Neater, Lighter, Quicker

Let’s look at one sentence very closely to see how it works and doesn’t work. Imagine a psychologist writing about a young patient. The writer is making interesting, indeed moving, observations, but this first draft is overwritten, obstructing the free flow of her sympathetic attention: The argument crystalized and froze the boy’s psychological development which led to a breakdown in his education and homelife and interfered with his healthy psychological growth. How can we change the structure of this draft sentence to sharpen its force?

We can see the sentence in halves, the first as an independent clause with two verbs (The argument crystalized and froze the boy’s psychological development), and the second as a subordinate clause with two verbs (which led to a breakdown in his education and homelife and interfered with his healthy psychological growth). We generally define a clause as a group of words with a subject and a verb, so to say that each of these clauses has two verbs might sound incorrect. But a more accurate definition of a clause is a group of words with a subject and a predicate. The predicate is that part of a statement which is saying something about the subject, and we might very well wish to assert more than one action about the same subject. That is what is going on here. In the first half of the sentence, the subject argument undertook two actions, crystalized and froze, and in the second half, this crystalizing and freezing led and interfered with the boy’s growth. When a predicate has, like this, more than one verb for the same subject, it is called a compound predicate, and for purposes of analysis we may regard the two verbs as making up one more elaborate predication about the same subject.

But elaboration can overwork itself into embroidery, and so it is good practice when we find ourselves writing a compound predicate to ask whether we are making a distinction without a difference. To crystalize something and to freeze it are both kinds of solidifying, and it is likely that the writer was thinking about the hardening effect the argument had had on the boy, and wanted to thread the picture tightly for the reader by choosing a more descriptive verb. That she did well by writing crystalized, but she then threaded the same part of the fabric again by adding the second verb froze. That kind of verbal overstitching is called doubling, and we are most prone to double our assertions in a first draft, where we are more often composing with our conversational voice. Less, however, is usually more in the written statement.

We cannot take this adage of less is more too literally, though, especially in matters of punctuation. The second half of our sentence begins with the relative pronoun which, and the writer has chosen not to include a comma before it. That choice brings us to the delicate topic of what is called the general reference of pronouns. A pronoun must have an antecedent, the noun to which the pronoun refers, and when the true antecedent of the pronoun is not the immediately preceding noun, we must insert a comma between the two to tell the reader just that. What it is that ultimately led to a breakdown in the boy’s education was not his psychological development, the noun immediately preceding the relative pronoun, but the fact that the argument crystalized that development. We should place a comma, then, before the pronoun which to break it from its likely antecedent, development, and associate it correctly with its logical one, the general idea implied by the action of crystalizing.

If we then reorder the events in the subordinate clause so that they move more naturally from home to school, and then transform the verb interfered into a participle, we have this as one possible revision: The argument froze the boy’s psychological development, which led in turn to more troubles at home and difficulties at school, all interfering with his healthy psychological growth. One word longer than the original, in fact, but structurally neater and for that, lighter and quicker.

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Criticizing by Intention

To criticize—in the good sense of the word—means to evaluate something according to its intention. Criticizing is part and parcel of revising a draft composition, and to the degree that no one knows better than we ourselves what we mean to say, we are our own best critics. Often, though, what we’ve written does not accord with what we had in mind, and just trying to begin all over again from scratch will not necessarily produce another sentence any better than the original. Another route is open, however, and that is to look closely at the construction of what we have written, evaluate it in light of our intention, and then recompose it.

Here’s a short passage from a student’s paper that can illustrate the technique; the first sentence sets the scene: Word of the record-breaking pitch traveled quickly. Tom had not been at the game, but watching it anxiously on television. His immediate reaction was to jump for joy. We can pass over the first sentence without comment, other than to say that the writer has correctly hyphenated the adjective phrase record-breaking to modify the noun pitch: a compound adjective standing before its noun is hyphenated.

