Just What Are You Saying?

Not minding my own business the other day, I overheard someone say to a friend, He’s one of those annoying persons who pays a bill the day he receives it. Something is amiss here, and a brief explanation might be in order—if only to help keep our thinking straight.

We remember there are three kinds of sentences in English: simple, compound, and complex. Simple and compound sentences have only independent clauses; complex sentences include at least one subordinate clause. In a sentence like He’s one of those annoying persons who pays a bill the day he receives it, the section that begins with the relative pronoun who constitutes the subordinate element, because relative pronouns (who, which, that) produce clauses that function most often as adjectives, and adjectives do not work alone but are attached to nouns. And that last detail, in fact, is material to our analysis here.

If we bracket the relative clause, then, the entire string of words from the relative pronoun to the period (who pays a bill the day he receives it) works as one adjective which qualifies the meaning of the noun persons. Pronouns always (except when we’re asking a question) point to an antecedent, a word usually earlier in the same sentence they work with, and here the speaker was referring to certain persons, those who are apparently both able and willing to have no financial obligation hanging like a Damoclean sword over their heads. The nine-word adjective who pays a bill the day he receives it defines those persons the speaker also found annoying (said jocularly), and those two adjectives, one in the form of a clause and the other in the form of a single word, limit or qualify or focus our attention on just those people the speaker had in mind.

All of that analysis is necessary to see clearly, then, that the verb of the relative clause, pays, is referring grammatically through the relative pronoun who to the antecedent persons. Whether the verb of a relative clause is singular or plural depends upon the number of its antecedent, so because persons is a plural noun, its verb should therefore be plural. The verb pays, however, is singular, and there is where the speaker tripped up: persons who pay, not persons who pays. But no sooner do we agree to that correction than another presents itself. Within the relative clause is another clause, he receives it, and we now have to be clear about the antecedent of this pronoun he. Looking closely we’ll see that its grammatical antecedent is also the plural noun persons, and so he should be they and receives should receive: one of those persons who pay a bill the day they receive it.

What will flip this linguistic optical illusion for you is to remember that there is a difference between grammatical reference and logical reference. We know that the speaker was referring logically to a particular individual he knew, the person named indirectly by the pronoun he, the subject of the first clause. But that independent clause was meant merely to identify that individual with a certain category of person, those who pay a bill the day they receive it. This complex sentence is making, in fact, only one main assertion, that he, a certain known individual, is a member of a certain logical class of persons, those who pay their bills the day they receive them; it is not, strange to say, explicitly asserting that this individual in question himself pays a bill the day he receives it—if it were, it would say just that and not refer to persons. The speaker’s original statement, though, lost sight of this one logical assertion, and he marshalled his grammar to suggest another, namely, that this individual does the same thing those persons do, pays a bill the day he receives it. That grammar mixed up the logic, and that is why getting the grammar straight is so important.


More Close Reading

I don’t think we can remind ourselves often enough that writing means reading, more reading more slowly and more closely. Modern culture moves very fast, and the recommendation to read slowly and attentively would seem to be swimming against the stream. But speed can come at the expense of thoroughness, and that can be a very high price to pay when we’re trying not only to appreciate good writing, but write well ourselves.

Slowing down and reading more attentively are the goals behind keeping a commonplace book. In an earlier post (Keeping a Commonplace Book), I have explained the practice, a simple notebook or file where we record and appropriately cite a passage from what we’ve read. The commonplace book compiles our reading, not writing, and it constitutes ultimately a collection of sentences that have caught our eye for some reason. The slow and thoughtful recording of someone else’s work (with, again, all appropriate citation and quotation marks) brings good form before our critical eye. The practice aims principally to answer the question how?—how did the writer construct a particular sentence or passage so that it had the effect it had? How are the words the writer chose laid out across the sentence?

