Lines of Investigation

A headline recently at CNN to promote a new podcast read, the most famous crime you may have never heard of. This innocent little statement gives us the chance to review a number of points that bear on both grammar and style.

We should begin by noting that what we’re looking at is a fragment, only a piece of the headline that we want to examine closely for a few minutes, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the statement doesn’t express a complete thought. That said, how do these ten words work together? The noun crime seems to be the center of gravity: the three words before it directly modify it as adjectives, and the six words after it refer again to it as a clause. There’s not much to say about the opening adjective phrase (the most famous), but the clause (you may have never heard of) is where things can be found.

First, the grammar. Why would we say (as I just did) that the words you may have never heard of refer to the noun crime as a clause? These words together constitute a clause because they combine a subject (you) with a verb (heard of), and that clause in its entirety works as an adjective because it is defining the most famous crime—it’s the one which you may have never heard of. (Look a bit more closely and you’ll realize that the word which, a relative pronoun with crime as its antecedent, is omitted from the original statement, a legitimate omission, but one that can make the grammatical analysis trickier. And trickier still is the fact that most here really means very, not greatest, and so the restrictive relative pronoun which is the right choice. That’s a mouthful, but the curious twist of the headline depends upon this complex structure.) And we have to identify the verb as heard of, not simply heard, because heard of is a phrasal verb, a verb combined with an adverb or preposition to extend the meaning of the original verb ever so slightly.

That phrasal verb is used here in a longish verb phrase (may have never heard of), and we should know what’s going on there both grammatically and stylistically. Verb phrases are made up of a principal verb (heard of) and at least one auxiliary verb; here we have two (may and have), and each has a specific charge to fulfill: the auxiliary have serves to build the present perfect tense and the auxiliary may sets that tense in the subjunctive mood. Omitting the adverb never for a moment, we have then a verb phrase, may have heard of, in the present perfect subjunctive, whose subject is you. The subjunctive mood is necessary because the writer does not know whether you’ve actually heard of the crime or not; it’s possible, not factual, that you’re in the dark about it, so the indicative mood would be, well, illegal.

But what about the adverb never? Adverbs in a verb phrase have a decision to make: where to take their stand. The headline writer has placed the adverb after the second auxiliary verb, and that is what accounts for the easy and casual tone of the statement, a position appropriate, arguably, for the popular subject at hand. But it is instructive to note that the standard compositional rule in English is to place the adverb after the first auxiliary verb in a verb phrase, and if you listen closely, you’ll heard the slightly more formal tone: the most famous crime you may never have heard of. Sometimes we have a choice in the matter, as here, but sometimes we don’t: you’ll be on your own in the dock if you violate the rule and write I may have not heard of that crime.

It can be helpful to remember that matters of grammar and style together take our readers to a certain idea down a certain path. That can often depend on the slightest detail, and that’s why a close investigation of the most casual lines can sometimes uncover the unexpected and useful.


Moving Words Around

Discussions about sentence design and stylistic effects can risk giving the impression that these are matters only for imaginative literature, not for language in its workaday character. Here’s an example of an interestingly constructed sentence in an ordinary (by which I do not mean undistinguished) college textbook on critical thinking of some years ago.

At the conclusion of a thorough treatment of logic and the scientific method, the author (W. Ward Fearnside in his About Thinking, Prentice Hall, 1997) begins his last paragraph with this sentence: Loud though our praise has been for the methods of science, we must end by acknowledging ethical values that lie beyond the perceptions of science. That’s a fine and stately sentence (emphasis on the word ethical is in the original), and after 22 hefty paragraphs on the history of explaining the mechanics of how it is we come to believe what we think, it raises the reader’s attention to the higher plane of character and worth. That elevation in tone is the effect of the design of this one sentence.

