Clauses, One More Time

This is my third week in a row writing about clauses. This is the last week. I promise. As I said last week, one secret of clear writing is to express action in clauses. But in our campaign for clarity, some clauses are more useful than others. Independent clauses and adverb clauses express action directly, whereas adjective and noun clauses are more likely to tuck action away. 

I’m going to try to make this discussion as un-technical as I can. Wish me luck.

There are four kinds of clauses:

  • independent clauses
  • adverb clauses
  • adjective clauses
  • noun clauses 

An independent clause, or main clause, can stand alone as a sentence. Here are two independent clauses:

  • The squirrel raids my bird feeder.
  • I am sad.

When you join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), you have a compound sentence:

  • The squirrel raids my bird feeder, and I am sad.
  • The squirrel raids my bird feeder, so I am sad.

An adverb clause looks exactly like a main clause, but it starts with a subordinating conjunction. Here’s a partial list of the subordinating conjunctions:

  • after
  • although
  • as
  • as if
  • as long as
  • as much as
  • as soon as
  • as though
  • because
  • before
  • even
  • even if
  • even though
  • if
  • if only
  • if when
  • if then
  • inasmuch
  • in order that
  • just as
  • lest
  • now
  • now that
  • once
  • provided
  • provided that
  • since
  • so that
  • supposing
  • than
  • that
  • though
  • till
  • unless
  • until
  • when
  • whenever
  • where
  • whereas
  • where if
  • wherever
  • whether
  • which
  • while
  • why

There’s no need to try to memorize that list. Without getting too technical, a subordinating conjunction, like a coordinating conjunction is a word (sometimes a phrase) that allows you to join a clause to another clause in a sentence. However, when you attach a subordinating conjunction to the front of an independent clause, suddenly that clause can no longer stand alone as a sentence. 

So let’s go back to our two independent clauses above, and combine them using a couple of different subordinating conjunctions:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder, I am sad.
  • I am sad because the squirrel raids my bird feeder. 

Those subordinating conjunctions when and because turn the independent clause “The squirrel raids my bird feeder” into a dependent clause that can’t stand alone as a sentence. These are now sentence fragments:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
  • Because the squirrel raids my bird feeder.

But for our purposes, I’m not interested in the differences between independent clauses and adverb clauses. I’m much more interested in the similarities. An adverb clause is simply an independent clause with a subordinating conjunction in front of it. When it comes to writing clear sentences, an adverb clause is as good as an independent clause, and often better, since those subordinating conjunctions offer so many nuances of meaning. 

That leaves adjective clauses and noun clauses. Even though they have a subject-verb nexus, these clause types do not add clarity as readily as independent and adverb clauses do.

Here’s where I’m really in danger of getting overly technical, so I’m going to err on the side of oversimplifying. Adjective and noun clauses start with relative pronouns. Here are the seven most common relative pronouns:

  • who
  • whom
  • that
  • which
  • whose
  • whoever
  • whomever

There are other relative pronouns, but these seven signal the overwhelming majority of adjective and noun clauses. So whenever you see a clause that begins with a w-word or “that,” you probably have an adjective or noun clause. (The w-words “when” and “whenever” are exceptions: they often signal adverb clauses, as in this previous sentence.) An adjective clause acts as an adjective modifying the noun immediately before it, whereas a noun clause acts like a noun, which means it can be a subject, a direct object, an indirect object, an object of a preposition, a complement, or an appositive.

Consider this sentence:

  • The squirrel that raids my bird feeder makes me sad.

The clause “that raids my bird feeder” is an adjective clause modifying “squirrel.” It specifies which squirrel we’re talking about. 

Now consider this sentence:

  • I am angry at whoever has been raiding my bird feeder.

The clause “whoever has been raiding my bird feeder” is a noun clause serving as the object of the preposition “at.” 

Neither the above adjective clause nor the above noun clause is especially egregious. But I do want to show you a couple of sentences that illustrate how adjective and noun clauses can add unnecessary complexity, and how changing those clauses to main clauses and/or adverb clauses can smooth that complexity back out.

Here’s a sentence from a recent fiction workshop:

  • Millie Watson has stacks of ancient photos that she’s eagerly passing around, cautioning us not to touch them with our “sticky fingers.”

