To Say or To Imply?

Which of these two sentences is grammatically correct: Him being new to our program, we require a short interview and assessment, or He being new to our program, we require a short interview and assessment? The only difference between the two is the first word, and a little grammar can help us sort out the choices and make a confident decision.

First, as always, we size up the phrases and clauses to determine the lay of the grammatical land. The sentence opens with a six-word phrase and concludes with an independent clause. In essence we have, then, a simple sentence whose subject, we, is connected to the finite verb require. As we’ve noted in an earlier post (Verbs and the Verb), this concept of a finite verb is all important and is often not made enough of in grammatical study. The term finite refers to the form of a verb that is specific as to subject and tense. A finite verb makes a distinct assertion, as opposed to forms like infinitives, gerunds, and participles which at first sight appear to be verbs, but are really what are called non-finite constructions, not assertions but implications. Finite verbs say, declare, predicate; non-finites mention, allude, intimate. Finite verbs make up clauses, non-finites make up phrases. So when we’re analyzing a sentence for its grammatical shape (simple, compound, or complex), we begin by counting clauses, which means we begin by looking for finite verbs.

Now if require is the one and only finite verb in our sentence, what, then, is being, which sounds a lot like a verb? Being is a participle, one of the non-finite constructions we just mentioned, and we know this because it is modifying the pronoun him; participles are adjectives and must work with nouns or pronouns. The opening six words of the statement, then, make up a participial phrase, not a clause. In the form of a non-finite construction, they are suggesting or mentioning the circumstances in which the action of the main verb, the finite verb require, is taking place. That introductory adverbial phrase—the phrase in its entirety, from him to program—comprises an adverb and sets the stage for the subject we to require a short interview.

And with that, we come close to solving our question whether him being or he being is grammatically correct. When a participle has a subject of its own, as here the participle being has the pronoun him or he, the two together form what is called a nominative absolute phrase, which means the phrase sits grammatically apart, or absolutely, from the main clause, and its own subject takes the form which subjects usually take, the nominative. The nominative case of the pronoun is he, and so he being is the correct choice: He being new to our program, we require a short interview and assessment. Absolutely so.

The nominative absolute phrase makes use of a participle to do what all non-finite constructions do by definition: twist a verb just a little so that it acts like an adjective or noun or adverb. If that participle being is an adjective because it modifies the pronoun he, the same verb from which it came, be, can also be turned into a noun as a gerund (there might be strange, fantastic beings on other planets), or into an adverb as an infinitive (he studied the stock market to be rich). But even though non-finites derive from verbs, they don’t assert anything directly—that is the work of a finite verb. Non-finites, nonetheless, carry a sense of movement or change, and that can remind us, if we’re reading and writing closely, that the more things change, the more they stay the same—only to change again.

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A Sentence from Rachel Carson

I ask my students to keep a record of their reading by transcribing in a notebook a sentence or two which has caught their attention by the way it says what it says. This attentive copying (with appropriate quotation marks and citation, of course) holds the eye and mind to form, and furnishes a stock of grammatical shapes that will then be ready at hand as they revise their own work later.

Recently, a student brought to class this quote from the famed biologist and writer Rachel Carson, and it illustrates a good number of rhetorical designs in a mere twenty-eight words. The topic, for which Carson was to be an early and influential voice, is humankind’s relationship to (or estrangement from) the natural world with the use of chemical pesticides. This sentence is from her work Silent Spring, originally published in 1962: “I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself.” (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, 2002, p. 13). Let’s look first at the way the sentence ends.

The coda, or concluding section of the sentence, begins with the preposition on and continues to the period. That preposition has four objects, the nouns soil, water, wildlife, and man, and what we should note is the order in which the writer has put down these four conceptions. Carson’s entire topic involves the natural world, and to a scientific mind, whether biologist or metaphysician, our natural environment exhibits a hierarchy, a graded series of interconnected realities. Here, water presumes soil to contain it, so the noun soil begins the series and water follows. Wildlife is next in the chain because it depends on the two realities preceding it; and man concludes the ranking series not only because we depend on all three antecedents, but also because we regard ourselves as made up of (if not arising from) them. The addition of the intensive adjective himself only emphasizes the preeminent importance of Carson’s thesis—that we are taking our hand against ourselves.

