A Meaningful Aside

Consider this sentence: Like many people, I imagine, I worry about not having enough money for retirement. Why are the words I imagine set off with a pair of commas, and why are those two words placed where they are? Why not elsewhere in the sentence?

Commas cut, or better, they separate elements which would otherwise be read together, changing the meaning at least enough to slow readers down, if not confuse them outright. With the words I imagine bounded with commas, the sentence means I worry about not having enough money for retirement and I imagine many other people do too. Without the commas, however, the very same words mean something quite different: I worry about not having enough money for retirement like many people I imagine, which is to say that I am imagining many people, and like me, those people I’m imagining worry about not having enough money for retirement.

The commas, then, create what is called a parenthesis, an aside, or superfluous comment, which stands outside the logic and grammar of the sentence itself. We think of the word parenthesis (or the plural parentheses) first as the familiar punctuation mark, but the same term also refers to this way of stylizing a sentence. A parenthesis in this rhetorical sense brings a more natural, conversational tone to the statement, because our spontaneous exchanges rarely move in as straight a line as our written words must. But that pleasant, more natural tone will come at a steep price if we do not indicate with punctuation that the words we’re adding are merely a digression. In addition to commas, we can sometimes show such a digression with the punctuation marks we call parentheses, as in Like many people (I imagine), I worry about not having enough money for retirement, or sometimes even with a dash, though we can quickly see that here a dash would be over the top: Like many people—I imagine—I worry about not having enough money for retirement.

But where then to put this parenthetical aside? Our original version places it a few words into the sentence and right after the phrase it most directly modifies (many people). This positioning shows that the writer got going in a thought, then stepped outside that thought for a moment to say something about what he had just said, and then returned to the syntax to resume the real assertion he was making. That is what we do in conversation all the time, and so we can justifiably conclude that the writer’s relationship to the idea was, at least here, unalarmed and perhaps even resigned, because the sentence did not exhibit a strict compositional formality. Had, instead, those same two words been placed later in the sentence (Like many people I worry, I imagine), the writer would have been conceding reluctantly that he worries about not having enough money, not that he merely finds himself in the company of others with the same concern. Companionship is one thing, mental turmoil quite another.

All this is, moreover, a touchy topic, because our choice will depend on the mood we’re in—who we are—as we’re writing and revising the sentence, and committing to its assertion. Strange to say, but the words we choose and how we compose and punctuate them show our relationship to the ideas we’re communicating. Change the design and structure of a sentence and you change not only its meaning, but also its look and purport, in just the same way as the clothes we wear can signal much about who we mean to be. That close relationship between form and content is why the study of language has traditionally been regarded so important in education, because without some awareness of just what we’re implying with our words, we can confuse sometimes not only others, but worse, ourselves.


More Energy

In a recent post entitled Energy, we looked at the principle of preferring verbs to nouns in revising a sentence. A prepositional phrase, for example, often hides a good, strong verb in its object (the verb collapsed in the phrase after the bridge collapse), and abstract nouns likewise not uncommonly conceal a transitive verb (the verb inspected from the noun inspection) that can rework a sentence substantially. This latter change is worth considering more closely, because it can involve revising a sentence to a degree we don’t always expect.

Our original illustration was this awkward sentence: After the bridge collapse, there was an inspection by an engineering firm which was hired by the state, and one of the revisions we ultimately arrived at was After the bridge collapsed, an engineering firm inspected the scene to determine the cause. We can see the change from inspection to inspected, but the revision includes six words after that verb which are nowhere to be seen in the original. Those words fill out the predicate that was created by preferring the transitive verb inspected over its abstract noun inspection, replacing another prepositional phrase (by an engineering firm) and adding new relevant detail (to determine the cause). This new detail involved another kind of verbal construction we should understand to better our work.