Standard English word order (sometimes helpfully abbreviated SVO) in an everyday sentence is subject, then verb, then object if there is one. Transitive verbs, as we know, take direct objects, so a sentence like the storm flooded the streets carries its uncomplicated thought straight to the reader: subject (the storm) + transitive verb (flooded) + direct object (the streets). Not all sentences, of course, employ a transitive verb, so sometimes the SVO acronym defers to SVC: subject + verb + complement. A grammatical complement is an element in the predicate of a clause that completes (hence the word complement) the assertion being made about the subject. Direct objects do just that, of course, and so the term SVC is more inclusive in accounting for what’s going on in the predicate. We might say, for example, that last night’s storm was unusually violent, where the word violent stands as a predicate adjective in complement to the copulative verb was. There is no direct object here because there is no transitive verb, but the predicate still contains words needed to fill out the thought, and those words are called complements.

All of this is at issue here because we first have to see that the initial clause of Fearnside’s sentence does not conform to this standard SVC word order. Loud though our praise has been for the methods of science is a deliberate reordering of the standard though our praise for the methods of science has been loud. The word though is a subordinating conjunction, and conjunctions usually begin their clause. If we look closely at the standard word order version, we can see that the word loud is a predicate adjective for the subject praise. But if we compare this standard version to the author’s, we observe that this same predicate adjective has moved from the final position in the subordinate clause to the initial one; our acronym for this design, then, would have to be CSV: loud + our praise + has been.

This reordering is called inversion, and writers undertake the construction when they want to guard against our falling into a lockstep—and unmindful—reading, sentence after sentence. Inversion takes us by surprise, shakes up both our grammatical and conceptual expectations, and in so doing forces us, or at least gives us the opportunity, to see the larger shape and consequences of an idea. And is that not the hypothesis we began with? After more than 350 pages of classroom discussion on deduction, induction, and evidence, Fearnside’s concern in the last paragraph of his book is that we not lose sight of realities higher than logic—despite all that he’s just said about it. His use of inversion helps him emphasize this idea of in spite of, raising our sights to greater things as he closes his work. That brings both interest and perspective to his ideas, and suggests to us a path we might want to take next in thinking about science and its real-world consequences. A higher idea in an inverted style.


Where Things Stand

Rearranging what we’ve written makes up a large part of revising our work. Grammarians refer to what is called syntax, the arrangement of words across a sentence to produce meaning. Change the syntax and we change the meaning, or at least the angle from which the reader sees what we’re saying. So there’s some reason we should understand how an English sentence is put together.

It can be helpful to think of three elements as we look over what we’ve written. Sometimes called sentence units, these elements—words, phrases, and clauses—are the bricks, or components, or building blocks we assemble into certain patterns to represent our ideas. The problem with ideas is that they’re hard to see. We all have ideas, of course; they’re what our minds are made of. But if we’re looking at our draft and seeing a page filled with words, we know for sure we’re swimming in a world of ideas, because words symbolize ideas. The questions is whether we’ll swim or sink amidst them.

After we’ve jumped into that blank screen or bare piece of paper, it’s fine to thrash about for a while in the cold sheer shock of it all. Tread for a time and splash around with all the ideas that might arise as you turn your mind to the topic you want to write about. But soon enough will come the time to get going, to start swimming in some coordinated way to move away from shore. That’s where an eye to syntax comes in. And maybe that’s a good way to think about syntax: the coordinated movement of words. To coordinate means to put into order, to organize, to orchestrate for a certain effect. We don’t try to understand sentence structure just to understand the theory of sentence structure. The sun is shining, so we have to be outside doing things. By moving words around knowingly, we move through our sentences differently, trying to stay with the waves of ideas more gracefully and naturally.

It’s a strange thought at first: trying to be more graceful in our expression by understanding sentence structure. It sounds like a strange alchemy or the ancient mystery of trying to square the circle. What have grace and simplicity and naturalness to do with regulating syntax? Everything, really, because all those ideas in our head must take some form, some recognizable pattern in order for someone else outside our head to understand them. That is what art is: the skillful production of something which someone else can interpret in order to comprehend what we are thinking or seeing or simply joying in. Something well done is artful, no matter how mundane it might seem to be. It is inevitably social, because it takes us out of ourselves and puts us before others who share our world—and who too, ideally, know how the communicative art of language works.

