Sentences: Definition and Analysis in English Composition

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Definition and Classification:
      Simple Sentences. A sentence is a group of words expressing a complete thought. Sentences have been classified as simple, complex, and compound. In reality there are but two classes of sentences,—simple and compound. It is not material to the construction of a sentence whether a modifier be a word, a phrase, or a clause; it still remains an adjective, adverb, or noun modifier, and the method in which the subject and predicate are developed is the same. By means of modifiers, a subject and predicate of but two words may grow to the size of a paragraph, and yet be a group of words expressing one complete thought.

In the sentence below, the subject and predicate are “we are free.” This does not, however, express Burke’s complete thought. It is not what he meant. Free to do what? How free? When may it be done? Why now? What bill? All these introduce modifications to the simple assertion, “we are free,” modifications which are essential to the completeness of the thought.

      In the sentence below, the subject and predicate are “we are free.” This does not, however, express Burke’s complete thought. It is not what he meant. Free to do what? How free? When may it be done? Why now? What bill? All these introduce modifications to the simple assertion, “we are free,” modifications which are essential to the completeness of the thought.

      “By the return of this bill, which seemed to have taken its flight forever, we are at this very instant nearly as free to choose a plan for our American government as we were on the first day of the session.”

Compound Sentences:
      On the other hand, the compound sentence is usually said to consist of at least two independent clauses; and the very fact of their independence, which is only a grammatical independence, to be sure, makes the clauses very nearly independent sentences. So near to sentences may the clauses be in their independence that some writers would make them so. The following group of sentences Kipling certainly could have handled in another way. “The reason for her wandering was simple enough. Coppy, in a tone of too hastily assumed authority, had told her over night that she must not ride out by the river. And she had gone to prove her own spirit and teach Coppy a lesson.” Certainly the last two sentences could be united into a compound sentence, nor would it be straining the structure to put all three sentences into one. This example is not exceptional. Many similar cases may be found in all prose writers; and in Macaulay’s writings there are certainly occasions when it would be better to unite independent sentences. If the fundamental ideas of the two clauses bear certain definite and evident relations to each other, they should stand in one compound sentence. These evident relations are: first, an assertion and its repetition in some other form; second, an assertion and its contrast; third, an assertion and its consequence; and fourth, an assertion and an example. If the clauses do not bear one of these evident relations to each other, they should receive special attention; for they may be two separate, independent thoughts requiring for their expression two sentences. The following sentences illustrate the common relations that may exist between the clauses of a compound sentence.

      Repetition. “Nothing has a drift or relation; nothing has a promise or history.”

      “But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion.”

      Contrast. “If the people approve the way in which these authorities are interpreting and using the Constitution, they go on; if the people disapprove, they pause, or at least slacken their pace.”

      “Every court is equally bound to pronounce, and competent to pronounce, on such questions, a State court no less than a Federal court; but as all the more important questions are carried by appeal to the supreme Federal court, it is practically that court whose opinion determines them.”

      Consequence. “The British and American line had run near it during the war; it had, therefore, been the scene of marauding, and infested with refugees, cow-boys, and all kinds of border chivalry.”

      Example. “He found favor in the eyes of the mothers by petting the children, particularly the youngest; and like the lion bold, which whilom so magnanimously the lamb did hold, he would sit with a child on one knee, and rock a cradle with his foot for whole hours together.”

      There is another condition which masses many details into one compound sentence. If in narration a writer wishes to give the impression that many things are done in a moment of time, and together form one incident, he may group many circumstances, nearly independent except for the matter of time, into one compound sentence. In description he may present groups of details hastily in one sentence, and so give the impression of unity. The same thing may be done in exposition. Many independent ideas may bear a common relation to another idea, either expressed or understood; and in order to get them before the reader as one whole, the author may group them in a single sentence. The examples below illustrate this method of sentence development.

