An Intricate Introduction

Here’s an example of an imaginative way to open a serious discussion. This is the first paragraph of the chapter entitled “The Age of Show Business” in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, an intelligent and thoughtful commentary on modern culture, published originally in 1985 and still in print—because it’s still relevant—today.

A dedicated graduate student I know returned to his small apartment the night before a major examination only to discover that his solitary lamp was broken beyond repair. After a whiff of panic, he was able to restore both his equanimity and his chances for a satisfactory grade by turning on the television set, turning off the sound, and with his back to the set, using its light to read important passages on which he was to be tested. This is one use of television—as a source of illuminating the printed page.

The thesis of the chapter, the point that Postman will ultimately make, is that “television does not extend or amplify literate culture.” He wants to stand in opposition to the idea, common at the time, that television could promote literacy and distribute its benefits to ever more people. Now that’s a heady subject, and the author decided to begin with this interesting (and perhaps a little snarky?) anecdote before beginning his sustained argument against the vaunted benefits of television.

Manuals of writing regularly tell us to find an interesting way to introduce our subject, and a story of using a television screen to light the printed page of a book is certainly an interesting innovation. But how does this unusual use of a television set make for an interesting introduction to a chapter about television and literacy? Understanding the connection here can open up possibilities for us as we begin our own expository compositions and as we read the work of others more closely.

Language (and some would say the arts more largely) works by putting things together, seeing one thing, seeing another, and then finding how the two are related in some way. When we compose a sentence, we are putting together (the Latin componere means exactly that) words and the associations they carry. But composing, of course, is more than just a matter of randomly picking and placing this word and that to form sentences. The images we choose must have some characteristic in common that will open us onto new meaning. When you bring the reader into another world, as Postman does here, you surprise them—and surprise is always interesting.

So in this opening anecdote, we have as principal images the words television, light, and printed page, and of these three, the word light is the common bond that bridges the other two, because a television emits the physical phenomenon of light, and the printed page, a book, can emit the light of knowledge. When Postman says, then, that the student used the light of the television only as a means to read, he is suggesting we think more deeply about the value of the mere light that television produces; it is, he is saying, only instrumental, and not the real light of knowledge that will enlighten us: we think the light of television is the light of knowledge, but it is not.

In reflecting imaginatively on the meaning of light, Postman defeats our expectation of the way something is commonly used, and thus turns our attention away from the object that everyone is saying is valuable, television, and directs it to what more and more people, apparently, believe is of diminishing value, the book. And that is right where he wants our attention to be, as he is about to launch into an extended argument in favor of reading, not watching.

To look so closely at the images we are reading or writing is to see different levels of reference. It seems to be intrinsically interesting to all of us as human beings to see a point of connection in our experience, to find in common things an unsuspected meaning that will transpose our experience into another register. And when we find such connections, the world we encounter in language becomes richer, more intricate—and more interesting.

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Apposition

When I was in grade school, English class became the Language Arts. None of us really knew why, but many of our parents weren’t happy: just get on with teaching them the basics, they said, so they will know how to read and write. The change, though, may have harbored a defensible reason, and one that can help us write better.

To study a language means more than mastering its basics of grammar. It also means studying logic and rhetoric, which in less grandiose terms we can call critical thinking and style. Grammar, critical thinking, and style (which together are traditionally called the trivium) can never really be separated; we can isolate them and study each extensively on its own, but when we sit down to practice these three arts of language, we have to balance and orchestrate them in every sentence we write.

One place where the art of logic is demonstrated is in what grammar calls apposition. If I tell you, for example, that my friend Tom is a lawyer, the substance of what I want to communicate, because it is the logical subject of the clause, is that my friend is a lawyer; the proper noun Tom then immediately follows friend in order to identify the particular friend I’m talking about, on the assumption (sometimes precarious, I’ll admit) that I have more than one friend. The term apposition, derived from Latin, means exactly that: put next to.

The critical thinking is seen here in the way in which I attach Tom to friend in the sentence. My purpose is to define the friend I’m referring to, so I place the name Tom immediately after friend, with no commas intervening. By thus cementing the two words together, I restrict you, my reader, from thinking in this context about any other friend I might have than Tom. This is called, appropriately enough, restrictive apposition.