To demonstrate the practice, here are two passages that arrested my attention recently from C. S. Lewis’s short novel The Great Divorce, published in 1946 by Macmillan. Whether we can best call the story fantasy or science fiction, it is certainly an allegory of humankind’s condition and fate, hopeful or hopeless according to our own wishes. Early in the story the narrator takes an unusual bus ride (I won’t say more than that), and Lewis writes these three sentences:

Hours later there came a change. It began to grow light in the bus. The greyness outside the windows turned from mud-colour to mother of pearl, then to faintest blue, then to a bright blueness that stung the eyes.

It is the longer, last sentence here that has something to show us about artful sentence construction. In writing or typing it out, we might first be struck by the unusual spelling of the two words greyness and colour; and since the agreement we hold with ourselves in keeping a commonplace book requires us to answer all questions of form that might arise (the better to develop the skill of close reading), a dictionary or usage manual will remind us that both words are the British spelling of the American English gray and color. Lewis was British and that answers that. Next to the phrase mother of pearl. Does a definition come readily to mind? If not, the dictionary again is the source: Merriam-Webster defines it as an “iridescent substance,” and that might keep us in the dictionary for a moment longer to remind ourselves that iridescent means, as Merriam’s beautifully defines it, “a lustrous rainbowlike play of color.” Lustrous? What now does that mean, really and exactly? So yet again Merriam: “reflecting light evenly and efficiently without glitter or sparkle.” Now we really know.

From individual words and phrases, we can turn next to the larger layout of this third sentence, and more particularly to the portion of it that begins with the compound noun mud-colour. Our attention now is on the progression of colors, their unbroken transformation. How is it we sense a change in physical conditions from this point in the sentence to its period, and a very quick change as well? Those questions have their answer in form, in the grammatical and rhetorical way Lewis put that portion of the sentence together. Each change in color is the object of a preposition (from, to, to, to), but the last two instances include the adverb then (then to, then to). That simple addition creates a gentle repetition, which we read as free movement, which in turn we feel as speed as we move uninterruptedly from the opaque density of mud to a lucidity of a blue so piercing it stung the eye. And so sharp was this sting, says Lewis a few lines later, that “it was a cruel light.” The play of light, its movement and transformation, began, ironically, in the hard but iridescent mother of pearl.

To my reading, that is a beautifully drawn sentence, perhaps too beautiful for the narrative circumstances Lewis has placed it in. But its form has produced a meaning that has launched higher questions: can things change suddenly from dark to light? can we grow so unaccustomed to light that when it turns itself out from darkness it can be uncomfortable? Can light—or is it truth—strike us even as cruel and discomfiting? One well-written sentence can teach us more than grammar, and that’s ultimately why we’re reading so closely.


Writing Frankly

In a recent post (Airy Abstractions), we took up the topic of nouns that name ideas we perceive in our mind, not concrete objects we see or taste or touch in the world. We saw that using too many such abstract nouns, as they’re called, mystifies both our sentences and our readers by pointing to notions rather than to real things in the world. And though you may argue like a good philosopher, and I would agree, that ideas are nowhere else but in the world, the frame of mind we have on when we’re reading expository prose is one that responds to specific images. That’s where power and interest lie.

Something else to look for as we revise our work, though, is an artificial written voice. Imagine, for example, that two people have been speaking on the phone, an easy and relatively informal conversation about a business proposal of some sort. One tells the other that he’ll put something together, and the next day he sends an email that begins, Attached please find the proposal we discussed yesterday. What? No one would speak like that face to face with someone else, so why did the writer assume such a distant, impersonal voice when he sat down to compose his email? This is a common problem in professional writing, whether commercial or academic or technical, and one answer to help explain it is that we seem to feel the need to sound like the professional role we’ve assumed. We believe, mistakenly, that with a more formal objectivity comes rightful authority, and so as we compose our sentences, we write through a professional mask which we have convinced ourselves is necessary to claim the right to write about the subject at hand. The price for that can be quite high.