      Narration. “For a moment the terror of Hans Van Ripper’s wrath passed across his mind, for it was his Sunday saddle; but this was no time for petty fears; the goblin 203 was hard on his haunches; and (unskillful rider that he was!) he had much ado to maintain his seat; sometimes slipping on one side, sometimes on another, and sometimes jolted on the high ridge of his horse’s backbone, with a violence that he verily feared would cleave him asunder.”

      Description. “In one corner stood a huge bag of wool, ready to be spun; in another, a quantity of linsey-woolsey just from the loom; ears of Indian corn, and strings of dried apples and peaches, hung in gay festoons along the walls, mingled with the gaud of red peppers; and a door left ajar gave him a peep into the best parlor, where the claw-footed chairs and dark mahogany tables shone like mirrors; andirons, with their accompanying shovel and tongs, glistened from their covert of asparagus tops; mock oranges and conch shells decorated the mantelpiece; strings of various-colored birds’ eggs were suspended above it; a great ostrich egg was hung from the centre of the room, and a corner cupboard, knowingly left open, displayed immense treasures of old silver and well-mended china.”

      Exposition. “That perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education, and its beau idéal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.”

      (Notice the use of the semicolon in the last two groups of sentences. The parts of compound sentences such as these should be separated by semicolons.)

      Short Sentences. Having determined approximately what relations may be grouped in a single sentence, the first question for consideration is whether sentences should be long or short. This cannot be definitely answered. Since they should be concise, the short sentence is well suited for definitions. Since a proposition should be announced in as few words as can be used, without sacrificing brevity to clearness, short sentences serve best for this purpose. As changes in the direction of the development of a thought should be quickly indicated, a short sentence is generally used for transition. And as at times when the mind is under a stress of strong feeling, or the action of a story is rapid, all explanatory matters are cut away, the barest statements in shortest sentences serve best to express strong emotion and rapid action.

      Long Sentences. Long sentences have the very opposite uses. To amplify a topic, to develop a proposition by repetition, by details, by proofs, or by example, long sentences are serviceable; by them the finer modifications of a thought can be expressed. So, too, a summary of a paragraph or a chapter frequently employs long sentences to express the whole thought with precision and with proper subordination of parts. Again, as short sentences best express haste and intensity, so long sentences give the feeling of quiet deliberation and dignified calm. Illustrations of definitions, propositions, transitions, and exemplifications are to be found everywhere. Slow movement expressed by long sentences is well illustrated in Irving and Hawthorne. One selection from George Meredith, to show the peculiar adaptation of the short sentence to express intensity of feeling, is given. Richard Feverel has just learned that the wife whom he had deserted has borne him a son. Description and narration are mingled. The short, nervous sentences express both the vividness of his impressions and the intensity of his emotions.

      In a sentence, as in a theme or a paragraph, the first question regarding its structure is what to put into it. The germ of a paragraph is usually a sentence; of the sentence it is one word or but very few words. This kernel of a sentence may be developed through the many modifications of the thought; but always the additions must be distinctly related to the germ words. If this relation of parts to the kernel of the sentence be unmistakable, the sentence has unity; if there are parts whose connection with the germ of the sentence cannot be easily traced, they should be rejected as belonging to another sentence. The pith of the whole sentence can be stated in a few words, if the sentence has unity.

      Long sentences should be watched. One thing easily suggests another, interesting too, it may be; and when an essay is to be written, anything,—especially if it have so worthy a quality as interest to recommend it,—anything is allowed to go in. Such a sentence as the following can be explained on no other principle: “Just then James came rushing downstairs like mad to find the fellow who had punched a hole in the tire of his bicycle, which was a Columbia which he got two years before at a second-hand store, paying for it in work at fifteen cents an hour.” Plainly everything after “bicycle” is nothing to the present purpose and should be excluded. The following from a description of Cologne Cathedral is as bad, in some respects, worse; for there is one point where the break is so abrupt that a child would detect it. “The superintendence was intrusted to Mr. Ahlert, whose ideas were not well adapted to inspire him for his grand task, under his direction much of the former beauty and artistical skill was lost sight of, but at all events it was a great satisfaction to see the work go on and to have the expenses defrayed by the State.” In this case the writer, beyond doubt, thinks long sentences the correct thing. Long sentences are necessary at times; but the desire simply to write long sentences or to fill up space should never lead one to forget that a sentence is the expression of one—not more—of one complete thought.

