Thursday, July 05, 2007


Once a person can dependably identify the noun-verb combination in a sentence (noting as an aside that a verb can be a sentence all by itself -- as in a command -- but a noun, not so much) then attention turns to the modifications to that central “hinge” or “engine.” It’s still important to know a wide range of nouns and verbs with specific connotations and associations, in particular the verbs, but much of the essence of style and clarity is in the modifiers.

Modifiers of nouns answer the questions:
What kind?
What size?
Which one?
How many?

Modifiers of verbs answer the questions:
How much or to what degree?
In what manner?

Almost more importantly, in English one-word (adjective) modifiers of nouns always have to come just in front of the noun they modify. It’s the opposite in romance languages like French or Spanish -- they give you the big concept and then modify it with the adjectives: “house -- big, white, porched, and dirty.” In English one must keep all the adjectives in mind until coming to the noun: “a big, white, dirty, porched dog.”

One-word adverbs can come almost anywhere and it is often by moving the adverb around that one can improve clarity. It helps to think in terms of what the reader needs to know first.
“Lately I’ve felt lazy.”
“I’ve felt lazy lately.”
“I’ve lately felt lazy.”
“I’ve felt lately lazy.”
Some of these arrangements have a kind of arcane feeling, some emphasize the laziness and others seem to say it’s not usual.

The next step is that prepositional phrases can be either adjectives or adverbs. Adjective prepositional phrases always come AFTER the noun they modify, but again the adverb prepositional phrases can go anywhere. They answer the same questions as one-word modifiers.
“In the morning we’ll go.”
“We’ll go in the morning.”
“We will in the morning go.”
Breaking a verb phrase by putting a modifier in the middle of it (the verb here being “will go”) is usually a no-no, but can be right if it’s meant to give emphasis or to track a speaker’s train of thought.

So now one has to stop and learn by heart the prepositions, because a prepostional phrase is a set of words that always begins with a preposition and ends with a noun. There might or might not be modifiers ahead of this noun. My position when teaching high school was always that a preposition without a noun is an adverb, so I suppose one could maintain the reverse: that a preposition is an adverb with an object.

in, into, to, by, for, at, up, upon, of, off, above, beside, beneath, before, around, down, beyond, past, between, behind
... I can’t say these automatically anymore. Maybe part of the reason is that once one grasps the concept of a prepositional phrase, they stick out of the sentence as a whole. In my classroom I used to have a poster of pigs trying to climb in, into, to, by, around, down, beyond . . . You get the idea. Prepositional pigs.

One of the most helpful exercises for beginning grammarians is to mark off the prepositional phrases by coloring or bracketing or underlining. In fact, with modern fiber tips, I think it’s very useful to use assigned colors to the parts of speech and regularly mark up sentences on printed out worksheets. I’ll post some on It’s useful to take sentences out of books or even to write down sentences heard on the radio and mark them up. There’s one NPR news person who drives me crazy because she’s in the habit of asking a question, then adding to the original sentence one prepositional phrase after another -- the listener can’t tell when the question is going to end. “Mr. X, did you enjoy going to this country in this season by yourself in a Land Rover with a contract for a book from a noted New York publisher for the third time?”

As a rule of style, if one values the concise, one should press towards reducing prepositional phrases to one-word modifiers and modifiers to vivid nouns or verbs.
“The horse went along the trail with its inclines.” or

“Along the trail with its inclines the horse went.” (The horse doesn’t have inclines so the prepositional phrase has to to with the trail.)
“The horse went along the steep trail.” or

“Along the steep trail the horse went.” Not so tricky since there is only one prepositional phrase to move.

“The horse scrambled.”
Note that the differences are in feeling tone more than in meaning. One can play with ambiguity this way -- more or less? Which serves the purpose?

This kind of grammar thinking is a lot more fun and a lot more useful than categorizing words according to some Latinate system.

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