Saturday, September 5, 2009

Leading and Trailing Modifiers

Someone asked if we're as skeptical of trailing participial phrases (those after the main clause) as leading ones (those before the main clause). Good question. The main answer is-- I'm skeptical of almost any modifier (participial or no) before the main clause. That doesn't mean I think they're all bad, because they're not-- often we need some essential bit of information (time or place, say) to get the full impact of the sentence. Additionally (just like that, in fact:), a transition (like "additionally," I mean) can serve to link this sentence with previous ones, smoothing the bump there to the new thought.

And sometimes what are called "phatic phrases" (relatively meaningless turns of speech) can add the necessary few beats for cadence, or make a polite deferral ("Needless to say"), or invite some ritualistic bonding ("As we all know").

That is, leading modifiers can have functions beyond actually modifying the subject (or the whole sentence, as many of them do). And of course, some of them legitimately modify the subject and fit well there, letting the reader know something needed to be known before she gets to the main clause.

However (another transition :), placement of modifiers ends up being more important at the beginning of the sentence. For reasons I'm not clear on, usually intro modifiers are "bound" in some way to the immediately following words. Well, you know, if you think about how readers figure out what a sentence is saying, they are accumulating meaning as they read, and in the beginning of the sentence, they need everything to go together in order to get the right meaning. So it is more important to have the modifiers modify the nearby words when those first six words are all there are so far. Bound modifiers are usually "restrictive," required for the meaning of the sentence because they restrict the modified word in some important way. ("The woman who had been waiting for him"-- the subject is not any woman, but the one who had been waiting for him.) So it's important if you have a modifier that restricts the modified word to keep those close together so they are read and understood together.

By the end of the main clause, the readers have a lot more context and perhaps don't need as much connection. (This is why, btw, dependent clauses at the -start- of a sentence are followed by a comma, but when they're at the end of a sentence, they're usually not preceded by a comma-- Because I failed algebra, I couldn't take calculus vs. I couldn't take calculus because I failed algebra.)

Modifiers after the main clause are more likely to be considered "free," and they aren't likely to annoy as much if they don't modify the nearest noun or if they're adverbial and modify the predicate instead of (as many adverbs do at the start) the whole sentence.

Now I'm kind of coming at this backwards. The issue is not actually whether a particular modifier goes at the beginning or end. The issue is that the start of the sentence is an important position, and that's why the reader is going to interpret what comes at the start as important. And if you start with something inessential, something that is "free" and unrestrictive and could go elsewhere in the sentence, you might be wasting that valuable real estate, that chance to set context or focus the reader's attention. Many of the modifiers that get edited out seem to have one reason for being at the start of the sentence, and that's not "context-setting" or "transition-making" or anything that helps create meaning for the reader. The reason often seems to be "varying the opening construction", and that is seldom sufficient reason to "bind" a modifier that might be better elsewhere.

What to do if you have four sentences beginning with "he"? First, determine if that's truly a problem here (sometimes it's good for rhythm or emphasis or alliteration or balance to start a group of sentences the same way). If it is-- if the repetition is annoying or distracting-- think about using what might be essential introductory material, like a time-marker (In 1816,) or a transition (However,) or a necessary bit of information about this subject (The president of Switzerland,) or what they used to call a "sentence modifier," a word (usually just a word-- not sure why) that is meant to affect the whole sentence (like "Frankly," or "Regardless,"). That is, find something introductory that adds to the meaning of the sentence, that starts the meaning, in some essential way. (Sometimes, yes, this can be a participial phrase-- just not all that often. Why? I think probably it's because a participle is supposed to be an action, and if it's an important action, it might be better in the main clause, and if it's not that important, it shouldn't be starting the sentence.)

Notice that most of these important introductory things are short-- a few words or less. (Intro dependent clauses, especially "If" clauses, tend to be longer, and often I end up making them independent clauses, or transferring the conditional-- if-- to the second position. But dependent clauses-- because they're clauses with their own subject and predicate-- can be longer even at the beginning... easier to understand and accumulate the meaning when there's a subject/verb.) Shorter intros will "hide" the repetitive opening ("he"), while offering some essential piece of information ("In 1816") without burying the lede (main clause) too deep.

Okay, that was as clear as mud. But do be thinking of the start of the sentence as a place where you want something important, even essential, to the understanding of what is to come. This usually just isn't a good place for a mere place-holder, though paradoxically it's often a good place for that "phatic" phrasing. So much of "polite speech" (which phatic speech usually is) is meant to beat around the bush, to blunt the sharp point of the sentence, and in that case, burying the lede (there I go with the mixed metaphors again) is actually sort of the point. Needless to say, in point of fact, as we all know :), in that case, go ahead, put soothing filler at the start of the sentence-- just don't dull the point so much the reader doesn't get it.
Alicia

Alicia

24 comments:

Leona said...

Another great post, even if it is a work of procrastination. I tell everyone about this blog. A lot of them are not writers and laugh at me. Maybe they need to learn about phatic speech :D

Most of them think I'm lucky to have a blog that helps so much and is still entertaining. The laugh is more about how excited I am to be learning about grammar usage.

