Analyzing a Sentence, Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, we learned that analyzing a sentence involves two distinct projects: understanding the form of what we’re analyzing and determining the syntax of that form. Form means shape, and there are only three grammatical forms: word, phrase, and clause. Syntax means grammatical function, and when we determine the part of speech the form we’re examining is acting as, we know its syntax and our analysis is complete.

So why in the world would one do all this? For much the same reason that trainers isolate muscle groups or break down complex movements for athletes. Theory is the complement of practice; it’s what we do off field consciously in order to perform better on field unconsciously. The aim is to transform the intellectual understanding of how a sentence works into second-nature action: we write and revise more insightfully and efficiently by virtue of once having understood consciously just how words work together to produce meaning. We absorb that knowledge into our mental muscles, so to speak, and we find ourselves writing ever closer to our goal.

To demonstrate all this, let’s look at this fairly straightforward compound sentence: Chicago has many beautiful parks, and we go to Lake Michigan in the summertime. Let’s assume that for one reason or another, we can’t really say why yet, the sentence isn’t doing what we want it to do. We don’t suspect a grammatical mistake anywhere, but it’s not expressing what we perceive or think or feel about Chicago and its parks and the summertime. Something isn’t working, and that something is some form that we have put somewhere in the sentence. So we begin first—always, always—by identifying the number of clauses in the sentence, because each clause must be analyzed separately. We see plainly enough that this sentence has two clauses (Chicago has and we go), but let’s say that in isolating the clauses, we suspect the problem lies in the second one. So that’s where we decide to concentrate our attention.

The second clause in full is we go to Lake Michigan in the summertime. First, the forms: one clause (we go) and two phrases (to Lake Michigan and in the summertime). We’re analyzing, in other words, three forms, not eight words, and that realization should make our work more manageable. We don’t suspect any problem with the simple clause we go, so we turn our attention more closely to the two phrases sitting next to each other. A phrase is named by the kind of word it begins with, and so we can now be more precise in identifying each here as a prepositional phrase, because the words to and in are prepositions. Prepositions are, of course, one of the eight parts of speech, but in naming these two forms prepositional phrases, we’re not yet accounting for their syntax; we’re just identifying each more precisely so that we can revise more exactly.

A prepositional phrase in its entirety (not any one word in it, but the whole phrase regarded as one unit of words) can act as an adjective or an adverb, and when we now go on to ask how a form acts, what grammatical role it is playing in a sentence, we know we’ve passed in our analysis from identifying a form to understanding its syntax. Adjectives describe nouns, but neither of the prepositional phrases in our sentence is doing that; the two nouns we see, Lake Michigan and summertime, are objects of their respective prepositions and make up part of the phrases themselves. So these two prepositional phrases must be acting as adverbs, and that becomes certain when we realize that to Lake Michigan answers where? and in the summertime answers when?, both adverbial questions. So this second clause of the sentence has two adverbs, each in the form of a prepositional phrase—what we can call, in short, two adverbial phrases.

And what does that get us? It may just be that what we really wanted to suggest was that Chicago’s parks are beautiful at any time of year, even in winter, in which case the second adverbial phrase, in the summertime, could be moved closer to the verb to suggest that contrast more vividly: and in the summertime we go to Lake Michigan, or even and we go in the summertime to Lake Michigan. Just where that form might ultimately best be placed is less the point here than that we know what we’re moving and why we’re moving it. That knowledge is the knowledge worth having when we’re revising, not necessarily consciously at hand, but in the back of our minds somewhere, directing our attention and suggesting, so quietly, new ideas and their expression in new forms.

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Analyzing a Sentence, Part One

I am convinced that one reason so many of us shy away from grammar is that we don’t know how to look at a sentence—not read a sentence, of course, but analyze it. What exactly does it mean to analyze a sentence, and how does analysis help us write a better one?

When we get ourselves into a particularly rational frame of mind, when we’re not singing or dreaming but talking and thinking, we are looking for the parts of something, the pieces or sections that make something what it appears to be. That’s what an engineer does in examining a structure, and it’s what a writer does in revising a draft. We are trying, in other words, to loosen something apart, and that is exactly what the word analyze means, to loosen or dissolve something into its elements. Analysis is the opposite of composition, the putting together of something, and the two complement each other. We analyze when something’s gone wrong so we can rearrange, or compose, the elements differently.

There are only three elements in grammar: word, phrase, and clause. That might sound strange, because aren’t sentences really what writing is all about? Certainly so, but grammatical analysis is interested in what makes a sentence what it is, what gives it the shape we read and what accounts for whether it is effective or not in communicating what we want to say. That means we have to look past appearances and into the elemental structure of a sentence. We are looking, that is to say, for what is called form, the three elemental forms of word, phrase, and clause. A word is the symbol of an idea, a phrase is a group of words, and a clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb.

