It’s tempting to jump right in and just tell you about the things that a) people are asking me about, and b) I see come up most often in manuscripts. But I believe that understanding the whys and wherefores of a thing not only helps you to make the best judgement calls, it also makes the rules (even where you choose not to obey them for stylistic reasons) easier to remember. I could tell you that one of the uses of a semi-colon is to join two independent clauses, but if you’re anything like me, that’s just gonna make your eyes glaze over at the impenetrability of an unfamiliar language.
So, we’re going to talk a bit about the nuts and bolts before we get on to the big headliner pieces, like when you should use a semi-colon, as opposed to a colon or a comma or a full-stop. There will be thrills, there will be chills*, but not quite yet. Like I said in my first post, this is all about demystifying grammar and spelling and what constitutes good style.
Today, what I’m going to be talking about are the main ways that we divide things up. What are the chunks of things that we use when we’re writing? Clauses, sentences, paragraphs… One of the really unhelpful things that teachers can say to pupils trying to master these basic building blocks is that a clause should be ‘just one thought’, or a sentence should be ‘just one thought’, or that a paragraph should be ‘just one thought’. Teachers say things like this because they don’t want to confuse you with technical terms, and because, from a certain point of view, all of these statements are true. The trouble is that the way in which we’re using the word ‘thought’ is vague. With my philosophy hat on, I know that the idea of singling out a single ‘thought’ is something of a ludicrous fool’s errand – the concept is vague, and our brains don’t work like that. If you read and write enough, then you do get a kind of a sense of what it is for a sentence to be ‘just one thought’ as opposed to a paragraph being ‘just one thought’. But the vagueness of this understanding is such that when you come to a moment when you’re not sure if you need a comma just there, if what you’ve written should be one sentence or two, if your paragraph needs splitting up, you’re just not able to make a decision with confidence.
So, what I’m gonna be talking about today is how to divide things up.
We’re not going to delve too deep into clauses in this first round. There are lots of different types of clauses – independent clauses, subjunctive clauses, dependent clauses, and many more – don’t worry about learning all that just yet. The important thing to get behind is the basic structure of a clause. So, let’s have some definitions:
The essential nature of a clause is that it should have a subject… and a predicate
– The New Fowler’s Modern English, Third Edition, R W Burchfield (ed.)
Wonderful. Now, what’s a “subject”? What’s a “predicate”? Well, just as there are different types of clauses, there are different types of subject – Wikipedia has a nice table of the different types of subject – but don’t worry about the niceties too much. The main thing to remember is that the subject is what the clause is about, and the predicate tells us something about the subject. We also sometimes say that it ‘modifies’ the subject. Typically, the predicate is formed of a verb and an object. So, another way of describing a clause is to say that it’s something that has a subject, a verb, and an object (this is what Grammar Girl goes by).
I know, I know, more terms. What’s a verb, then? It’s sometimes called a ‘doing word’. In fact, ‘to do’ is a super interesting verb, as its function is to stand in the place of any other verb. Like, if I’m not sure whether you’re touching your toes or tying your shoelaces, I might say: ‘What’s she doing?’. The wonderful word ‘do’ allows me to ask about your activity whilst not even knowing what it is. The downside of this is that to define a verb as a ‘doing word’ is to define it by reference to a particular verb whose function is to stand in place of other verbs, which is circular, and thus not very helpful. Another way of putting it is to say that it’s an action word. Verbs, then, relate subjects to objects, in the sense that the verb is the action the subject is taking on the object.
I love you
I = subject | love = verb | you = object
So in this sense we can understand the subject as the thing that acts, and the object as the thing that is acted upon, whilst the verb is the action. Note that action, here, doesn’t have to be physical action. In one sense, there’s nothing I’m physically doing when I love you. I might be sitting perfectly still, with a blank face, thinking wistfully about you. Mr Darcy loves Elizabeth Bennett, but from a certain perspective (hers) he doesn’t act as though he does for most of the novel. Nevertheless, he holds the attitude of love towards her, and his holding of that attitude is a kind of action.
So, a clause needs to have a subject, a verb, and an object.
‘But,’ you may be thinking, ‘I am sure I have seen things that are called clauses that do not have all three of those things! Was I just being fed nonsense?’
Maybe. You might have gleaned, or been told, that commas are used in a sentence to delineate clauses. In which case, you might look at something like ‘or been told’ (in the previous sentence) and go ‘Well, I think I can see the verb, but where’s the subject? Where’s the object? Who has been told what?’ This is where complex sentences become… complex. Because what’s going on is that this sentence has more than one clause. It’d be helpful, here, to say something about what a sentence is.
In a simple, technical sense, we can say of a sentence that it should have a subject, a verb, and an object. But ARGH – that’s just what we said clauses were! Don’t worry. The key thing is that some sentences are just one clause long. These are called ‘simple’ sentences. ‘I love you’ is both a simple sentence and a single clause. So is ‘Do you love her?’ and ‘You will love me’ – sentences don’t have to be statements; they can be instructions, questions, commands, and so on. Complex sentences combine one or more clause. For example: ‘You love her, don’t you?’. ‘You love her’ is the main clause of the sentence, and it is an independent clause, because it could be its own sentence. Strictly speaking ‘don’t you?’ could not be a complete sentence; it depends for some of its content on the first clause. The verb that ‘do’ is standing in for is ‘love’, and the object is ‘her’. A full version of this clause would be ‘Do you not love her?’, but we can save time and space by making this clause parasitic on the first clause, and putting it in the same sentence.