      On the other hand, sentences should contain the whole of one thought; none of it should run over into another sentence. Strange as it may seem, sentences are sometimes found like the following: “James was on the whole a bad boy. But he had some redeeming qualities.” “The first day at school was all new to me. While it was interesting as well.” “He said that he was going. And that I might go with him.” There is no ground for an explanation of such errors 207 as these except laziness and grossest illiteracy. It is by no device so simple as the insertion of a period that man can separate what has been joined in thought. And and but rarely begin sentences; in nearly all cases it will be found that the sentences they purport to connect are but the independent clauses of one compound sentence. While or any other subordinating conjunction introduces a dependent clause; a dependent clause is not a sentence; it can never stand alone.

      The offenses against the unity of a sentence are including too much and including too little. Both are the result of carelessness or inability to think. The purpose, the kernel, the germ of the sentence, should be so clearly in mind that every necessary modification of the thought shall be included and every unnecessary phrase be excluded. Some further suggestions concerning unity are found in the paragraphs treating primarily of mass and coherence.

      As advance is made in the ability to grasp quickly the thought of a book, it becomes more and more evident that the eye must be taken into account when arranging the parts of a composition. The eye sees the headings of the chapters; it catches the last words of one paragraph and the first words of the next; it lights upon the words near the periods; so the parts of a composition should be arranged so that these points shall contain worthy words. Moreover, within the sentence the colon marks the greatest independence of the parts; the semicolon comes next; and the comma marks the smallest division of thought. Following the guidance of the eye, then, the words before a period should be the most important; those near a colon, a semicolon, and a comma will have a descending scale of value. A speaker has no difficulty with punctuation; unconsciously he pauses with the thought. So true is this, that one is inclined to say that if the writer will read aloud his own composition, and punctuate where he pauses in the reading, always remembering the rank of the marks of punctuation, he will not be far from right. It will be noticed that he has paused in the reading after important words, as if the thought stayed a moment there for the help of the reader. Naturally we pause after important words; and conversely, the places of importance in a sentence are near the marks of punctuation, increasing from the comma to the period.

End of a Sentence:
      The end of a sentence is more important than the beginning; and the difference in value is greater than in a paragraph. In a paragraph the opening is very important, generally containing the topic. In a sentence, however, the beginning more often has some phrase of transition, or some modifier; while it is the end that contains the gist of the sentence. This fact makes it imperative that no unworthy matter stand at the end. How important a position it is, and how much is expected of the final words of a sentence, is evident from the effect of failure produced by a sentence that closes with weak words. In the following sentences, phrases have been moved from their places; the weakness is apparent.

      Abstract liberty is not to be found; and this is true of other mere abstractions. This is a persuasion built upon liberty, and not only favorable to it. I pass, therefore, to their agriculture, another point of view.

      Of course Burke never wrote such sentences as these. However, sentences like them can be found in school compositions.

      “Lincoln’s character is worthy to be any young man’s ideal; having in it much to admire.”

      “Euclid Avenue, with its broad lawns, and with Wade Park as the fitting climax of its spacious beauty, is the most attractive driveway in the United States, which is saying a good deal.”

      “Minnesota has many beautiful lakes; Mille Lacs, fringed with dark pines; Osakis, with its beach of glistening sand; Minnetonka, skirted by a lovely boulevard bordered by cool lawns and cosy cottages; and many others not so big.”

      Such sentences as these are not uncommon. Their ruin is wrought by the closing words. Watch for trailing relatives, dangling participles, and straggling generalities at the end of sentences. The end of a sentence is a position of distinction; it should be held by words of distinction.