The two words to determine constitute what is called an infinitive, a form of a verb very different from what we normally mean when we try to find the verb of a clause. The word infinitive means unspecific, and in grammar that means that it does not have a subject that is doing something at a particular time and in a particular way—all of which we expect from what we normally call a verb. We will say, for example, that an engineering firm will determine the cause of the collapse, and with the verb will determine, we see the subject engineering firm and the auxiliary verb will, which tells us the verb is in the future tense and indicative mood. Subject, tense, mood—all of that is quite specific, and that is why what we usually mean when we think of a verb is what is more exactly known as a finite verb, a verb specific as to its subject and the actual time of its action. Every clause must have a finite verb to operate because finite verbs are specific in exactly the way infinitive verbs are not.

But infinitives are still verbs, and so including them in the predicate of a clause can keep us close to our principle of preferring verbal constructions in composing a sentence. Infinitives (along with participles and gerunds) are hybrids; they work as nouns or adjectives or adverbs, but they are built from verbs. And because they derive from verbs, they carry with them all the strength and vigor of their verbal ancestors, having their own relative time and targeting their meaning at objects, just as transitive finite verbs do. So when we find ourselves converting the abstract noun inspection into the verb inspected, we also discover that we have put ourselves unwittingly into a position where we have to complete the thought of inspected. We have to think more specifically, and that we do, in turn, with the help of the infinitive to determine, which then renews the demand that we complete the thought this infinitive has now set up: we must tell what it is the engineering firm is to determine, namely, the cause. (And note, importantly, not the cause of the collapse, but simply the cause, because we have every right to assume that the reader has not forgotten in so brief a span of time that we are talking about the collapse of a bridge.)

Using infinitives, then, can keep us in accord with an important principle of writing and help us fill out a thought that may have been too compact and too assuming in the original. Very often we believe the reader knows what we are thinking, and revising with close attention to verbal constructions can bring much good detail energetically to light.



Principles at work. I read that phrase the other day and thought how well it expresses the classical method of learning to write. To work from a principle means to create according to the laws of a craft, the body of practices and customs that make an art, including the art of composition, effective. Those laws, so called, are the principles that guide the choices we make in revision, and which give us at the same time a measure against which we can judge one choice better than another.

One such principle of English composition is that the energy of a sentence spins off from its verbs. The reason a sentence with too many phrases is judged weak is because phrases, by definition, do not include verbs (specifically what are called finite verbs, that is, verbs with person and number; phrases do often include verbals, which is the class name for participles, infinitives, and gerunds, all devices built from verbs). Clauses, in contrast to phrases, are groups of words with a subject and verb, and exactly because clauses include a verb, they give us a way to strengthen a sentence which has too many phrases and abstract nouns.

Take, for example, this clumsy sentence: After the bridge collapse, there was an inspection by an engineering firm which was hired by the state. Clumsy means inefficient and awkward, not in control of one’s actions, so what about this sentence justifies this judgment? Notice first that it begins with a prepositional phrase, after the bridge collapse. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but in combination here with the weak verb construction there was (more on that in a moment) and two other prepositional phrases (by an engineering firm and by the state), this opening phrase begins the sentence on the wrong foot: it brings the reader’s attention to some thing, a bridge collapse, rather than to some event: a bridge collapsed. So if we change the original phrase to a clause, the sentence begins with a surer sense of itself: after the bridge collapsed.

Next, just what is the complaint about the phrase there was? First, let’s note that we’re correct in calling those two words a phrase, because even though there is a verb, there is no subject, and we must have both subject and verb to name something a clause. And it is just the fact that the adverb there is taking the place of the subject, an inspection, that accounts for the flat and uninteresting tone that results. We use this there is, there are, there were construction more often in conversation or in writing that is meant to be conversational in tone, and on the assumption that the sentence we’re analyzing was written for a more formal context, it is missing an opportunity to declare its intent loud and clear. If instead we take the abstract noun inspection and convert it to its corresponding transitive verb inspect, we can unwrite the adverb there and again turn the reader’s attention not to what was, but to what happened: an engineering firm inspected the scene to determine the cause.

