The Trembling Limb

People who thumb their nose at grammar seem to forget one of the most entertaining exercises, at least in my mind, in all of primary education. This was the drawing of the sentence tree. I will not deny that the instruction was rammed down our throats, usually by a kindly older woman with a remorseless heart. Yet I was intrigued by the sticks that had to be drawn to different clauses. Which words attached to which sticks?

These days, as an editor, what my mind retains foremost is the slanted line. That was drawn from the main stem of the sentence to a subordinate clause. In today’s prose, the elaborate arabesques of the Victorian era have mostly been stripped down to a leaner, more direct style of writing. In any given sentence, the chances the writer will compose more than one subordinate clause from a main stem is slight. “Approaching the woods, we veered off on a faintly marked path.” A subordinate clause is mainly used these days to vary the rhythm of the sentences. Even a three-sentence run of subject-verb, subject-verb can be tiresome.

In the process the participle (-ing) has become a more important part of speech. With some frequency I see authors spitting out participles as though they were just another tool in the arsenal, equivalent in force to an active verb. Yet that isn’t true. I know because the slanted line in the sentence tree tells me so. A participial phrase is a limb off the main trunk. Its use as a modifier means it is relegated to the function of an adjective or adverb, and that’s further down the list than a verb or even a noun.

That’s why, when you are choosing what to emphasize in a sentence, a participle should be your second choice. While “approaching” is useful in the sentence above, it occupies only a supporting role to “veered.” The active verb does the hardest work of the sentence, implying the random, winding nature of forest paths in general, not to mention a certain element of danger, since we live in a world of sidewalks and dotted lines on roads. What if the sentence read: “We approached the woods, veering off onto a faintly marked path.” Now the path is a secondary element; the boring part—getting to the woods—occupies the prime real estate. So the sentence tree isn’t just a hoary relic. After you write a sentence, you might want to think of those slanted lines of yore.

Exercise: As you review your manuscript, keep an eye out for participles. When you find one, cross-check it with the main verb of the sentence. Which is stronger? Which more forcefully carries the main action of the sentence forward? What happens many times is that you sense the need to vary sentence structure automatically, and what you originally intended to be the main verb in yet another subject-verb sentence ends up as a participle. Why don’t you try flipping clauses, making the subordinate into the main clause and vice versa?

“Easy writing makes hard reading.”
—Ernest Hemingway

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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