      So influential is position in a sentence that by virtue of it a word or a clause of equal rank with others can be made to take on a certain added authority. By observing the end of a sentence, a reader can determine what was uppermost in the mind of an author careful of these things. In the following sentence as it was written by Burke the emphasis is on the duration of the time; but by a change of position it is put upon the fact. “Refined policy ever has been the parent of confusion; and ever will be so, as long as the world endures.” Changing the last clause it reads, “and, as long as the world endures, ever will be so.” This is not weak; but the stress is not where Burke placed it. The position of the words gives them an importance that does not inhere in the words themselves.

Effect of Anti-climax:
      Still, as the tenure of a place of distinction cannot save a fool from the reputation of folly, position in a sentence cannot redeem empty words from their truly insipid character. Indeed, as the imbecility of a shallow pate is made all the more apparent by a position of distinction, so is the utter unfitness of certain words for their position painfully manifest. This is the secret of anti-climax. By reason of its very position in a sentence, the last phrase should be distinguished; instead the position is held by a silly nothing. Disappointing anti-climaxes, like those already cited, are frequently made by young writers; and they are sometimes met with in the works of the best authors. The following sentence is from Newman: from the point of view of an ardent churchman, it may be a climax; but from the point of view of the general reader who considers the whole greater than any of its parts, in spite of all the sense preceding the final phrase, that is absurd and disappointing nonsense.

Use of Climax:
      From what has been said, it is evident that the parts of a sentence, as far as may be, should be arranged in a climax. The climax should be in the thought, with a corresponding increase in the weight of the phrases. If the thoughts increase in importance, the words that express them should increase in number. The number of words in the treatment bears a pretty constant ratio to the importance of the subject treated. The paragraph quoted from Newman is an excellent illustration of the use of climax,—until it comes to that last phrase. Note in the first sentence the repetition of the condition, three times repeated. Change the second to the third and see how different it is. Then he has “public men, men of the world, men whose names would descend to posterity,”—a steady increase in the thought, and a corresponding increase in the length of phrases. The last sentence contains a fine example of climax. “Of heroes and statesmen, of literary men and philosophers, of men conspicuous for great natural virtues, for habits of business, for knowledge of life, for practical judgment, for cultivated tastes, for accomplishments, who have made England what it is,—able to subdue the earth.” Climax is the arrangement that produces the effect of vigorous strength. In arranging a succession of modifiers, so far as possible without breaking some other more important principle, a writer will gain in force if he seeks for climax.

Loose and Periodic:
      Sentences are divided into two classes: loose and periodic. A loose sentence may be broken at some point before the end, and up to that point be grammatically a complete sentence. An arrangement of the parts of a sentence that suspends the meaning until the close is called periodic. The periodic sentence is generally so massed that the end contains words of distinction, and the sentence forms a climax. Not all climaxes are periods; but nearly all periods are climaxes.

The Period:
      The philosophy of the periodic sentence has been best stated by Herbert Spencer. He starts with the axiom that the whole amount of attention a reader can give at any moment is limited and fixed. A reader must give a part of it to merely acquiring the meaning; the remainder of his attention he can give to the thought itself. In reading Cicero the pupil has to put a large part of his attention upon the vocabulary, upon the order and construction of the words; the barest fragment of attention he can bestow upon the thought of the great orator. So when the reader attacks one of Browning’s most involved and obscure passages, he is kept from the thought by the difficulties in the language. As it is the purpose of language to convey thought, and as it is usually the wish of an author to be understood, he should use up as little as possible of the reader’s limited attention for the mere acquisition of the thought, and leave the reader as much as he can to put upon the meaning. In applying this to sentences, the question is, which form of sentence demands least effort to get at its meaning: the periodic sentence, which suspends the meaning to the end; or the loose sentence, which may be broken at several points and gives its meaning in installments? The old example is as good as any: shall we say as the French do, a horse black; or shall we say as the English do, a black horse? for in the arrangement of these three words there lies the difference between a loose and a periodic sentence. Consider the French order first. When a person hears the words “a horse,” he at once thinks of the horse he knows best; that is, generally, a bay horse. When the word “black” follows, the whole image has to be changed from the bay horse he knows to the black horse he has occasionally seen. There has been a waste of attention. On the other hand, when the words “a black” are heard, the mind constructs no image; it waits until the noun modified is spoken. Then the whole image springs up at once; it is correct and it needs no remodeling. The following sentence illustrates the point. “I am wasting time” is the beginning. It would be difficult to enumerate the many thoughts suggested by these words; each person has his own idea of wasting time. When the rest of the sentence is added, “trying to learn my geometry lesson,” the whole has to be reconstructed. On the other hand the periodic statement suspends the meaning to the end. There is no place where, without additions to the words used, the mind can rest. “Trying to learn a geometry lesson is for me a waste of time.” Theoretically the periodic sentence is better than the loose sentence; for it economizes attention.