Notice, importantly, that this change to a transitive verb put us in a position to be more specific. Transitive verbs have direct objects, and so in writing inspected, we were compelled to next write the object scene, which in turn suggested the purpose of the action, to determine the cause. That, then, brings us to ask whether the balance of the original, which was hired by the state, is really necessary, or whether we had written that simply to fill out the statement. This is a common problem. It may be true that the firm was hired by the state, but not every truth is relevant, and a good part of writing strongly is a matter of conserving energy, not saying what doesn’t need to be said at the moment. Should we decide, though, that this information is indeed pertinent to the larger paragraph which will unfold, we should at least notice that the original put the clause in the passive voice. Changing that to the active voice, the state hired an engineering firm, would suggest an entirely new statement.

We have, thus, two brighter, more intense versions to choose from, each with more energy than the original because we changed a phrase to a clause, and a noun to an active transitive verb with a direct object: After the bridge collapsed, an engineering firm inspected the scene to determine the cause, and After the bridge collapsed, the state hired an engineering firm to determine the cause. Which we choose will depend on the shape and intent of the larger paragraph in which the sentence will sit, but analyzing the grammar of the original gave us two stronger versions to choose between, each having accumulated more specific energy to attract and direct the reader’s attention.


Thinking and Feeling Both

Analysis has its place, which means it’s out of place somewhere else. Analysis means loosening something apart, identifying its elements, seeing how something works or doesn’t work. Analysis undoes the living moment in order to understand it, and so it has no place in moments of creation, when we bring things together to make something new. Where creation does, analysis undoes.

Grammatical analysis, then, has to do with revising what we’ve written, not with putting words and sentences down onto a blank screen or piece of paper as we begin to write. Much like actors’ improvisation, our rough draft, what we first compose about a subject, is all a matter of yes, and to be too critical too early, to take out our steely and polished analytical tools to say no too soon, is to shut down the whole production before it even gets started. For how does anything new arise confidently before shouts of no?

But creation, in turn, can’t do ultimately without analysis. Analysis and understanding form the boundaries for our creative moments, which would otherwise never take on meaningful shape but just push on in excess, formless everywhere. I have heard of teachers who tell their students not to worry about writing complete sentences in completing their assignments, which is fine, I suppose, if that means don’t be too critical of yourself as you get going. But if that means don’t ever worry about matters of form and skill and craft, that any unimpeded outburst of words will justify itself as good and right—that is a notion that conflicts, at least, with the traditional understanding of any art: that without knowing what we’re doing and why, we’re not really doing anything at all.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A student of mine was working recently on a longer document and he was trying to write an opening sentence which would quickly describe how he came to meet the subject of the piece. I have changed the content but retained the grammatical structure of his sentence, and this is what he drafted: I met with the real estate agent for an initial conversation about selling my house after he had been referred to me by a friend who worked with him after he had moved to Chicago. That’s quite a lot, quite a jumble of ideas and events, and quite typical, too, of what we all do as we begin to call to the stage persons and happenings, times and places that will together create the scene we have in mind. But that first sentence was still rough and unorganized (and the writer knew it), and a better way could be found to arrange all the actors in it—which is the work of analyzing this raw creation, this rehearsal. This one sentence, for example, has four clauses, three of which are subordinate, and as those last three subordinate clauses tumble out one after the other, the reader is pulled backwards and forward again in time. Feeling that in revision, the writer could turn to the structure that produced that effect—are the antecedents of the pronouns clear, are the tenses and voices of the verbs correct?—reorder the statement or even break it apart into two sentences, in order to help the reader see more sequentially what happened as the writer lived it in his mind.

All of which should demonstrate for us the necessity of being patient with ourselves and understanding that creation, our first attempt at writing something, will oftener than not be messy, that things will almost inevitably be out of order and tousled and disarranged—patient with ourselves in our unkempt studio as we put this rough idea here and that one there, pieces falling to the floor. We’re building up, composing, but when we get so far—for some a couple of sentences, for others a few pages—we pause to change our mental disposition from yes to no, or better, from yes to why. We move, in other words, from gathering to sorting, from creating to analyzing, and when we’ve done both, not merely one or the other, we can say we are working so that others will understand what we’re thinking.

