lEARN VERSATILE PHRASES YOU CAN ADD into sentences making them both reader-friendly and a pleasure to read.
PART TWO IN THE “Vital Keys to the Modern English Sentence” SERIES
Read this sentence out loud, if you will…
In the morning we went out into a new world, a glistening crystal and white world, each skeleton tree, each leafless bush, even the heavy, drooping power lines sheathed in icy crystal.
(from Notes Toward A New rhetoric by Francis Christensen, page 14)
Lovely, isn’t it? It’s one of my all time favorite sentences. I can just see the beauty and feel cold. It’s a pleasure to read, so simple and clear.
The Loose Sentence
In books on grammar and rhetoric, that example sentence above is called a loose sentence. It’s loose because those phrases added on after the main clause are not locked on. They are more like a dance than a military march.
AKA Cumulative Sentence
Savvy writing treachers also call this type of sentence a cumulative sentence because it grows by addition.
Start with addition not subtraction
Writing is not just subtraction as in cutting out unnecessary words and sentences when you edit. Editing is super-important. But first you must put words, clauses, phrases, sentences and paragraphs down on the page- so that you have something to work with.
Freight cars heavy with meaning
In my previous post on the modern English sentence (http://keystowriting.com/2011/11/
), I pointed out that it’s like a train. The main clause is the engine, and the freight cars that follow are loaded with specific meaning. But those freight cars can show up in a considerable variety.
So stay with me while I get slightly more technical and describe below some of those versatile phrases…
I’ll keep my examples short so that we can focus on each individual add-on.
The most common is perhaps the participle phrase
Judy smiled enchantingly, twisting her ponytail with her fingers.
Above, Ttisting is a present participle. Add ing to the verb twist, and you have a participle.
Notice how twisting her ponytail with her fingers adds descriptive detail to the words smiled and enchantingly. I can better picture Judy in my mind.
Nouns work well too
Judy’s smile was enchanting, an invitation to dance.
The noun invitation and the words included next to it also describe what Joan’s smile was like. But the phrase an invitation to dance is built around the noun invitation. Phrases built on nouns and frequent in both fiction and nonfiction writings.
Nominative Absolutes are “people” too
This is a verbal phrase, usually containing a participle, but this time with a subject. Two examples…
She smiled, her palms turned upward in resignation. (past participle)
She smiled, her palms turning upward in resignation. (present participle)
A nominative absolute, in spite of its formidable title, is a useful writing device. It’s just like the participle phrase I described above with one exception: it has a subject.
In both examples above, her palms is the subject of the phrase. Her palms is the subject, and turned/turning are participles. The nominative absolute itself is almost, but definitely not quite, a clause or sentence. I could have written:
She smiled. Then she turned her palms upward…
That would have been two sentences. Two main clauses. Nominative absolutes are most common in fiction but can be effective in nonfiction too.
Prepositional Phrases are common too
Very frequent in writing. When they become elaborate, it is often best to punctuate them with commas, or maybe even occasionally dashes.
A. He ran, punching the air with his fists, down the dirt trail and around a bend, soon out of sight.
The main clause is, of course, He ran. As underlined above, there are three prepositional phrases, and the last is introduced by the adverb soon.
(Notice, too, the vivid participial phrase punching the air with his fists.)
I could have included all that information in separate and small sentences:
B. He ran full out. His fists punched the air. He dashed down the dirt trail. Soon he was around a bend. And then he was out of sight.
This second version is not necessarily bad. But do you see how more efficient and perhaps effective too the original version A above is?
Phrases built on Adverbs
She smiled shyly and enticingly.
The two adverbs above add to what the author meant by smiled.
Phrases built on Adjectives
Bald Mountain looked formidable, tall and steep.
Most but not all
These are the most of common add-ons. Certainly there are others.
But for now compare the two following segments.
1. He was tired. Exhausted really. His sat slumped in the chair. His arms hung limply down at the sides. They were pale white and dead-looking.
2. He was tired, exausted really, slumped in his chair, his hands hanging limply at the sides, pale-white and looking dead.
Which is better?
Is either a bad piece of writing? Well, I hope not since I wrote them! But is number 1 above better than number 2? Not necessarily. It depends on a number of things but primarily the effect you want to create with your writing.
Perhaps the best point to make here is that I think that it’s a good idea to know your options. Better yet: practice them so that they come readily to mind when you’re writing.
Now let’s re-visit that first example sentence I started with above, this time naming the phrases:
In the morning we went out into a new world (main clause),
a glistening crystal and white world (noun phrase built on world),
each skeleton tree (noun phrase),
each leafless bush (noun phrase),
even the heavy, drooping power lines sheathed in icy crystal (nominative absolute built on the past participle sheathed)
When you read, be alert for these types of additions. Check how well they work. Also, if you will practice this modern sentence, with its various possible additions, you will soon discover how versatile and effective they can be.
The modern English sentence makes for some powerful writing.