      There is another side to the question, however. If the details be many, and if each be long, they would be more than the mind could carry without great effort; and instead of economy of attention, there is improvident waste. The mind will carry a long, carefully arranged period at intervals; but a succession of periods is sure to result in its absolute refusal to do so any longer. There is a limit to the length of a period that economizes attention; and there is a limit to the number of successive periods which a reader can endure.

Periodic and Loose combined:
      There is another form of sentence, which combines the loose and the periodic. It generally begins with the periodic form and sustains this until it is better to relieve the mind of the stress, when the period ends or the loose structure begins; and the sentence may as a whole be periodic while containing parts that are loose. This kind of sentence is a common form for long sentences. It gives to prose much of the dignity of the period, together with the familiarity of the loose sentence.

      The sentence below may be changed, by putting the last clause first, to a loose sentence; and by placing it after the word “subject” it becomes mixed.

Which shall be used?
      Which shall be used, loose sentences or periodic? In literature the loose more frequently occur. They are informal and conversational, and are especially suited to letter-writing, story-telling, and the light essay. The period is formal; it has the air of preparation. The oration, the formal essay, well-wrought argument,—forms of literature where preparation is expected,—may use the period with good effect. It has a finish, a scholarly refinement, not found in the loose sentence; and yet a series of periods would be as much out of place in a letter as a court regalia at a downtown restaurant. The loose sentence is easy, informal, and familiar; the periodic is stiff, artificial, and aristocratic. To use none but loose sentences gives a composition an air of familiarity even to the verge of vulgarity; to employ only periodic sentences induces a feeling of stiff artificiality bordering on bombast. The fitness of each for its purpose is the guide for its use. There is, however, a reason why young persons should be encouraged to use periodic sentences. Usually they compose short sentences, so there is little danger of overburdening the reader’s attention. With this danger removed, the result of the generous use of periodic sentences will be nothing worse than a too obvious preparation. The sentences will all be finished to a degree, and unquestionably will give a feeling of artificiality. However, the attention to sentence-structure necessary in order to make it periodic is a thing devoutly to be wished at this stage of growth. No other fault is so common in sentence-construction as carelessness. A theme will be logically outlined, a paragraph carefully planned, but a sentence,—anybody standing on one foot can make a sentence. A well-turned sentence is a work of art, and it is never made in moments when the writer “didn’t think.” The end must be seen at the beginning: else it does not end; it plays out. There is no other remedy for careless, slipshod sentence-making so effective as the construction of many periodic sentences.

      Not only will there be care in the arrangement of the material, but when all details must be introduced before the principal thought, there will be little chance of any phrase slipping into the sentence that does not in truth belong there. Dangling participles, trailing relatives, and straggling generalities can find no chance to hang on to a periodic sentence. Every detail must be a real and necessary modification of the germ thought of the sentence, else it can hardly be forced in. Periodic sentences, then, besides insuring a careful finish to the work, are also a safeguard against the introduction of irrelevant material,—the commonest offense against sentence-unity.