I say ‘strictly speaking’ that ‘Don’t you?’ is not (in a technical sense) a sentence. But, of course, in practice, a lot of our sentences (or what we think of as sentences) are just like this. Because conversation, and even prose, can become quite stilted if every sentence has to explicitly spell out its subjects and objects and verbs. In practice, ‘Don’t you?’ doesn’t actually have to be in the same sentence as the verb and object that would complete it in order to make sense. In fact, you could be the one saying ‘I don’t love her!’ and I could be responding ‘Don’t you?’, and we both still know what I’m talking about, even though the object and (proper) verb weren’t even spoken by me at all. The context fills in the gaps, and we’re perfectly happy to allow such incomplete sentences into our language.
So, that’s one reason you might have a multi-clause sentence: to speed up talking. It might also be because you want to make a lot of modifications to the same subject all at once. So, for instance, if I’m describing a character and saying ‘Brienne was tall, and broad shouldered, with blue eyes, and impressive skill with a sword’ I could say ‘Brienne was tall. Brienne had broad shoulders. Brienne had blue eyes. Brienne had impressive skill with a sword.’ Technically, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s rather tiresome to read. So, I have a stylistic motivation to put it all in one sentence; moreover, I’m doing the same thing in all these sentences: describing Brienne; so I can quite easily make these separate sentences into dependent clauses, taking the verb and subject from the first clause. Why can’t I just do that for a whole paragraph, then?
I might want to say, in a single paragraph:
Jaime had conflicted feelings about Brienne. Brienne was tall, and broad shouldered, with blue eyes, and impressive skill with a sword. There was much to be admired in her. She could hardly be called feminine, though. Not in the way that Cersei was.
(This isn’t a quote from A Song of Ice and Fire, by the way – I would never slight George R R Martin by suggesting his prose could ever be so prosaic.)
OK, so, these sentences all belong in the same paragraph. Why? Well, they’re all involved in making the same point: that Jaime has conflicted feelings about Brienne. Why split them up into discrete sentences, then, if they’re all about doing the same thing? Well, let’s try it (just using the tools at hand, for the time being**):
Jaime had conflicted feelings about Brienne, Brienne was tall, and broad shouldered, with blue eyes, and impressive skill with a sword, there was much to be admired in her, she could hardly be called feminine, though, not in the way that Cersei was.
Ugh. That’s a bit of a mess to read, isn’t it? But why is it a mess? It’s because we’ve got a bunch of competing subjects and verbs and obejcts and it’s not entirely clear which bits should relate to what. We move from Jaime feeling conflicted to a description of Brienne, to a remark about the description of Brienne, to an unrelated criticism of Brienne, and finally, to a comparison of Brienne with Cersei. And that’s because there are a bunch of independent clauses, and a bunch of dependent clauses, but what is and is not dependent on what has not been clearly delineated. This is what your teacher meant when they said that each sentence should be a single thought. Identify the main thing your sentence is about: what subject, what verb, what objects that verb relates that subject to. Anything that relates to a different subject or verb should be given its own sentence. (There are, of course, exceptions to this, but just get the hang of this basic principle for now.)
This not only makes for easier reading, it makes it easier to see the relations between the sentences. That ‘There was much to be admired about her’ is a comment on all the attributes assigned to Brienne in the sentence whose focus is on describing her. And by grouping all these points together in a paragraph we can see how they support the central claim of the paragraph: that Jaime was conflicted in his feelings towards Brienne. He notes certain things about her. He likes those things. He notes another thing about her. He notes that he doesn’t like that aspect of her so much. He likes someone else better who exhibits the opposite. We divide these points off from some other points that may come before or afterward (maybe regarding what Brienne is currently doing, maybe about what Jaime wants her to do) because it’s easier to see how they support this central point if they are separated out from things that do not relate directly to that point.
Now, you may be thinking, ‘Oh God, I can’t be doing with thinking about all this shit every time I write a paragraph!’, and that’s fine. A lot of this stuff you have absorbed subconsciously without even knowing. Where this will help you is when you don’t know what to do. When a sentence or paragraph feels wrong, but you don’t know why. If the paragraph is really long, ask yourself what its central point is. If you realise that there is more than one, separate out which sentences support which point and put them in different paragraphs respectively. If a sentence is confusing, identify the main clause. If you think there might be more than one, separate out the clauses into different independent clauses (ones that could be their own sentence), and those clauses that are dependent on each of those independent clauses.
But remember, there are stylistic reasons why it can be OK to not follow these rules exactly. Maybe you want to have a paragraph that’s just one sentence and the sentence is simply ‘No’. You could do this if the previous paragraph makes it clear what is being negated. For example:
‘I know you love me! Tell me you love me!’
Here ‘”No.”‘ is standing in for ‘”No, I do not love you. No, I will not tell you that I love you.”, but it’s more dramatic, firmer, if it just reads: ‘”No.”‘. We can tell what the full sentence would be from context, though, so it’s fine. It can be an incomplete sentence (what Word likes to call a ‘fragment’), and it can be a paragraph of only one sentence, because the point of the paragraph (to deny that the speaker loves the previous speaker) is obvious, and the subject, object, and verb are implicit from context.
So, them’s the bare bones of how to divide up your prose. Go forth and punctuate!
*Subject to availability.
** We could use semi-colons to make this a bit better. It would still suck, though, and I just want to illustrate why separating with commas will not do, right now.
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