All of this has to do with a department of writing called diction, the choice and arrangement of words. It is quite true, of course, that we all have many different voices, written and oral, for the particular circumstances we may happen to find ourselves in, and every profession certainly has its specialized vocabulary. The problem we are discussing here is not formality; the problem is inopportune formality, the need we feel to write in a voice that is not ours when the circumstances do not call for it. The vendor in our example who began his email with Attached please find got nothing for that formal phrase that the straightforward I have attached a proposal would not have conveyed to his customer—nothing other than an unappealing and unhelpful stiffness. The writer forgot that the words we choose and the sentences we compose with them are veritable human bridges extending across to others, and as tiresome as that metaphor might sound, there remains real truth in it. We are who we are, at least socially if not metaphysically, by virtue of the language we choose to use; we build our relationships through language, and we disserve ourselves and others when we contort our language for the sake of appearance. In the end, it’s just not necessary.

A fine work on this topic, written for academics but applicable to all of us, is Brand Blanshard’s On Philosophical Style (St. Augustine’s Press, 2009). Blanshard’s point is that our language reflects our mind, and that we are not merely, as he puts it, “dynamos humming in a vacuum.” He reminds us that “actual thought is always bathed in personal feeling, and invested with the lights and shades of an individual temperament.” To reveal that personal feeling, to make the relationship we have to our ideas known to our readers, is an emotional risk, and that can account in large measure for the unnecessary distance we write into our sentences. We are under no obligation to make our personal feelings about every last thing known to anyone who may inquire, but we do owe it to ourselves and our readers to speak frankly and naturally about the subject we have willingly engaged in. For over that solid bridge can come understanding.


Airy Abstractions

Would you continue to read this post about writing if I told you that studying grammar would improve your overall linguistic environment? I hope not. What if I said that I know someone who is in the middle of the interview process for an additional engagement? Or that it seems to me that people today show a decreased capacity to empathize with the situations of others?

What’s wrong with these sentences? Nothing technically grammatical: subject and verb agree, and pronouns are in the correct case. What’s wrong has nothing to do with sentence structure but everything to do with what is called diction, the choice and arrangement of words. The words I as a writer choose—particularly nouns—reveal the relationship I hold both to the ideas I’m expressing and to you, my readers. To speak of an overall linguistic environment is to care to point your attention merely to an abstraction, a general notion that is made even more general by the addition of the adjective overall. Had I said instead that studying grammar can improve the way you write and think, I would have made the terrible generality linguistic environment one step more specific, and so would have brought you a little closer and more quickly to what I actually believe.

And that, I think, is what accounts for this tendency (there’s another abstraction) many of us have to prefer the general to the specific: it’s more difficult to be exact, and being exact puts me on a target to be criticized, because I’ve given you something you can actually disagree with. The nouns environment and process and capacity are all abstractions, and abstract nouns name ideas, things we know only through our minds, not our senses. We can’t write good English without abstractions, but we can write bad English with too many of them, forgetting that what is abstract has been drawn from what is concrete, from what is part of the daily lives we live in the world. Good writers strive to combine the two perceptions of concrete and abstract, and in doing so suggest that deeper meaning lies within the common.

To see how a master can mix a sentence effectively with both kinds of nouns and imply a greater meaning, let’s look at some sentences from Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim. In the opening pages, we are introduced to the protagonist as a water-clerk, someone who boards an incoming ship to directs its captain and crew to the harbor store for supplies and relaxation. Conrad writes: “A water-clerk need not pass an examination in anything under the sun, but he must have Ability in the abstract and demonstrate it practically,” a sentence whose distinction between the abstract and the practical makes, ironically, the very point we’re concerned with here. Now this particular water-clerk in Conrad’s story harbored not only ships but a secret of some sort, something he did not want known and to hide which he would give others only his first name—Jim. “His incognito,” Conrad continues, “which had as many holes as a sieve, was not meant to hide a personality but a fact.”