But what happens if the scene changes and I tell you, Chicago, a major midwestern city, sits on Lake Michigan. Now my purpose can’t be to define Chicago, but rather simply to describe it more fully; to do this, I isolate the amplifying phrase, a major midwestern city, with commas. And because there is no need here to restrict the reader from thinking about which Chicago I’m referring to (for in the context there is only one), this construction is called nonrestrictive apposition.

Restrictive apposition, then, defines a term and never uses commas, and nonrestrictive apposition describes a term and always uses commas. This terminology might appear arcane, but because it involves making clear distinctions, which is the work of logic, apposition is concerned with one of the important requirements of well-written English.

It was the British author C.S. Lewis (there it is again: C.S. Lewis is in restrictive apposition to British author because there are certainly many British authors) who said that grammar teaches us how to talk and logic teaches us how to talk sense. These two arts of language, together with style, work in complement whenever we write and speak with force and clarity.

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The Cumulative Sentence

In an earlier post (Reading Closely), I made mention of what I think is a finely constructed sentence in Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea. Its design is called cumulative, and understanding its construction can help us build our own sentences more thoughtfully. Here is the sentence again:

In the quiet of that place even the voice of the surf is reduced to a whispered echo and the sounds of the forest are but the ghosts of sound—the faint sighing of evergreen needles in the moving air; the creaks and heavier groans of half-fallen trees resting against their neighbors and rubbing bark against bark; the light rattling fall of a dead branch broken under the feet of a squirrel and sent bouncing and ricocheting earthward.

Sentence structures are usually categorized as simple, compound, or complex (sometimes also, and I think unnecessarily, compound-complex) according to the number and kind of clauses they comprise. If you read Carson’s sentence slowly (and to comprehend it vividly you almost have to), the trunk or vine of the sentence, so to speak, is at the beginning, with the two clauses voice of the surf is and sounds of the forest are. In structure, then, the sentence is compound, and from this main stem grow the branches of the sentence.

This compound structure roots the sentence well, for the 48 words after the hyphen (almost two-thirds of the sentence) ramify from the trunk in an array of three subordinate elements to detail the forest’s “ghosts of sound.” The first limb after the hyphen is the noun sighing, with modifiers before and after it until the first semicolon. The second limb is more substantial, composed at heart of two nouns, creaks and groans, and extending until the second semicolon with two participial phrases, resting and rubbing. And finally the third limb, again essentially a noun, fall, followed by another noun, branch, modified by a flourish of participial adjectives: broken and sent and bouncing and ricocheting.

It is important, then, to see this sentence in two main parts: everything before the hyphen and everything after. What precedes the hyphen is its compound structure, but what follows the hyphen defines its design. When a sentence begins with an independent clause (here there are two) and continues with only subordinate elements (here words and phrases), the design is called cumulative, because these elements accumulate or pile up onto the main assertions of the statement. (The term derives from the Latin cumulus, a heap or mass of something; we see it in the name given to those beautiful, massive summer clouds called cumulus clouds.) Only clauses assert thoughts, because only clauses join a subject with a predicate. But words and phrases as subordinate elements can suggest or intimate thoughts, avoiding a tone that can seem too pounding, and giving us a way to amend the context more richly.

And lest you think all this pertains only to writers like Carson, we can see the same cumulative design in something as simple as this: My kids had such a great time at the beach today, laughing and giggling and running everywhere. As involved as analysis can sometimes become, theory and practice are ultimately complementary, and together can help us write with a voice that is both natural and intelligent.

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Revision Work: Correlatives

I asked a student recently to write about something he enjoys doing. He returned with a paragraph on cooking, and here (with his permission) are his final two sentences:

Although cooking seems effortless, it is quite challenging. To achieve the right texture, not undercooked or overcooked, not only one needs to manage the timing precisely, but needs to be inventive—and both requires years of practice and experience.

The first sentence here poses no problem, and I include it mainly for context. But notice how it provides the source idea for the second sentence, which then builds out nicely from it: the first sentence ends with the idea that cooking is challenging, and the second sentence begins with an illustration of that challenge. This is a good example of what I have called backstitching, threading ideas sentence to sentence in order to ensure coherence in a paragraph.

It is the second sentence, though, that requires a closer look. The writer is asserting that the good cook needs two things: to manage timing precisely and to be inventive, and that’s interesting because we don’t usually associate being precise with being imaginative, which is what I take him to mean by inventive. He has written the transitive verb needs twice, and given each instance its direct object.