There’s nothing disastrous about that sentence. But it could be a little tighter. As we’ve discussed the last couple of weeks, it helps to ask where the real action in a sentence is, and to express that action as a main clause or an adverb clause. In this case, there are two main actions: 1) Millie is passing around photos, and 2) Millie is cautioning people not to touch them with their sticky fingers. But Action 1 is tucked away in an adjective clause (“that she’s eagerly passing around”) and Action 2 is expressed as a participial phrase. The only verb is “has,” which is not an especially interesting verb, given everything else that’s going on here.

Look how much tighter this sentence is when we move one of the main actions into a main clause:

  • Millie Watson eagerly passes a stack of ancient photos around the room, cautioning us not to touch them with our “sticky fingers.”

Here’s another sentence that a recent fiction workshopper worked through:

  • Only the priests cared that Nurbal had been escaping these vigils as long as he’d been a captive of the nomads.

The point of this sentence is especially hard to discern out of context (though this grammar was pretty hard to parse even incontext). But here’s what is going on in this sentence: Nurbal has been skipping out on the religious rituals of his captors (who happen to be nomad-priests of a goddess), but the only result of his truancy has been that the priests have gotten mad; the goddess has never stricken him, though the priests always threaten that she will.

The most interesting action in this sentence–Nurbal ducking out of the vigils–is tucked away in the “that” clause. Let’s bring it out into the light of a main clause:

  • Nurbal had been escaping these vigils for as long as the nomads had held him captive. But the goddess never seemed to care. Only the priests cared.

Greater clarity doesn’t necessarily mean fewer words, as this revision demonstrates. At 27 words, the revision is six words (29%) longer than the 21-word original.

The act of clarifying and simplifying, almost by definition, is the act of translating actions of a sentence into main clauses and/or adverb clauses. This is a skill that will transform your writing. 

Clarifying with Clauses

In last week’s letter, I wrote about all the ways one might communicate action in a sentence besides the subject-verb nexus. As I suggested last week, participial phrases, infinitive phrases, nominalizations, nominative absolutes, gerunds, subordinate clauses, and other grammatical structures can be an efficient way to include extra information in a sentence beyond the main clause. However, clauses–especially independent clauses and adverb clauses–enjoy a privileged status. So I am devoting this week’s letter to clauses.

Who Did What?
Every time a reader encounters a sentence, he is looking to answer one question: Who did what? He may be looking for other information as well, but he always want to know who did what. And who did what (or who is being what) is the essence of every clause. The subject-verb nexus is the sine qua non of every clause, and the clause is the sine qua non of every sentence. Every clause, independent or dependent, has a subject and a verb. That’s about as fundamental as grammar gets.

When I say that the clause enjoys a privileged position, this is what I mean: Even if your reader has no idea what a clause is, he is alert to clauses because a clause is the most natural way of communicating Who did what. When you choose another grammatical structure to express an action, you are asking your reader to translate that structure into a clause. Consider this sentence from last week’s letter, which begins with a participial phrase:

  • Having climbed down the chain, the squirrel raids my bird feeder.

In order to envision the scene, your reader subconsciously translates the participial “Having climbed down the chain” to the clause “The squirrel climbed down the chain.” This is an easy translation for your reader, but you still need to be aware that you are asking a little something of him.

Every time you write a sentence, consider where the real action of that sentence is. And unless you have some good reason to do otherwise, express that action in the main clause of the sentence, aligning the actor and action with a subject and a verb. If your sentence has more than one significant action, it might need more than one clause. Or perhaps you need more than one sentence. Nobody is handing out awards for long sentences.

This sentence from an early draft of a fiction workshopper’s fantasy story helps illustrate what I’m talking about:

  • Fara’s uncle Musa—brother to her father—having visited the cabin of Fara and her father and finding it empty and unsecured, and having ventured with half the valley to the place where the dragon’s body lay, identified her dress and the spear his brother forged.

There is a lot of action in that sentence, isn’t there? 

  • Uncle Musa visited the cabin.
  • He found it empty and unsecured.
  • He ventured to the place where the dragon’s body lay.
  • Half the valley went with him.
  • He identified Mara’s dress and her father’s spear.

But the only clause in this sentence is “Fara’s Uncle Musa identified her dress and the spear his brother forged.” All those other actions are tucked into participial phrases interposed between the subject and the verb of the main clause. 

