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.