To illustrate what we mean by form, let’s analyze this jumbly sentence: He had related to me that flying was one of the greatest sources of his anxiety in life. Let’s imagine for a moment that we wrote this sentence in our first draft. It arrived as it was dressed: casual in its eighteen words, but a bit self-conscious too inasmuch as the subject had related instead of simply told. Those eighteen words are arranged in four phrases (not counting the verb phrase) and two clauses, and if we simply put parentheses around the phrases and a vertical bar between the subject and verb of each clause, our quick analysis would look like this: He | had related (to me) that flying | was one (of the greatest sources) (of his anxiety) (in life).

We can see more easily now that the casual appearance of the sentence might very well lie in the three phrases set up next to one another in the second half of the sentence. Too many phrases are a symptom of imprecision, the sworn enemy of good style, and when we find that we have written a succession of phrases, it could be that we are overwriting, that we’re saying what doesn’t need to be said. And so it is with the last phrase, in life. If flying was one of the greatest sources of his anxiety, where else would his anxiety be but in his life? With that obvious realization, we simply strike the last phrase entirely: He had related to me that flying was one of the greatest sources of his anxiety. And if we keep to that prosecutorial questioning, was flying the source of his anxiety, or was it really the anxiety itself (understanding anxiety in this context to mean a fear)? And so another revision presents itself: He had related to me that flying was one of his greatest anxieties. And if we then include our earlier observation that had related simply means told, we can revise the sentence even one step further, unwriting yet another phrase: He told me that flying was one of his greatest anxieties.

Identifying the forms of a sentence can offer us ways to revise our work, but form really works together with syntax, the grammatical role that a form is playing in a particular sentence. Syntax involves the arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses, and that brings us close to composition, the way a sentence ultimately presents itself to the reader. There’s much to say about syntax, and we’ll look at that half of grammatical analysis in Part Two of this post next time.

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Time Then and Now

Here is a short passage that can help us review briefly the tenses of verbs in English. The term tense refers to the time when the action of a verb occurs, and you would think there wouldn’t be much to talk about because there’s only past, present, and future. But as these three sentences will illustrate, our perception of time weaves itself subtly through our memory, and what we call time can have many fine shades of distinction. In this passage, a father is talking to his young son: I had explained to him that the sun always rises in the east. But he told me no, and said he was sure it always comes out over there, pointing to where it was just then high in the sky to the south. “It doesn’t move, it just shines,” he said.

Let’s begin with this quick overview. English has six tenses, and what we know as past, present, and future fall into two large groups called simple and perfect (the term perfect means complete, or finished). There is a simple present, a simple past, and a simple future, and there is a present perfect, a past perfect, and a future perfect. The verb rise in our passage, for example, would look like this in these six tenses: the sun rises, rose, and will rise; and the sun has risen, had risen, and will have risen. One sure way to recognize a perfect tense is by seeing some form of the verb have, which always serves as an auxiliary verb to construct those three tenses.

If we examine, then, the verbs in the first sentence of our illustration, we find had explained and rises, and according to the scheme of tenses we just reviewed, we know that had explained is past perfect and rises is simple present. Because time can be so fickle, it is important to coordinate the tenses in a sentence accurately. The rational frame of mind we are in when we think and write does not like change; it wants stability and coordination above all else, and that means we have to be aware not only of chronological time (the real time of yesterday, today, and tomorrow), but of relative time as well.

The past perfect tense in the clause I had explained points, for example, not merely to an event in the past, but to an event that occurred even before another event in the past. That is the special function of the past perfect; it is a relative tense, and that means that it has to work in coordination with another verb in the past tense. But where is that other verb in this first sentence of the passage? Since we have already identified the only other verb in the sentence (rises) as simple present, we have to look elsewhere for the coordinating verb, and it is not until we read the first verb of the next sentence, told, that we find the verb with which had explained works. The verb told is simple past, and that independent verb holds the time of the passage together.

But why, then, is the verb rises in the simple present? Shouldn’t this too be in the simple past if the coordination of tense is so important? To say that the sun always rises in the east is not meant to point to an event currently underway in the present moment; it means instead to say something about the way the world is constructed, to indicate an enduring fact of our experience. Present tense verbs, in other words, can point to what is always the case, not just to what happens to be a fact at the present moment. And that’s what gives the little boy’s retort a little zest: with all his own present tenses (comes out, doesn’t move, just shines), he’s challenging the father’s rational and matter-of-fact world with an imaginative world of his own, leaving us to wonder just where the line really is between the two.

Recognizing the changes in tense across a passage, then, is not just a matter of grammatical correctness; it can also be a way to see other more subtle meanings that might be folded into a passage. And that might be enough to make the complicated topic of verb tense worth the figuring out.

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To Whom?

We have been on the topic of prepositions lately, and I have been asked to explain just what the preposition to is doing in a sentence like this: Who did what to whom? There’s quite a lot going on in that little five-word sentence, and a brief examination of it will remind us of some important points, both grammatical and rhetorical.

Prepositions, we remember, are those minute pieces of the language (linguists call them a kind of particle) that show the connection or relationship between things (the term thing in both grammar and philosophy refers to any entity whatsoever: a person, an object, or even an event). Our five-word question involves three things: someone acting (who), something done (what), and someone receiving what was done by someone else (whom). The first, someone acting, marks the subject of the sentence; the second, something done, marks the direct object of the verb did; and the third indicates what is called the indirect object, the thing not doing or done, but being done to. It’s this indirect object that concerns us most here.