Here’s a very simple example. If I tell you that the house is for sale, you’re likely to ask me which house, because I’ve done nothing to specify which of the tens of houses in the neighborhood I’m talking about. If I then place the prepositional phrase on the corner immediately next to the noun house, I’ve added an adjective (in the element of a phrase modifying a noun) that will make my assertion more specific: the house on the corner is for sale. And recognizing that phrase as an adjective, I could trim the sentence a bit and realize that on the corner means corner: the corner house is for sale. That may be a better choice in the paragraph I’m writing, or it may not. All we want is the ability—the knowledge of sentence structure—to change things knowingly if we wish. The more we read and write and rewrite, the more inevitably will we come into command of our art. Inevitably.

With all that, I’ve sharped the subject side of my statement and I’ve left the predication, is for sale, untouched. But what if I come to realize that what I really want to tell you is where the house is, not that it is for sale? That’s the kind of clarifying insight that often results from close sentence analysis, and so all I now have to do is change the order of the words: the house for sale is on the corner. Doing that changes the same prepositional phrase into an adverb; I still have the same words, but now in a different syntax with a different meaning. And that is important to realize, because shape is significant in art; and in the art of language, or at least in the art of the English language, where things stand determines both what we’re saying and how we’re saying it, substance and manner both. Now the study of grammar has moved off the dusty page, and we can splash around for a while in the wave of words and ideas.


A Clause Versus a Phrase

Though it might offend our pride to realize, not everything we have to say is as important as we might think. We draw breath to speak a simple sentence because a thought has occurred to us, but that one thought doesn’t live alone; it takes its life along with other thoughts, some only half expressed, and together a sentence appears that communicates a world of ideas.

Let’s throw ourselves into the present, passionate world of the Covid vaccine, and with the sciences of grammar and rhetoric (there seems to be no science of logic in this current confusion) let’s examine a sentence like this one: The controversy, begun by those who question science and promoted by others who have much to gain for themselves, has reached across the country, from home to school to legislature. That’s quite an assemblage of ideas, not excessively so, but enough in number for us to wonder how we might see the organization of the sentence. The point of sentence analysis is ultimately to gain awareness of the thoughts and ideas being presented to us, so that we are in a position to make an independent judgment of things and not be carried along and out to sea by the undertow of emotions and assumptions. Can you think of something more important at the moment?

As is ever the case, we begin an analysis by seeing clearly what we’re examining. We should read the sentence in its entirety, from capital letter to period, looking first for clauses. A clause is the combining of a subject with a verb, and when we do that, we are asserting something (the word assert means, in fact, to join in Latin). What we’re asserting with a subject and verb joined together is a thought, and so our first pass over a sentence is looking for the one or more thoughts (in the form of clauses) that the sentence really intends to convey. In the 30-word sentence we are analyzing here, there is only one independent clause (the controversy has reached), and so, though substantial in volume and organization, the statement can be classified grammatically as a simple sentence (whether the two subordinate clauses who question and who have within the participial phrases are enough to define this sentence as complex is, thankfully, a subject for another time).

Simple in sentence structure, but not so simple in the number of ideas it presents. We commonly tend to use the words thoughts and ideas synonymously, but in language analysis, the two are to be carefully distinguished. A thought is properly represented by a clause (subject + verb), and a clause may be independent or subordinate, which means some thoughts need no help in communicating their ideas while others do. But when we see a group of words that do not combine a subject with a verb but still obviously work together in some way—begun by those who question science, for example, or promoted by those who have much to gain for themselves, we don’t have what we could call a clause, but we do have what is called a phrase. A phrase is a group of words that are related in some way without a subject and verb, and the all-important distinction between clause and phrase is this: a clause expresses a thought and a phrase only suggests one. Both are trying to communicate ideas, but only a clause declares its idea explicitly.

And it is a very good thing there is a difference between a clause and a phrase, because writing clause after clause in a sentence, with no relief from one positive declaration after the next, would pound the reader silly. The world we live in is not dominatingly monochromatic but wondrously multicolored, with some ideas a shade less important in the moment of the sentence than others. Phrases, the suggestion of ideas, build out the linguistic world for the clause of the sentence; they are the planets around the sun of the main idea, the supporting characters to the lead actor appearing in the costume of a clause. Together phrases and clauses stage a world for us to enter, a presentation of ideas for us to think about.

