has a construction formula to rely on. If the condition you’re proposing is yet to happen, the antecedent clause must be in the past subjunctive and the consequent include the word would (or should or could or might) with the present infinitive of the main verb: If I traveled next week, I wouldn’t be so lucky [because it is supposed to rain]. But if the condition refers to the past, as is the case in our example, then the antecedent clause must be in the past perfect subjunctive and the consequent include the word would (or should or could or might) with the perfect infinitive of the main verb: If I had traveled the week before, I would not have been so lucky. So the writer—here’s the answer to our quiz—has used the simple past subjunctive in the first clause of his conditional sentence where he should have used the past perfect: traveled instead of had traveled, but his tense in the second clause is correct: would not have been.

And all that is just the tip of the iceberg, because that the subjunctive mood intends to represent a conceptual world, the world that is in our minds, which is often not as clear cut, as the psychologists will remind us, as the external world. Contrary conditions and the subjunctive mood they require give us a way to hypothesize, to think as if, which means our experience can be richer than the indicative alone could reveal. And richer, for better or worse, sometimes means more complex.


Questions, Direct and Indirect

Let’s talk about the difference between these two sentences: What do you want? and He asked me what I wanted. It’s clear that the first sentence is asking a question, but doesn’t the other sentence involve a question as well? It does, and the two different constructions illustrate what are called direct and indirect questions.

It’s probably best we begin with this quick review. Sentences in English are traditionally divided into four classes or sorts: declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory. Declarative sentences assert a fact (or what is thought by the speaker to be a fact), and interrogative sentences ask a direct question—they are in search of a fact, so to speak. Declarative sentences end with a period and interrogatives finish up with a question mark. Imperative sentences, in turn, directly command something and often end with an exclamation mark; exclamatory sentences cry out an emotion of some sort and usually end, more often than not (and for better or worse), with an exclamation mark.

Those are the grammatical classifications, and in the best of worlds we are to remember that such technical niceties have a useful application. One such practical end here is to notice that not everything that looks like a question is a question in the same way. Some direct questions, like Is it going to rain tomorrow?, are formed by inverting the regular declarative order of the subject and verb (is it, rather than it is). Other direct questions commonly employ what is called the emphatic aspect without implying any emphasis; that’s the construction of the sentence we began with: What do you want? The emphatic aspect uses the verb do with the infinitive form of a verb (do + want). It’s very much one thing to be asking someone a question with the expectation of an answer, and very much another to be telling someone that someone asked you a question.

A direct question like What do you want? is often made up of one interrogative clause (do you want) introduced by an interrogative pronoun (who, which, what). An indirect question, by contrast, has at least two clauses, one main clause and another subordinate clause dependent upon it. So in the sentence He asked me what I wanted, the main clause, he asked me, presents its subject and verb in the regular declarative order; the subordinate clause that follows it (what I wanted) stands as a noun and direct object of the transitive verb asked. Note that this subordinate clause is also in the declarative word order. And although that might sound complicated in its explanation, we use this noun clause construction and others like it all the time. Nouns can come in the form of entire clauses, and an entire clause can stand in all the grammatical places a single noun can.

Now all this is worth the thinking about because a common mistake in writing is to conclude an indirect question with a question mark: He asked me what I wanted? That is not correct, on the established rule that direct questions conclude with a question mark, indirect questions with a period. And that rule makes sense, because an indirect question is really a declarative sentence, not an interrogative one. If I tell you that he asked me what I wanted, I’m doing just that: telling you, which means I am communicating a fact to you, not asking you directly what it is you think I wanted. I’m not expecting you to reply with an answer. The point of a question mark (whether written or conveyed in the tone of our voice) is to elicit a response. But an indirect question is not looking for a response; it’s establishing a fact, which is that someone asked me a certain question and I’m now telling you what that question was.

Now you can imagine the number of variations there are on this theme of questions and their punctuation. It’s all much more than space here will allow, except for this one common construction called a courtesy question, which is a command disguised as a question. If someone (your boss, perhaps?) concludes an email to you with the following sentence, it’s best to take it as a request, not a question: Would you please pass this information on to everyone. And that’s why courtesy questions end with a period, not a question mark. Because there’s probably no question about it.


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What, Whom—What?

Conjure up this scene in your mind for a moment: You’re attending a public meeting of some sort, and after a long and tedious presentation, someone says, I just don’t understand what, or whom, will be helped by this new policy? I read a sentence like that the other day, and because it was written by a serious writer on a serious subject, I had to stop to consider the grammar and structure closely. Sorting out this sentence may help us understand some important basics.

Let’s begin with the big picture: we see one interrogative sentence of two clauses. The first clause, I just don’t understand, contains a transitive verb (understand), and that transitive verb is out looking for a direct object, something which the subject, I, just doesn’t understand. Now direct objects can present themselves in the form of a word, phrase, or clause, and it’s right here that the writer went wrong, I think. What the subject I does not understand is the entire clause what, or whom, will be helped by this new policy; it’s that whole thought, not any one single word in it, that is puzzling to the subject. We can see the same construction in a sentence like he sees what’s going on. The verb see is also transitive, and what the subject he is seeing (that is, realizing) is the idea of what is going on—that complete thought, which is expressed, as all thoughts are, in a clause.

So if we look now more closely at this object clause, we can start by remembering that a clause is composed of a subject and verb. And we should also remember (though we might not want to) that the subject of a clause stands in the nominative case. English nouns and pronouns sometimes dress themselves up—take on different forms or spellings—in an attempt (ironically) to make it easier to see their grammatical function at any given time. These different forms are called cases, and modern English has three of them: nominative, possessive, and objective. The nominative case shows the subject of a verb and the objective case shows the object of a transitive verb. If we return, then, to the clause we’re examining, the nominative form of the pronoun what is what, so our writer has gotten that correct: what will be helped. But the nominative case of the other subject, whom, is not whom; it’s who. So this object clause should correctly read: what, or who, will be helped by this new policy.

Now you might well be thinking that since this is an object clause, the pronouns in it should stand in the objective case. That, as I said, is what I think the writer thought when he wrote the objective whom, and you and he wouldn’t be alone in suspecting that. But a good and reliable and often overlooked rule of English grammar is that the case of a noun or pronoun is determined by its use in its own clause. Here, the verb of the clause is the passive will be helped, and a passive verb, just like an active one, needs a subject in the nominative case. So if that’s the case, what, then, is the object of the transitive verb understand? The entire clause what, or who, will be helped by this new policy, not any one particular pronoun in it. There’s no way in English to mark a clause as an object, though its position after the transitive verb understand may hint at its objective function, because objects regularly stand after their controlling verbs. But the sure way to work out the grammar is by a closer analysis like the one we’ve undertaken here.

And finally, what about that question mark? As we have observed, that punctuation identifies the sentence as an interrogative, but this sentence is not asking a question. It is stating a fact: I don’t understand something, and what I don’t understand is who or what will be helped by this policy. Question marks are used only in direct questions. This statement strongly implies a question, but it is not directly posing one.

There’s often much grammar in a short sentence, and it frequently takes more than a few words to explain how a sentence is (or should be) put together. It’s always important to remember, though, that getting things right is not a matter of grammatical etiquette. It’s a matter of seeing the thinking, both explicit and implicit, in what we’re hearing and reading. And that is always an important thing.


If you would like to read more about this and related topics, you will find these earlier posts of interest: Three Cases; Changing Voices; What Is an Object?; and The Case of Who and I.

And if you would like to subscribe to this blog to receive a new post free every Tuesday and Thursday morning, you may do so at the bottom of this page. Thank you for reading Writing Smartly.