Our attention pauses, though, at the second sentence when we read the verb phrase had not been. We should always confirm what is called the sequence of tenses when we find we’ve written a past perfect tense. This concept of tense sequence is meant to assure that we are narrating events in their correct chronological order (that is, as they actually happened), and the past perfect tense is meant to depict an action that occurred before another action in the past—even if the other action is spelled out in another sentence. The first clause of this second sentence (had not been) passes the test, on the assumption that the writer wanted to bring the reader back to a time before the pitch was thrown and before word of it traveled quickly. That’s good, because it suggests an uneasy tension about the unknown, which is then relieved in the third sentence.

What doesn’t work, though, is the second half of this second sentence: but watching it anxiously on television. The word but is a conjunction, and a conjunction introduces a clause, a group of words with a subject and verb. We can’t call these six words a clause, though, because watching is a participle, not a verb, and so it is not clear whether the writer had intended to assert a thought or describe a situation. If the former, he should have written but he had been watching it, employing again the past perfect tense to parallel the earlier had not been (although an argument for was watching could be made); but if the latter, he should have left out but and let watching begin a participial phrase: watching it anxiously on television.

But still we’re not home. Our first revision of Tom had not been at the game, but he had been watching it anxiously on television could be smoothed out by omitting the subject pronoun: Tom had not been at the game, but had been watching it anxiously on television. And our second revision, Tom had not been at the game, watching it anxiously on television, stumbles because of the lingering force of the negative adverb not, which implies a contrast or alternative. Our revision does, in fact, give an alternative, but we should add the adverb instead to make Tom’s choice clear: Tom had not been at the game, instead watching it anxiously on television.

Finally, the third sentence, which will brook no grammatical complaint but can be criticized on rhetorical grounds. When the verb to be is used with an infinitive (was to jump), we can often find what we really want to say hidden in the infinitive. The writer intends here ultimately to assert what Tom did, not what Tom felt (his immediate reaction) before he acted. Recognizing that, we can construct a grammatical balance of subordinate and independent clauses which both proportions the thoughts in clear images before the reader’s eye (the main idea in an independent clause and an attending thought in a subordinate clause) and expands the scene concretely: And when he saw the umpire signal the final strike, he leapt for joy.

We construct sentences by technique. We put words together into recognizable grammatical patterns, and in revision we test whether the arrangements we’ve created actually communicate what we intend. It is correct to say, I think, that revising has two sides: the exterior of grammatical production and the interior of our intentions. Our goal is to match the two.

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Seeing Groups of Words

Early on in the study of grammar, we come upon a concept which is essential to understand: that a group of words can act as a single part of speech. This one idea will in one fell swoop reduce the complexity of a sentence we want to change, because we’re no longer trying to account for every last word, but we’re seeing instead the larger and fewer sections of phrases and clauses, each of which stands as a single part of speech. Here’s how it works.

Let’s begin with this simple sentence: We took a walk in the woods yesterday. Revising often means rearranging, so if we want to consider how else we might present the ideas of this sentence to our readers, do we assume first that we are dealing with eight individual words? That, long experience tells me, is the first mistake most beginners (and those beginning again) make in trying to understand the grammar of a sentence. It’s true that every single word must have a role to play, but not every role is of the same importance at the same time. Some words carry an obvious meaning: we means a number of us, and woods means that dense stand of trees over there. But a or in? We want, certainly, to be able to understand ultimately how every word is functioning in a sentence, but not necessarily all at once, and certainly not as we first approach a sentence to revise.

So instead of preparing to do battle with each individual word in the sentence, let’s try welcoming it with a wider analytical embrace. Read it first from capital letter to period, and then divide it into the two large sections every sentence must have at least one of: subject and predicate. Thus, this first division of We | took a walk in the woods yesterday, would show us that, after the subject we, the bulk of the statement lies in the predicate, that part of a clause which includes the verb and all the other elements that build out the circumstances of the scene. We can count the predicate here, though, not as seven words, but as two single words plus two phrases: took (a walk) (in the woods) yesterday. A phrase is a group of words without a subject and verb, and by parenthesizing the phrases like this, we reduce our project to understand the structure of this sentence from seven steps to four.

