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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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.

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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.

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Energy

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.

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