The technical rhetorical term for this arrangement of words in order of increasing significance is climax. That term derives from the Greek noun for ladder, and just as we climb to new physical heights on a ladder, so we climb metaphorically to new heights of significance by arranging words climactically. We should note, too, that Carson did not keep to a formal triadic structure, where a series is limited to three items. Here we have four, the four prepositional noun objects, and that surely is the better choice, given the natural realities she was intending to connect. This points to the ever-important need to balance formal, or ideal, linguistic structures against the actualities one is writing about. That tension is present in every art: slavishly following the rules leads to a studied, self-conscious style, but too freely allowing our first drafts to stand as our final products evidences little concern for either the subject or the reader.

We should see as well in the coda the absence of conjunctions, with the exception of and before the concluding noun man. This rhetorical device is called asyndeton, and its effect is to speed a series of ideas before the reader in order to stress their importance. The opposite of asyndeton is polysyndeton, the full use of each and every conjunction logically necessary to the series. Here, that would have looked like this: on soil, and water, and wildlife, and man himself. The rhythm swings more, and in that mood trades seriousness for lyricism. And we should note that both these configurations build on ellipsis, the omission of the preposition on before all of its objects. Having restored the ellipsis, and the writer would have had yet another option to choose from: on soil, and on water, and on wildlife, and on man himself. Now we have a high-sounding denunciation of the harm man is causing the environment, a tone the author would no doubt likely have wished to avoid.

We can point, finally, to the placement of the adverb furthermore at the beginning of the sentence. When an adverb or conjunction is written not as the first word of a sentence, but somewhere closely therefrom, the arrangement is called postpositive and the effect is a degree or two more sophisticated literarily. The writer chooses not to announce that she is about to say something more (Furthermore, I contend that we have allowed), but instead confirms what she has already begun to do (I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed). The resulting tone is again less confrontational, and so invites the reader to consider dispassionately a difficult truth in which they, too, are involved.

The art of composition abounds in such technical devices, and they are most efficiently learned one by one as the occasion presents itself in our private reading. That is one of the best reasons for taking the time to transcribe a memorable sentence: to absorb the ways and means of good writers.

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Accumulating Strength

We pay a high compliment to a writer’s style when we say that it has energy, that it carries us confidently through a number of ideas, and shows one idea arising from another. What is energetic is moving and what moves changes, and that dynamic, dramatic quality seems to be at the heart of a higher human perception.

I say higher perception because our more common way of looking at the world (and perhaps necessarily so) is not dynamic but static; we see things standing alone rather than acting together, and we believe something is and will always be what it obviously appears to be at the moment. This might just be why the endeavors of art are so difficult: the artist—the good writer—is trying to generate lift under the static elements of the craft. A word is just a symbol for an idea, and it’s not until one idea is put in relation to another by means of a phrase or clause that our common perception of a vigorless world can take flight.

I recently came across an excellent example of such a sentence. C.E.M. Joad was a British philosopher of some note and popularity in the early twentieth century, and between the two world wars, he published a work called Return to Philosophy: Being a Defense of Reason, an Affirmation of Values, and a Plea for Philosophy (Faber and Faber, 1937). In his first chapter he worries over how difficult it can be to distinguish between a real philosopher and someone who merely holds a set of personal opinions passionately. The true philosopher, he says, knows what past philosophers have thought, and he affirms that philosophers like Aristotle and Butler and Schopenhauer “are conspicuous examples of the power which the great philosophers have of extending and enriching our comprehension of life as a whole, enabling us to find in the world more challenge to our interest, more stimulus to our curiosity, more scope for our sympathy, our understanding, even for our passion, than we found before” (p. 27).