The first phrase we encounter is simple enough. The indefinite article a is an adjective that works with the noun walk, and so we can quickly and correctly group those two words together and see that this phrase stands as the direct object of the transitive verb took: two words, one phrase, one grammatical function. The next word, in, is a preposition, and we know that a preposition must always have an object, which will most often be the first noun after the preposition. A preposition begins a phrase which ends with its object, and that phrase will include any word between the preposition and object as well. Thus, in the woods is a prepositional phrase, and since it—the phrase in its entirety, not any single word of the phrase alone—answers the question where?, we understand that element to be an adverbial phrase. Finally, we see the single word yesterday, which answers the question when?, and so we see another adverb, this time in the form of a single word.

Again, by seeing a group of words acting as one syntactical unit (the fancy word for that is syntagma), we make it much easier to uncouple the components and rearrange them to change the manner of our statement. By seeing the four words in the woods yesterday really as two elements (one phrase and one single word), we give ourselves the chance to consider putting the temporal adverb yesterday at the beginning of the sentence: Yesterday we took a walk in the woods. Or perhaps after the direct object: We took a walk yesterday in the woods. Or if we are in a more reflective mood, between the verb and its object: We took yesterday a walk in the woods. Or if we are drafting a poem, perhaps even this: We yesterday took a walk in the woods.

All of these choices present themselves to our revising eye when we can see structure. Here, we have not done anything directly with the prepositional phrase in the woods, but we have done many things with the single word yesterday, which came to our attention after seeing the prepositional phrase separate from it. But that prepositional phrase itself opens even more possibilities. If we wanted to stay in our poetic mood to see what might be seen in a very different (but very real) frame of mind, we could come next upon an entirely new height of structural possibilities: In the woods yesterday, we took a walk. Or, We yesterday in the woods took a walk. Or even, A walk we took yesterday in the woods.

After studying grammar to write more clearly, we can study it to reflect more deeply on what we perceive in the world about us, moving from factual statement to poetic evocation. Both, however, rely on structure, the heart of the art of language.

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Getting Thoughts in the Right Place

If writing well means writing precisely, then where we place our words is just as important as the words we choose in composing a sentence. That’s because English relies heavily on word order to communicate meaning, and simple changes can turn a sentence around—or over.

Take, for example, this short sentence: I thought of what you said last night. Most of us understand that statement, and rightly so, to mean that you said something last night, and I thought about it later. The adverbial phrase last night sits immediately adjacent to the verb said, and that proximity is enough to explain how we interpret the sentence, and all the more so given the fact that the writer chose the simple past tense said instead of the logically stricter past perfect had said (stricter because your saying something occurred before I thought about it). If word order is important to a language, then proximity is its method to display meaning as a sentence unfolds. It’s typical, too, in English to place temporal adverbs, elements that express time, at the end of a clause, which only strengthens here our first interpretation of the sentence.

But chances are we could very well have written that same sentence and meant this: I thought last night about what you said. Notice that this very different meaning depends on where the same adverbial phrase last night has been placed: it now sits immediately adjacent to a different verb, thought instead of said, and that makes all the difference in what the statement means. Slips like this are called miscues, and they are common in our rough drafts, where we are transcribing the many thoughts we first have as we turn our attention to a subject. Our thoughts often don’t arrive in order, neatly coifed and arranged. They come as they’re dressed, and revision is the work of making them presentable for the occasion. That includes getting them to stand where they need to be as we block out the scene of a sentence—as we compose a sentence, that is, to mean what we mean to express.

One of these difficult actors came to my rehearsal the other day. The first draft of a recent post entitled Precise Changes included these two sentences: But to write well means to write precisely. And because that is difficult to achieve all at once, we should expect to spend a lot of time detecting abstractions and unearthing the images they hide when we’re revising a draft. Look closely at the concluding subordinate clause of the second sentence, when we’re revising a draft. That subordinate clause is adverbial, and as an adverb, it wants to modify the verb hide, the verb adjacent to it. But did I mean to say that the images we are searching for hide when we revise? I meant instead that images make our writing precise, and that these images are often hidden in our rough draft—to be found later when we revise. I misplaced this adverbial subordinate clause and ended up about to say something I didn’t exactly mean.

