Love and Assent

While reading Wendell Berry’s story collection, That Distant Land, I was struck by this description of a character named Martha Elizabeth Coulter:

She was a woman always near to smiling, sometimes to laughter. Her face, it seems, had been made to smile. It was a face that assented wholly to the being of whatever or whomever she looked at.

I don’t know whether Wendell Berry is a student of Thomas Aquinas, but that description of Martha Elizabeth as a person who “assented wholly to the being” of the people and things around her sounds like the kind of thing Aquinas would say.

That idea of assent is key to Aquinas’s understanding of love. And, as I will argue, it’s a major reason to write; in fact, assent may be the writer’s most important reason of all.

I’ll be paraphrasing and quoting from Josef Pieper, who was himself paraphrasing Aquinas. (The page numbers below refer to Faith, Hope, and Love, which collects three of Pieper’s long essays.)

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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.
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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.

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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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