Much can be said about those fifty-four words, but if you simply read them aloud once or twice, you will hear one idea accumulating onto another, this growing mass of thought, like a grand summer cumulus cloud, powerfully rising to a conclusion. That impression could not reach us without a specific form, and since we are reading a sentence, that form has taken shape with the elements of word, phrase, and clause. These fifty-four words of Joad’s comprise the predicate of a sentence whose long subject phrase would only complicate matters for us. We can see, though, that we are in a predicate because the passage I’ve quoted begins with the verb are: Aristotle and Butler and Schopenhauer, Joad has said, are conspicuous examples, and that is the only independent clause the sentence contains. With that grammatical observation, we can find and keep our balance as we see how it is that the energy of the sentence escalates as we read to the period.

One way to first analyze rhetorical structure is to ask basic questions of what the writer has said. Joad here maintains that the three philosophers he has named are conspicuous examples, but we may ask, examples of what? They are examples, he says, of the power which the great philosophers have. What kind of power? The power of extending and enriching our comprehension of life as a whole. To what purpose? To the purpose of enabling us to find in the world more challenge to our interest. What else could we find? More stimulus to our curiosity. Anything else? More scope for our sympathy. Could we find more scope for anything else? For our understanding, even for our passion, than we found before.

That is a bird’s-eye view of the predicate. But at grammatical ground level we see this: the noun examples gives us the main thought: these three philosophers are examples. That predicate noun is then specified by the prepositional phrase of the power, and the prepositional object, power, is itself made specific by the relative clause which the great philosophers have. Next, that same power is made more specific again by naming two of its characteristics, of extending and enriching our comprehension of life as a whole, and with that, the momentum of the sentence really gets underway. To specify ideas is to compress them, and compression creates energy.

The writer now gives us a destination, a purpose, for these characteristics of power: enabling us to find in the world more challenge to our interest. The gerund enabling and its object the infinitive to find begin a fast-increasing acceleration, fast because of ever more concise grammatical structures: three phrases similarly constructed with the adjective more plus a noun (more challenge, more stimulus, more scope). Each of these phrases is modified by its own prepositional phrase, and when we come to the last, more scope for our sympathy, the writer triples the objects for the preposition for (sympathy, understanding, and passion) but eschews that controlling preposition in the middle term so as to retract his energy before the final vault to the end of the sentence.

That is quite something, and we hardly need all this analysis to feel the force of the ideas. But analysis can show us that the author’s linguistic strength was not chanced but disciplined, and as Joad says elsewhere, such “disciplined intelligence prepares the mind for those cognitive ‘jumps’, which are involved in the apprehension of all new truth….” And truth is what the good philosopher and writer both are most worried about.

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What Does That Mean?

Let’s return to the border of grammar and logic, or if the term logic is off putting, let’s call it critical thinking. If it’s true that precision lies at the heart of style, then the more we know exactly what we’re talking about, the clearer will be our language and the more distinct our style.

Clarity and precision, though, are not achieved at a stroke, and so we should be patient with ourselves as we search in a first draft for the words to express the ideas we have in mind. Generalities are often the first to come to mind, and generalities lead quickly to vagueness, that mistiness that engulfs precision like a whirlpool and can quickly pull us down into the belief that sounding like we’re saying something means we are. Vagueness (the word comes from a Latin adjective meaning wandering) doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to say; it just means we’ve drifted off in finding the words that best define what we mean. And we can always find our way back to the main road by asking, What does that mean?

The logical side of language sees every declarative sentence in two halves, subject and predicate, and one would think then that finding our ideas in a draft should be fairly straightforward: the subject will answer the question what are we talking about?, and the predicate will answer what are we saying about it? But what about a sentence like this, which is not untypical of a first draft: His progress and development grew and increased at the new school. It’s easy enough to see the predicate beginning with the word grew, but what exactly grew? Progress? Development? Or progress and development both? And did each or both just grow, or did each or both increase as well? A grammarian will have no objection to the structure of the sentence, but a critical thinker will go wild not only at the multiplicity of ideas compounded into one sentence, but also because of the vagueness of the four terms.