Now the ever-present temptation is to say, “Well, you know what I mean.” But that is to shift the burden of thinking from me to you, the reader, and that’s just not in the original agreement of writing well. So after a couple of rereadings (and because we know what we want to say, it can often take a few readings to see what we’ve inadvertently said), I caught the misstatement and revised it like this: And because that is difficult to achieve all at once, we should expect to spend a lot of time when we’re revising a draft, detecting abstractions and unearthing the images they hide. Here, the same subordinate clause is now an adjective modifying the noun time, with one of the participial phrases after it carrying the idea of hidden images and attaching that unearthing to the subject we.

The observation? Precision includes placement, and a grammatical element does not always find its best place at first in a rough draft. The close work of revising (and revising again) is often necessary to find a miscue.

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Precise Changes

A student of mine was trying recently to describe the peculiar feeling many of us have unfortunately had since spending so much time in virtual conversations during the pandemic. The protagonist in his story complains that her digitized relationships “feel ghostly,” and when she ends yet another online chat, the friend she had been speaking to wonders whether “he, too, was one of those ghosts whose presence drifted away on the virtual ether. But he resolved to resume his life, making forays slowly into the world of socialization.”

Our object in writing is to re-present what we have lived or imagined, in short, life. And what characterizes life more than anything else is movement: people do things, things happen, the world changes. Our readers’ eyes hold steady on who is doing what, and that is why we have to guard ourselves against writing too many abstract nouns, the nouns that name ideas rather than things. To speak of socialization, as the writer of our illustration does in the last sentence, for example, points his readers’ attention to a conception, the abstraction of social interaction. But the notion of socialization or interaction is so general in this context that his readers now have to spend precious mental energy putting an image to the idea, for we have no picture in our mind for socialization and we think with images. We do have a mental image, though, for going to dinner with friends, walking on the beach with his dog, or shopping for groceries at a real supermarket—all very concrete forays that command and hold one’s attention.

It is, we should admit, difficult to be specific, and so our tendency in both writing and speaking is to shift the burden of thinking concretely onto the other: you know what I mean, we’ll imply or even say aloud, and hope our readers or listeners can really put an image to our general statements. But to write well means to write precisely. And because that is difficult to achieve all at once, we should expect to spend a lot of time when we’re revising a draft, detecting abstractions and unearthing the images they hide. When we do, we’ll often find ourselves up against changing the structure of a sentence substantially, and we should be ready for that, because it can be sometimes so difficult getting something down on paper or screen at all, that we are loathe to change or delete what has cost us so dearly.

But change we must. So our writer might very well decide to incorporate infinitives after a colon in revising his last cumulative sentence: But he resolved to resume his life: to have dinner out with friends, or spend an afternoon at a café. Of if two specific examples do not seem to bring enough energy to the new resolve, he could follow a triadic structure after the colon, omitting the first conjunction to speed the list: But he resolved to resume his life: to have dinner out with friends, spend an afternoon at a café, or even shop in a real grocery store. Or, if the writer judges that the infinitives have, spend, and shop do not build enough energy, he might unfold each into a full clause: But he resolved to resume his life: he would have dinner out with friends more often, he would spend an afternoon at a café, or he would even shop in a real grocery store from time to time. And with that revision, our writer might very well judge he’s overshot the mark, and so preserve the full verb only in the first of the three clauses and settle with elliptical constructions in the other two: he would have dinner out with friends more often, spend an afternoon at a café, or even shop in a real grocery store from time to time.

Those are all substantial changes, but sometimes, too, changing merely a single word can turn a sentence around. When I first read this passage, I tripped over the word away in the second to last sentence: he, too, was one of those ghosts whose presence drifted away on the virtual ether. I read drifted away to mean left, or disappeared, but it couldn’t mean that, I thought, because remaining too long online is what is causing the presence of the ghost, and so to drift away would apparently resolve the problem of feeling ghostly. So why not drift about, and that would preserve the presence—and the subject—of perceiving oneself an electronic wraith.

Precision is difficult and precision takes time. It works by technique, analyzing what we’ve written and changing the form of our sentences, ever in the direction of specific action and movement and change—what characterize the life we’re writing about.

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