Let’s reflect for a moment on just what it means grammatically to do something. If I do something to someone, if I congratulate or if I thank a friend of mine, the action of thanking or congratulating is thought to be going out from me, so to speak, and landing directly on my friend; the noun friend then would be termed the direct object of the verb to mark this target of the deed—I congratulate my friend, I thank my friend. Verbs of action that work this way are called transitive, and recognizing them is a very big deal in revising our writing, because it’s our job to be as straightforward as we can about who did what to whom.

Now where there’s action, there’s a scene, and a scene can involve someone other than, or in addition to, the direct object, the direct target, of the action. So in our original question, Who did what to whom?, the pronoun what is the direct object of the transitive verb did, and the pronoun whom is the object of the preposition to. A preposition and its object together form a prepositional phrase, and when a prepositional phrase begins with to or for, its object stands as the indirect object of the verb. The transitive verb did, then, has both a direct object (what) and an indirect object (whom). We can see the same thing more easily in this declarative sentence: I sent a letter to the company. The direct object of the transitive verb sent is letter, and the indirect object is marked by the noun company, the object of the preposition to.

But just here is where all this theory gets practical. If prepositional phrases with to or for can indicate an indirect object, that indirect object can also be written without the preposition—if (and only if) it is placed before the direct object. So instead of I sent a letter to the company, we could write I sent the company a letter, thereby avoiding a prepositional phrase and tightening the statement. The rule, then, is if a verb has both a direct and indirect object, the indirect object must precede the direct if the indirect is being conveyed without a prepositional phrase. (Some grammars, particularly the more traditional ones, call the indirect object a dative, employing the term used in Latin grammar to indicate a remote object, that for the benefit of which something is happening.)

And one more rule, which will take us to the question of the style, or rhetoric, of our original example. Why to whom and not to who? Because the object of a preposition must be formally in the objective case, and whom is the objective form of the pronoun who. To hew to that rule is to compose a higher diction, which is appropriate in certain circumstances and inappropriate in others. So could we ask, Who did what to who? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. And that ambiguity shouldn’t annoy us as much as remind us that language always involves others, and that our relationship with others changes like everything else. Are there rights and wrongs? Of course. Are there rights and wrongs always? Of course not. And just where that line lies is up to you to decide.

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Never-Ending Prepositions

Winston Churchill, famous for his dogged resolve as Prime Minister of Britain during World War II, was once scolded by his secretary (or so the story goes) for ending a sentence with a preposition. His commanding reply was, That is something up with which I shall not put. The tale, tall or not, illustrates an entrenched belief in what the scholars say is really a popular superstition—and the Prime Minister apparently knew it.

Humor and analysis seem at odds most of the time. To explain a quip is to miss the point, but there is something to learn here if we look into just what point Churchill was trying to make with his retort. We might have expected him to reply, That is something I shall not put up with, and except for the use of shall instead of will (a further topic only the innocent would tread lightly into), that response would have sounded more natural to our ears. Therein, of course, lies the joke: the formality of the reply belies the formal authority of the grammatical rule, which presumes to so stand on correctness that it overreaches and tumbles down.

Prepositions, we know, are one of the eight parts of speech, that interpretive scheme that boxes every word of a language according to its grammatical function in a sentence. Prepositions are pre-positioned, that is, they are placed, or positioned, before their object, the noun or pronoun they work with. Their role is to put their object into some logical relation to a noun previously occurring in the sentence. If I say, for example, that houses with black roofs are hotter in summer, the preposition with is meant to connect its object black roofs with the noun houses through the logical idea of accompaniment (the two things are found together), which is what the preposition with means here. This is the way prepositions usually work in English, and it’s a construction, and terminology, the language inherited from Latin.

But English is not Latin, no matter how strongly that classical language has influenced its construction. Scholars will speak of the instinct a language has for expressing its perceptions, and against holding too strictly to the rule that an object should follow its preposition, they will point to the importance of recognizing that “those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are ‘inelegant’ are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards” (Margaret Nicholson, A Dictionary of American-English Usage, Oxford, 1957, p. 445).

The point, certainly, is not simply to abandon the established and regular construction, but to recognize that English allows for varying diction, that we may fashion the language in ways appropriate to the circumstances for which we are writing or in which we are speaking. On the line between casual at one extreme and formal at the other, the rule that one should never end a sentence with a preposition stands on the formal or proper side, as Churchill’s riposte illustrates. And sometimes we do indeed want to be formal, as the occasion requires. But sometimes, too, it’s a bit odd to dress formally for a cup of coffee with a friend, and so English has other linguistic resources to help us convey the shades of meaning we have in mind.

It’s all an interesting question, really, because it forces us to think about just what we mean by a rule, whether a rule, or law, of grammar or physics or design. A rule is a measure, but a measure of what?

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