Emphasis by Change of Order:
      Closely connected with the emphasis gained by the periodic arrangement of the parts of a sentence is the emphasis gained by forcing words out of their natural order. In a sentence the points which arrest the eye and the attention are the beginning and the end. However, if the subject stands first and the words of the predicate in their natural order, there is no more emphasis upon them than these important elements of a sentence ordinarily deserve. To emphasize either it is necessary to force it out of its natural position. “George next went to Boston,” is the natural order of this sentence. Supposing, however, that a writer wished to emphasize the fact that it was George who went next, not James or Fred, he could do it by forcing the word “George” from its present natural position to a position unnatural. He could write, “It was George who next went to Boston,” or, “The next to go to Boston was George.” Forcing the subject toward the position usually occupied by the predicate emphasizes the subject. This is similar to the emphasis given by the period. “It was George” is so far periodic, followed by the loose structure; and the last arrangement is quite periodic. Every device for throwing the subject back into the sentence makes the sentence up to the point where the subject is introduced periodic; this arrangement throws the emphasis forward to the word that closes the period.

      Other parts of a sentence may be emphasized by being placed out of their natural order. In the natural order, adjectives and adverbs precede the words they modify; conditional and concessive clauses precede the clauses they modify; an object follows a verb; and prepositional phrases and adjective clauses follow the words they modify. These rules are general. Moving a part of a sentence from this general order usually emphasizes it. “George went to Boston next” emphasizes a little the time; but “Next George went to Boston” places great emphasis on the time. So “It was to Boston that George went next” emphasizes the place. “Went” cannot be so dealt with. It seems irrevocably fixed that in a prose declarative sentence the verb shall never stand first. It is not allowed by good use.

      The rearrangement of the following sentence illustrates the emphasis given by putting words out of their natural order:—

      The strong and swarthy sailors of the Patria slowly rowed the party to the shore. The sailors of the Patria, strong and swarthy, slowly rowed the party to the shore. Slowly the strong and swarthy sailors of the Patria rowed the party to the shore. Of the steamer Patria, the sailors, strong and swarthy, rowed the party to the shore.

      To show the arrangement of clauses the following will be sufficient:—

      He cannot make advancement, even if he studies hard. Even if he studies hard, he cannot make advancement. “Your Irish pensioners would starve, if they had no other fund to live on than the taxes granted by English authority.” If they had no other fund to live on than the taxes granted by English authority, your Irish pensioners would starve.

      The latter arrangement emphasizes the conclusion much more than the former; at the same time it subordinates the condition. Burke wished the emphasis to be upon the condition; he placed it after the conclusion.

Subdue Unimportant Elements:
      Emphasis is gained by placing words in important positions in a sentence by arranging the parts to form a climax; by the use of the period; by forcing words out of their natural order. It is also gained by the subdual of parts not important. This emphasis is a matter of relative intensity. The beauty and strength of any artistic product depend as much upon the subdual of the accessories as upon the intensifying of the necessaries. In order to get the emphasis upon certain phrases, it is necessary to subordinate other phrases. In the talk of a child every thought phrases itself as a simple sentence. Not until it grows to youth does the child recognize that there is a difference in values, and adopt means for expressing it. To grasp firmly the principal idea and then subdue all other ideas is an elegant way of emphasizing.

      The subdual of parts is accomplished by reducing to subordinate clauses, to phrases, to words, some of the ideas which in a child’s talk would be expressed in sentences. A thought of barely enough importance to be mentioned should be squeezed into a word. If it deserves more notice, perhaps a prepositional phrase will express it. A participial phrase will often serve for a clause or a sentence. A subordinate clause may be needed if the thought is of great importance. And last, if it deserves such a distinction, the thought may demand an independent clause or a sentence for itself.

The Dynamic Point of a Sentence:
      In the chapter on paragraphs it was said that one sentence is often the source of the succeeding sentence; that such a sentence seemed to be charged like a Leyden jar, and to discharge its whole power through a single word or phrase; and further, that this word or phrase should be left free to act,—it should be uncovered. How a sentence can be arranged so that this word or phrase shall have the prominence it deserves, and can unhindered transmit the undiminished force of one sentence to the next, has now been explained. First, such words can be made dynamic by placing them at the beginning or the end of a sentence; second, by placing them near the major marks of punctuation; third, by forcing them from their natural order; and fourth, by the subdual of the other parts of the sentence. The greatest care in massing sentences so that none of their power be lost in transmission is one of the secrets of the literature that carries the reader irresistibly forward. Sometimes he may be annoyed by the repetition of phrases; but he cannot get away; he must go forward. In the paragraph below, quoted from Matthew Arnold, every phrase that is the point from which the next sentence springs is in a position where it can act untrammeled.