The grammarian has nothing to say about this sentence because he recognizes a compound subject in combination with a compound predicate. Subjects and predicates may be simple or compound, simple if they comprise only one idea, compound if they comprise two or more. Such a design is well established in English, and so the grammarian, the guardian of structure, has no objection to raise. His distinction, though, of simple and compound subjects and predicates can help the critical thinker in us find a more precise sentence, and that search begins by posing to each term of the compound subject the sharp question what does that mean?

The noun progress means forward movement, and suggests advancing toward a goal; development means productive change, and suggests an unfolding growth. The verb grow means to increase, and increase means to become greater in size or capacity. It seems obvious, then, that the two predicate terms, grow and increase, are redundant; the writer has merely said the same thing twice, pushed on most likely by the mistaken belief that saying more will make more meaning. But the trouble really began with the vagueness of the two subject terms. If we assume for a moment that progress and development refer to the subject’s emotional life, progress can mean all manner of things.

But meaning all manner of things, speaking in generalities, works counter to precision and thus to distinctive style, and the only way to find the specific is to pose over and over the master question what does that mean? To mean means principally to intend, and what we mean, we do. And so the question what does that mean? can also be answered by the question what happened?, what did the subject do? Which then finally leads us to this one of many possible revisions: He learned to put words to his thoughts and feelings instead of lashing out emotionally, and he behaved more civilly with his peers. And now the reader knows exactly what was meant.

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Experiencing Experience

In an earlier post entitled From Phrase to Clause, we looked at the first half of a difficult sentence and saw how changing an opening phrase to a clause can bring precision, and thereby energy, to our writing. The second half of that same sentence presented other difficulties, which I would like to look at now.

Here’s the original sentence once again: One month into my vacation after not taking any time off for almost three years, I began to experience persistent thoughts about being away from work that plagued me. As is ever our procedure, we begin with identifying the type of sentence we’re revising. We may classify all sentences into three types: simple, compound, or complex, and our example falls into the last category because it comprises both an independent clause (I began to experience) and a subordinate one (that plagued me). The first clause is saying more than it should, and the second is not saying what it thinks it’s saying.

Let’s begin our analysis of the first clause with this psycho-philosophical question: what isn’t an experience? If we define an experience as anything we are conscious of, then just about anything we have to say is an experience. And if we write that one began to experience persistent thoughts, we are going even one step further by bringing the reader’s attention to the growing awareness of something, not to that which one is aware of. Now a psychologist might very well object, saying, “Yes, that’s the very point, which is why the clause begins with the verb began, to show the incipient, inchoate awareness of the persistent thoughts.” And one is, admittedly, hard pressed to take exception with that especial psychological subtlety.

But it is often the case that we as more common writers and speakers will rely on the verb experience to set up a sentence which in the end logically displaces what is really at issue. Did the writer of our example really mean to point to the subtle psychological moment of aborning awareness, or did he just pull down a well-worn verb that is so encompassing in meaning (what, again, isn’t an experience?) that it adds nothing at all to the thought intended? What would be lost, in other words, by simply cutting to the chase and using persistent thoughts about being away from work as the subject of the clause? This would force us to bring the central idea center stage, where now we would have to give it its due verb, plagued, which we find displaced far off alone in the subordinate clause. Our revision, then, would read: persistent thoughts about being away from work began to plague me.

This objection to the uncareful use of the verb experience arises from the principle that precision lies predominantly in style. Because we cannot write about anything that is not an experience (how can we say anything about something we are not aware of?), to say that we are experiencing something is really to say that we are saying it. The psychologist’s perspicacity aside, there is no logical difference in common perception between I began to experience persistent thoughts that plagued me and persistent thoughts began to plague me. The former is a wordy version of the latter, woolly in its generality and blunting in its force.

We should note, finally, that our revision deleted the subordinate clause entirely. That was the only right and proper thing to do, in fact, because the original relative clause that plagued me could only use the noun work as its antecedent, which was not logically correct: persistent thoughts plagued the subject, not his work. Here again exactitude helped improve the style. Finding exactly what we mean to say often appears as hairsplitting, but more often than not it is not. Every word must count because every word draws some modicum of mental energy from the reader’s attention. Spend that energy on misdirection, and the reader will tire before understanding what we really wanted to say.

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