And so our simple sentence is really only making one simple assertion: the controversy has reached, and that one skeletal thought is supported, or contextualized, by the prepositional phrases across the country and from home to school to legislature, together with the participial phrases begun by those who question science and promoted by others who have much to gain for themselves. Not one of these supporting phrases is declaring any idea outright, but each is powerfully implying something, and that is reason enough to be aware of the ideas they are winking.

Every phrase is a potential thought, but only made actually so when converted into a clause. As writers, we create an involved and interesting world with color and shades of ideas by weaving clauses with phrases. As readers, we understand that written world rationally by seeing every idea as a thought, the better to understand the many implications of what is being suggested to us to believe. And so it is then that we can come to our beliefs confidently and independently.


The Innocence of Omission

Let’s jump into the deep end of the pool and see if we can keep our heads above water while we sort out a sentence that illustrates a common grammatical arrangement in English. One confounding characteristic of the language is that it often does not feel the need to say explicitly everything it means. That can leave us as readers or listeners with what appears to be a wave of onrushing words when we try to understand how a sentence is put together—something we ultimately want to be able to do in order to see the implications hidden in what we’re hearing or reading. Understanding the logical connection of ideas in language, though, takes a little practice.

The omission of words that are otherwise logically and grammatically essential is called ellipsis, and sentences that omit words in this way are called elliptical statements. If you are describing to me someone you met recently, I might by some coincidence suddenly say to you, I think I know the person you’re talking about. My reply would be a straightforward, casual comment, easily understood by any speaker of English, but not so easily understood grammatically. A first look at the sentence finds no fewer than three verbs: think, know, and are in the contraction you’re, and if we forget that every verb makes up a clause, we’re going to start sinking fast in our analysis. We’re saved by remembering that we’re not really examining a sentence; we’re trying to understand the composition of the clauses that comprise a sentence. With that realization we can divide or sectionalize a statement into more manageable divisions and proceed in a more orderly way.

The first clause we have is I think, and after identifying a clause, we should next ask what kind of verb the clause has, transitive, intransitive, or copula. We usually think something, and so we are safe to assume here that the verb think is transitive, which means it must govern a direct object, that element that will answer the question what? posed to the verb: what do you think? The answer to that question is the remainder of the sentence (I know the person you’re talking about), but that section, a clause in its own right, is not explicitly connected to the transitive verb for which it is an object. The connector we should be hearing or seeing is the subordinating conjunction that, but to say I think that I know the person you are talking about can sometimes be unnecessarily fulsome, and so by ellipsis we omit the that in order to keep the tone of the sentence casual and conversational.

Now the second clause of the sentence (I know the person you’re talking about) begins with its own transitive verb (know), and the object of that verb (the person) is followed by three words (you’re talking about) that make the noun person more definite: I don’t know just a person; I know the person you’re talking about. Any element that modifies a noun works as an adjective, so the three words you’re talking about comprise an adjectival clause connected to person. But connected how?

That clausal adjective makes up the third clause of the sentence, but it ends with a preposition (about) for which no object is named. One great master rule of English is that prepositions must have objects, so what is going on here? Another instance of ellipsis. This third clause, you’re talking about, has omitted its initial relative pronoun whom, which would and could (but not necessarily should) stand as the prepositional object. And I say not necessarily should, because omitting the relative pronoun keeps the tone of the sentence relaxed, just as omitting the conjunction that did a few words earlier. Recall the imagined context of the sentence (two friends in an everyday conversation) and you will quickly realize how unnaturally stiff a grammatically complete statement would have been in the living moment: I think that I know the person whom you’re talking about.

Being able to analyze a sentence is a way to keep ourselves alert—not just for material grammatical and logical errors, but also for matters of tone and style and affability. The living moment is all, some casual, some formal, some somewhere in between. We should aim at a lithe and facile language that is both meaningful and appropriate to the circumstance in which it arises.