Good Use:
      Good use has been mentioned. In massing the parts of a sentence for the purpose of emphasizing some idea, a writer has not entire freedom. Good use, which is the use of acknowledged masters, decides what may be done. There are certain arrangements of words to which we are accustomed; and the disregard of them leads to obscurity or downright contrariety in the thought. “Brutus stabbed Cæsar” is the common order; “Brutus Cæsar stabbed,” or “Stabbed Brutus Cæsar,” is obscure; while “Cæsar stabbed Brutus” is the very opposite of the truth. Those who have studied Latin know that as far as understanding the sentence is concerned, it would make no difference in which order the three Latin words should be arranged; though it would make a mighty difference in the emphasis. In Latin the case endings determine the construction of the words. In an inflected language the words may be massed almost to suit the writer; in an uninflected language, within certain limits the order determines the relation between groups of words. Though for emphasis it might be advisable to have the object first, for the sake of clearness in a short sentence the object cannot stand first. The primary consideration in making any piece of literature is that it may be understood. To be understood, the sentence must be arranged in the order to which we are accustomed. The order to which we are accustomed has been determined by good use.

      The variety in the arrangement of the parts of a sentence that has been sanctioned by good usage is great, yet there are limits. Grammar is based upon the usage of the best writers. Any offense against the grammar of our language is a sin against good use. Browning may use constructions so erratic that the ordinary reader does not know what he is reading about; Carlyle may forge a new word rather than take the trouble to find one that other people have used. But the young writer, at least, is far safer while keeping within the limits of good use.

Clearness gained by Coherence:
      Coherence in a sentence is that principle of structure by which its parts are best arranged to stick together. The parts of a sentence containing related ideas should be so associated that there can be no mistake regarding the reference or the modification. Such a sentence as the following cannot be understood; the reference is obscure. “James told him that he did not see what he was to do in the matter.” If the reader were sure of the first “he,” he could not come nearer than a guess at the reference of the second “he.” The third personal pronoun—he, she, it—in all its cases is especially uncertain in its references.

      Adverbs are sometimes placed so that they make a sentence ridiculous; and frequently their meaning is lost by being separated from the words they modify. “Only” is a word to be watched. Like adverbs are correlative conjunctions. They are frequently so placed that they do not join the elements they were intended to unite.

      He seized the young girl as she rose from the water almost roughly. I think I hardly shall. I only went as far as the gate. “Who shall say, of us who know only of rest and peace by toil and strife?” He not only learned algebra readily but also Latin. Phrases and clauses may lose their reference by being removed from the words they modify. Toiling up the hill, he arrived at Hotel Bellevue through a drizzling rain.

      Addison rose to a post which dukes, the heads of the great houses of Talbot, Russell, and Bentinck, have thought it an honor to fill without high birth, and with little property.

      “Fred was liked well; but he had the habit of that class that cannot get the English Language in the right order when a little excited.”

      All the classes of errors which have been exemplified here are due to the infringement of one rule: things that belong together in thought should stand together in composition. Nothing should be allowed to come between a pronoun, an adjective, an adverb, a correlative, a phrase, or a clause, and the word it modifies. Sometimes other modifiers have to be taken into account: where more than one word or phrase modifies the same word, a trial will have to be made to arrange them so that there shall be no obscurity or absurdity. Keep related ideas together; keep unrelated ideas apart.

Parallel Construction:
      The second principle which helps to make the relation of parts clear is parallel construction. It has already been explained in paragraphs. In sentences the commonest errors are in linking an infinitive with a gerund, a participle with a verb, an active with a passive voice, a phrase with a clause.