Here’s a revised version in which the actions are expressed in clauses:

  • When Fara’s Uncle Musa came to the cabin a week later, he found it empty and unsecured. Afraid for his brother and niece, he summoned half the residents of the valley, and together they ventured to the place where the dragon’s body lay. There he identified Fara’s dress and the spear that his brother had forged.

One of the beautiful byproducts of separating actions out into clauses is that it is easier to see where another little detail would help the reader. Equally important, now you have plenty of room to include those details without over-complicating your sentence. In my rewrite above, I added a few details that seemed to add texture to the stripped-down actions: “a week later,” “afraid for his brother and niece,” and “he summoned half the residents.”

The original sentence could not have absorbed those extra details. But when that one tangled sentence became three straightforward sentences, there was plenty of room to add relevant detail. It’s as if we’ve gone into an overgrown patch of day lilies and separated them so that they can bloom and put out more foliage.

I had planned to get into the differences (and relative merits) between independent clauses, adverb clauses, adjective clauses, and noun clauses, but that’s going to have to wait until next week. I’ll try to make it as un-technical as I can. Wish me luck.

On the Verbing of Nouns

A couple of weeks ago, a reader suggested that I devote an issue of The Habit Weekly to the verbing of nouns and the nouning of verbs. Not a bad idea, I said, except that I have devoted earlier issues to the nouning of verbs (or nominalization), so this one will mostly be about verbification.
Especially in or hyper-technological era, the verbing of nouns seems to be happening at record speed. Email started out life as a noun. In the nineties we used to say things like, “I’ll send you an email,” in which the noun email was the direct object of the verb send. It wasn’t long at all, however, before we started using email as a verb: “I’ll email you.”
[Bonus question for grammar nerds: What grammatical function does ‘you’serve in the sentence, “I’ll email you”? If I say, “I’ll send you an email,” ‘you’ is an indirect object. I’ll send the email (direct object) to you (indirect object). In the sentence “I’ll email you,” it’s as if we have an implied direct object; ‘you’ is still behaving like an indirect object, even though it looks like a direct object. What I really mean is something along the lines of “I’ll email you (indirect object) an email (direct object).”]

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Who and Whom: A User’s Guide

For such a small word, “whom” causes a lot of heartache. On the one hand, “whom” can feel like an affectation—the verbal equivalent of holding out one’s pinkie while holding a teacup. On the other hand, it’s easy to get “whom” wrong—the verbal equivalent of holding out one’s pinkie while spilling tea all over one’s pinafore.

In today’s episode of The Habit, I will attempt to provide a straightforward answer to the question of when to use who (or whoever) and when to use whom (or whomever). Unfortunately, the problem is complicated. We will start with the distinction between the nominative and the objective case (which comes naturally for a native speaker). From there we will get into the grammar of adjective clauses and noun clauses (which comes much less naturally).

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Congratulations Ensued: On Nominalization

Here’s a quick tip that can improve your writing almost immediately: for every sentence you write, make sure you can say where the real action is. What are the actions and who are the actors. Who is doing what? Then, make it your default to express the actions as verbs and the actors as the subjects of those verbs.

If this advice seems self-evident, it’s not. True, we all learn that verbs are action words, but the subject-verb nexus is only one of many ways that the English language allows us to communicate action. (Consider the fact that the word action is not a verb but a noun). I am not insisting that you always express actions as verbs and actors and subjects, only that you make it your habit to compose your sentences that way unless you have a reason not to.

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Writing Dialogue that Doesn’t Sound Written

One of the most common criticisms of bad dialogue is that it “sounds written,” which is to say that it sounds more like the way people write than the way people talk. This creates a dilemma for the dialogue-writer, if not an existential crisis: your job is to write something that sounds as if you didn’t write it. Add to that the fact that you spent your whole career trying to learn how not to write like you talk, and you have a recipe for heartache.So how do you make the people in your stories talk the way people talk in the world God made? I have written on this topic in earlier issues of The Habit, so I will quickly recapitulate the big ideas and direct you to those letters. Then we will hunker down and talk about some practicalities with regard to sentence-structure and word-choice.

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Connecting in Real Time: Some Thoughts on Sentence Structure

One of my favorite paintings is Landscape with Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Breughel. In the foreground is a farmer’s field on a seaside cliff, and a farmer plowing the field behind a horse. In the middle ground, on the right, a big merchant ship is sailing on a beautiful blue-green sea in the direction of a crowded port city. In the background, other tall ships sail across the sea.

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