The writer and historian Jacques Barzun, in his edition of Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage (Avenel Books, 1966, p. 301) once noted that writers of fiction (his remark, though, applies to all of us) “ought to persist in observing what will faithfully render their intuitions of the human mind.” That, I think, hits the entire point right squarely on the head, for our intuitions are the stuff of creation, and our revising and analysis the craft and skill that will faithfully render those ideas to others. To render means here to put our intuitions into the elements of the art of language, arranging those creative perceptions into forms which we can analyze as the need arises, when we sense, that is, that our felt experience is not being felt by the reader. That will both keep analysis in its proper place and give it its proper due.


The Circumstances Surrounding

In an exercise to write a paragraph of balanced sentences, each statement having a center point with clauses on either side, a student of mine recently composed this interesting design: An older man, an oversized ruck sack on his back and his head bent down, negotiated the steps carefully; a younger athlete jogged up to the top, then bounced down. That’s a fairly sophisticated sentence, particularly to appear in a rough draft, and the first half of it baffled even the writer himself. Let’s try to understand what he wrote.

To speak of a balanced sentence is to name its design, how a writer has arranged the grammatical elements to produce both meaning and effect. There are a good number of recognized sentence designs in English—loose, periodic, cumulative, centered, among many others—and it can be useful to distinguish between sentence designs and sentence types. To recognize our example as a balanced sentence means we’re seeing its layout of phrases, clauses, and punctuation. These elements are arranged, though, on a grammatical frame, or type, and there are only three such types: simple, compound, and complex. These three are defined according to the kinds of clauses that make up the sentence (independent or subordinate), and since there are only independent clauses in our example (man negotiated, athlete jogged, and athlete bounced), its type is compound. Those three clauses are organized around a semicolon roughly in the middle of the sentence (the layout is not mathematically perfect, nor should it necessarily be), and that is why we name this design a balanced sentence.

Notice, though, that in determining the sentence type, we did not take account of the section an oversized ruck sack on his back and his head bent down. That’s because these twelve words do not include a verb, even though we certainly supply some verb-like word logically as we read it: an oversized ruck sack hanging on his back, his head being bent down. Hanging and being, or any other such word we might read into the sentence, are not verbs as we normally think of a verb; they each have a subject (the ruck sack is hanging and the head is bent down), but they do not indicate a specific, chronological time. The time they point to, in other words, is not actual according to the clock but relative to what else is happening in the clause, and so these words are not specific, or finite, verbs—and finite verbs are the only kind we use to count and determine grammatical type.

So if the section an oversized ruck sack on his back and his head bent down has no real, finite verb, we can’t call this section a clause at all; we must name it a phrase, and see that the two words we need to supply to make the statement coherent, hanging and being, are participles. Participles are not verbs but adjectives built from verbs; they don’t assert anything outright, but merely suggest or intimate an action or state of being. And when a participle with its own noun is placed within a clause with its own subject and finite verb, it accomplishes a construction called the nominative absolute—nominative because the noun is the subject of the participle, and absolute because the entire phrase stands outside the grammatical frame of the larger clause to which it refers.

What? Here’s what all that means in our example: An older man negotiated the steps carefully is the first independent clause of this compound sentence, and between man and negotiated, the real subject and finite verb of the clause, the writer has inserted the phrase an oversized ruck sack on his back and his head bent down. That phrase has no finite verb, and it is therefore describing the situation within which the subject of the clause, older man, is negotiating the steps so carefully. Because the subjects of the phrase, ruck sack and head, are not the same as the subject of the clause in which they are nested, the phrase stands grammatically isolated, and from that solitary, or absolute, position, points to what are called the attendant circumstances, what’s going on scenically as the real action unfolds. That’s why we were correct in supplying the participles hanging and being in order to bring some measure of logical completion to the phrase, because participles merely suggest where verbs plainly assert.

That’s quite an incisive perception of things, particularly for a first draft. All the more credit to the student who wrote the sentence, and a good reminder that we don’t write so much with a style as in a style, that our words arrange themselves to accord with the way we are seeing an event in our mind. The finer the perception, the finer the writing. And when we find that happening even in our early drafts, we know we’re on our way.


You will find more information on this topic
in three earlier posts:
Absolutes, The Nominative Absolute, and Stage Directions.