      In the second sentence Burke has used a passive voice when it would certainly be more elegant to change to the active. “Is proceeded against” is surely awkward, but for uniformity and resulting clearness he has retained the passive. In the last sentence the infinitives “to establish,” “to mark,” and “to acknowledge” are in the same construction; they are objects of “mean.” Then comes a change of form to show that the clauses “that this legal competency has had,” etc., and “that experience has shown,” etc., are in a like relation to the infinitive “to acknowledge.” Though the last clause by reason of the punctuation looks correlative with the others, it is not related as object to the verb “mean,” as the others are, but it is the object of “to acknowledge.” There could hardly be a better example of the value of parallel constructions for the purpose of avoiding confusion, and linking together parts that are related.

Balanced Sentences:
      Parallel constructions are used in balanced sentences. In balanced sentences one part is balanced against another,—a noun and a noun, an adjective and an adjective, phrase and phrase. Balanced sentences are especially suited to express antithesis, the figure of speech where two ideas are sharply opposed to each other. In the following from Newman, the balancing is admirable: “Inebriated with the cup of insanity, and flung upon the stream of recklessness, she dashes down the cataract of nonsense and whirls amid the pools of confusion.” This is not antithesis, however; but the following from Macaulay is: “She seems to have written about the Elizabethan age, because she had read much about it; she seems, on the other hand, to have read a little about the age of Addison, because she had determined to write about it.”

      The danger in the use of balanced sentences is excess. Macaulay is very fond of brilliant contrasts. But is a very common word with him. In some cases the reader feels that for the sake of the figure he has forced the truth. Balanced sentences are palpably artificial, and should be used but sparingly.

      There is, however, but little danger of overdoing the parallel construction where there is no antithesis. The parts of succeeding sentences do not resemble each other so much in thought that there is great danger of resulting monotony in its expression. However, should the difficulty arise, the monotony may be broken up by a trifling variation. Macaulay has done this well in the sentences quoted on page 186, beginning with the words, “For his sake empires had risen, and flourished, and decayed,” and continuing to the end of the paragraph.

Use of Connectives:
      The third method of securing coherence in a sentence is by the use of connectives. The skillful use of prepositions and conjunctions indicates a master of words. The use of connectives has been discussed when treating of emphasis secured by subdual of unimportant details. Such parts are connected, and in a very definite way. The relations are evident. Two examples will illustrate. The first group of sentences are the fragments of but one of Irving’s.

      He did not look to the right or left. He did not notice the scene. The scene was of rural wealth. He had often gloated on this scene. He went straight to the stable. He kicked and cuffed his steed several times, and so forth.

      The next also is from Irving, and shows the skillful use of conjunctions to point out unerringly the relation of the clauses in a sentence.

      “What seemed particularly odd to Rip was that, though these folks were evidently amusing themselves, yet they maintained the gravest faces, the most mysterious silence, and were, withal, the most melancholy party of pleasure he had ever witnessed.”

      Coherence, the principle of structure that surely holds the parts of a sentence together, is of greater importance than Mass. Upon Coherence depends the meaning of a sentence; upon Mass the force with which the meaning is expressed. That the meaning may be clear, it is necessary that the relation of the parts shall be perfectly evident. This lucidity is gained by placing related parts near together, and conversely, by separating unrelated ideas; by using parallel constructions for parallel thoughts; and by indicating relations by the correct use of prepositions and conjunctions.

      To summarize, sentences are the elements of discourse. The ability of a sentence to effect with certainty its purpose depends upon Unity, Mass, and Coherence. A sentence must contain all that is needed to express the whole thought, but it must contain no more. A sentence must be arranged so that its important parts shall be prominent. Position and proportion are the means of emphasis in a sentence. By placing the important words near the major marks of punctuation, by arranging the parts in a climax or a period, by forcing words out of the natural order, and by subduing unimportant details, a sentence is massed to give the important elements their relative emphasis. Last, the parts of a sentence should be arranged so that their relations shall be clear and unmistakable. Proximity of related parts, parallel construction for parallel ideas, and connectives are the surest means of securing Coherence in a sentence.

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