Jim’s Ability (Conrad capitalizes the abstract noun) included an “exquisite sensibility” to know when the fact was coming to light among his peers, whereupon he would suddenly quit his job and move farther east to another port to assume his incognito afresh. Conrad says then: “Afterwards, when his keen perception of the Intolerable drove him away for good from seaports and white men, even into the virgin forest, the Malays of the jungle village, where he had elected to conceal his deplorable faculty, added a word to the monosyllable of his incognito. They called him Tuan Jim: as one might say—Lord Jim.”

We can see in all of these examples how Conrad combines the abstract and concrete to produce the intelligent prose he is known for. An incognito is the state of assuming an identity, the condition of being truthfully unknown, and that airy idea of a state is grounded in the next phrase with the image of a sieve, something actual and functional, though defectively so here. A perception of the Intolerable (note again the capital letter, this time to emphasize the abstraction inherent in the adjective) is contrasted with seaports and white men, and a jungle village with a deplorable faculty. All of these contrasts, which are built into the very nouns Conrad chooses, keep our attention from floating into the upper air of ideas; the result is that the world of intelligence, of significance, is kept in the common world of the things and actions around us, and we read Conrad’s story for a meaning that touches us rather than lectures us.

To be in the middle of the interview process means, really, to be interviewing for a job, and a decreased capacity to empathize with the situations of others means nothing more than the fact that one cannot feel another’s pain, even imaginatively. These lofty locutions take us further away from one another, and therein lies the importance of worrying about them. We can, though, learn from writers of Conrad’s stature that there is a way to combine the high and low, abstract and concrete, whether in the reaches of literature or in our daily conversations.




Something happened and you want to write about it. You put some first thoughts down and then you realize that the same scene, actual or imaginative, can be observed from more than one angle, that you can change the way your reader sees what you are depicting. How can a little grammatical knowledge about sentence construction help you make these changes more insightfully?

Let’s say you want to write about two friends who have not seen each other in a good number of years. One visits the other, and they go for a walk. In your first draft you write They walked and they talked. One sentence, two independent clauses, and the effect you create with those two simple and complete declarations is of two clear strong lights shining directly on each of two happenings. Their walking and their talking are balanced, and you give your reader the impression, unconscious of course, that both events are of equal importance.

How would the picture change, though, if you omitted the subject of the second clause, taking advantage of the rhetorical device called ellipsis: They walked and talked. Now the two clear lights that you shined on the two independent clauses in your first version have melded into one, concentrating your reader’s attention on one subject, they, who did two things, walked and talked. With that change in distribution, you have sped up the pace of your sentence; it moves more quickly because with the omission of the second subject, it is one degree less precise; a unit of two is now acting, not two distinct and single units. That change might work better for the circumstances you want to portray—and it might very well not. That’s for you to decide.

But there are other revisions yet to consider. How does the picture change if you subordinate the first clause: While they walked, they talked. To subordinate a clause means to put it in the background of the scene. Because a subordinate clause is neither grammatically nor logically independent in its own right (to just say while they walked would leave someone waiting for you to complete your thought), the light you are shining on the scene changes even more. Now only one event, the independent clause they talked, is put brightly before the reader’s attention, with the other action, they walked, seen more dimly as the circumstances in which this one main action prominently occurred. Invert the order of the two clauses, They talked while they walked, and you change the balance again, because the final position of an English sentence is the most emphatic. If you decide instead to change the clause you subordinate, you give yourself two more possibilities by which to present the moment to your reader: While they talked, they walked or They walked while they talked.

And one more. Subordinate clauses can be reduced to participial phrases, which compact an assertion into a concentrated statement. Instead of while they walked, we can write simply the present participle walking: Walking, they talked. Or, of course, Talking, they walked. All of these revisions alter the way in which your reader sees what you have to say, and the point of understanding the grammar behind each variation is to put those many possibilities consciously into the back of your mind. By once becoming conscious of how something is done, it can become a directing second nature, and you’ll have reach and recourse to possibilities once unrealized. That, in turn, can clear away obstacles and frustration both, and the attending freedom can make the difficult task of writing one step more enjoyable.