We can revise this sentence according to two principles: parallelism and concision. Grammatical structures are parallel when they are composed of the same syntax. The two direct objects of needs are both infinitive phrases, and that does indeed meet in part the definition of parallelism. But the writer is also employing here what are called correlative conjunctions, words that work in tandem to keep corresponding ideas together (either…or is probably the most common such pair). If correlatives are not positioned correctly, they undermine the parallelism they are meant to support.

The first of the pair is not only and the second is but, which we should correct to but also. Correlatives work by expectation. When readers see the phrase not only, they know with certainty that a but also will be coming along shortly. That expectation is parallelism at work. But the trick with correlatives is to place them immediately next to the elements they’re coordinating; otherwise, the parallelism slips apart. Thus: one needs not only to manage the timing precisely, but also needs to be inventive. And with that, we’ve realigned the spine of the sentence.

Next we turn to concision. Less is almost always more in writing, so when we find, as we do here, two instances of the same verb, we should ask whether we can combine the two structures into one: so instead of one needs not only to manage the timing precisely, but also needs to be inventive, we write one needs not only to manage the timing precisely, but also to be inventive. That is the second adjustment, according to the principle of concision. Only one minor change remains.

The pronoun both, which refers to the two things an accomplished cook needs, is plural, so its verb, requires, should be corrected to the plural require (because a verb agrees in number with its subject). Thus our complete revision reads like this: To achieve the right texture, not undercooked or overcooked, one needs not only to manage the timing precisely, but also to be inventive—and both require years of practice and experience.

As does grammar.

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Reading Closely

I have quoted from the nature writer Rachel Carson before. Here is another passage from her The Edge of the Sea. She is describing a place she knows on the eastern seacoast of the United States:

One of my own favorite approaches to a rocky seacoast is by a rough path through an evergreen forest that has its own peculiar enchantment. It is usually an early morning tide that takes me along that forest path, so that the light is still pale and fog drifts in from the sea beyond. It is almost a ghost forest, for among the living spruce and balsam are many dead trees—some still erect, some sagging earthward, some lying on the floor of the forest. All the trees, the living and the dead, are clothed with green and silver crusts of lichens. Tufts of the bearded lichen or old man’s beard hang from the branches like bits of sea mist tangled there. Green woodland mosses and a yielding carpet of reindeer moss cover the ground. In the quiet of that place even the voice of the surf is reduced to a whispered echo and the sounds of the forest are but the ghosts of sound—the faint sighing of evergreen needles in the moving air; the creaks and heavier groans of half-fallen trees resting against their neighbors and rubbing bark against bark; the light rattling fall of a dead branch broken under the feet of a squirrel and sent bouncing and ricocheting earthward.

I find this passage quite beautiful: its rich detail, its depth of vision, its demand, even, for close and careful and inevitably slow reading. To appreciate something means to appraise its value (the words derive from price and praise), but if that is not to be a merely subjective enterprise (it’s good because I like it), we have to be able to point to something objective—its form or structure—that may account for the effect it has on us. Understanding the structure of a sentence or paragraph (or any other art form) helps assure us that we have not retreated to our own private world of likes and dislikes, and cut ourselves off from values that hold us together.

Structure, then, carries meaning to us. Appreciating something like this paragraph by Carson means being moved by it and understanding in some degree how it is that we are moved. What is the writer actually doing here to bring an experience forward in my mind? To ask such a question is not to explain the experience away, as if seeing her choice of words and understanding sentence structure will answer why it is affecting. Rather, recognizing those devices deepens our experience of the meaning, making us conscious of both the what and the how.

Notice, for example, how the paragraph conveys the idea to us that the seacoast is alive, that it confronts the writer almost as another person might. Trees are clothed, groan, and have neighbors; voices and echoes are heard, and the entire scene is personified by a vivid, concrete vocabulary. And then there is the magisterial cumulative last sentence of 79 words, the three phrases after the hyphen putting detail to the ghosts of sound, as if some intelligence we can’t see but only hear is present there.

All of which is to say that we know something and value it (good or bad) through the form in which it comes to us. So we are well advised to examine more closely a paragraph or even a sentence that touches us. If it has made us pause a moment, then we should read it again, looking closely at the structure to find out how it had such an effect. But all this analyzing should not lead us to conclude that our original response was manufactured; rather, it should deepen our appreciation—and wonder, really—that the art of language can contain and pass on to us the actuality and insight of someone else’s direct and living experience.

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