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

My brain feels like it's filled with mud this morning, so that made perfect sense. :) Thank you for another great post.

Leona, Yes, when I tell other people about what I've learned here, they don't catch on to my excitement. Their eyes glaze over and I've even put one person into a snoring sleep. LOL!

Jami G.

Jordan said...

I think phatic phrases are like salt. A little can be really great, even in cookies. A lot can ruin everything.

Or, to put it another way, which I've seen a lot, phatic phrases, I think, are like salt, somewhat. Even in cookies, perhaps, a little can be great, in my opinion. But, as we all know, a lot, such as several cups, can ruin everything, or nearly so.

And since we're still using my example, here is the "offending" paragraph:

He'd known her for all of five minutes and he was ready to toss his objectivity aside? He knew better. She was a suspect, not a prospect. He couldn't forget that.

(The next paragraphs starts [Name] [action].)

(Word verification: tubtl. A stealth bathtub.)

Deb Salisbury said...

Does it say something about my life when a grammar lesson is the highlight of my day? I'm thrilled when Alicia and Theresa post twice in a day.

Thank you for all the wonderful information you give us! (I tend to lurk, so I felt I should post this thought whilst it was lodged in my muddy brain (thanks Jami).

Leona said...

My plans for the day have been cancelled - whoo-hoo! Keep up the good posts. It's my only day even half way free now (insert big cheesy hopeful grin here)

Jami G. said...

Jordan,

Your "offending" paragraph doesn't seem that bad. If there were two paragraphs in a row like that, I might see if things could be reworded. But your sentences are so clean, it's not like you can pick out a prepositional phrase to throw at the front or anything. Depending on the character and the voice, I might insert a new second sentence between the current 1st and 2nd sentences along the lines of - What the hell? - to break it up more. Otherwise, if it says what you want it to say, it seems like that's the most important thing.

Jami G.

Jordan said...

I don't find it offensive at all ;) . I just pulled out the most recent draft and I've changed it up a little bit (took me a minute to figure out why, but it doesn't have anything to do with the repetition of 'he').

Mystery Robin said...

Quick follow up question re: your "because I failed Algebra" example. I thought "because" was always preceeded by a comma, just like 'and' or 'but'.

Is that not a hard and fast rule? Or not a rule at all and I'm just confused?

Thanks!

Murphy said...

Great post!
Hmmm, let's see if I've wrapped my head around this phatic phrase concept. (I like the alliteration-BTW)

Between you and me, I detest people who say, to make a long story short, because they never do!
Murphy! :D

Kinsey Holley said...

I discovered this blog today. Now I'm not getting any writing done because I can't quit reading the posts! I'm a grammar and word mechanics nerd, and this site is fascinating. Think I'm going to be dropping by regularly...

Edittorrent said...

Welcome, K. Right now, needless to say, we're all-- between you and me-- trying to insert a lot of "phatic" phrases into our posts. :)

"It goes without saying..." I always wonder why we say it, if "it" goes without saying.

"As I'm sure you'll agree..."

"As you know..."

We're probably going to be annoying until we get past this.
Alicia

em said...

Between you and me, I love this post!;) Is, to make a long story short another one? I get it!
Murphy did you purposely spell massage oil wrong in the other post as an added distraction? A couple of us think you did.:)

Murphy said...

Em, you give me far too much credit. I'm blushing.

Leona said...

Yeah, Murphy, a couple of us know you're capable of having done it on purpose. I'm wondering if it was one of those things you don't mean to do, but can't help doing because you mean to do it? :D

shrug. Just wondering. innocent stare.

Edittorrent said...

Message oil! That's what we need, to increase the fluidity and flow of our messages.

Oh, Murph is calling for massage oil. What does that do?
A

Murphy said...

A:

Oh, Murph is calling for massage oil. What does that do?

It eases your muscles after you've typed hard all day banging out the next best seller...and um, if you believe that, my condolences to your poor husband.:D
Murphy

Jordan said...

@Alicia—I've always wanted to just say, "It goes without saying." And not say anything else. :D

em said...

Murphy,
You did do it on purpose! I knew it! Leona agrees with me, don't you, L?
Em:)

Leona said...

You bet I do! Murphy definitely did it on purpose. Solely to educate Alicia I'm sure :D

verification word - unrib

If I thought Murphy could control the word verification, I'd believe she was trying to tell us to quit ribbing her - never muhahahah

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

Oh, you just made me laugh so hard, I sneezed. ...to increase the fluidity and flow of our messages... Perfect. :)

Jami G.

Murphy said...

Leona, LOL!
The: Solely to educate Alicia I'm sure - part? Not happening. That girl is frighteningly (wow I hope I spelled that right) correct all the time - and I'm not. Hence, message oil instead of MASSAGE!;)
Murphy

Babs said...

We don't believe you Murphy. Give it up.
Babs:)

Nels said...

First off, I wish Blogger would allow threaded comments as it would make it easy for me to ask a question related to not just the post but a comment as well.

Anyway, I am wondering about the en dash you used several times in this post and in one of the comments. I think I've seen it in other posts, and first dismissed it as a typo, but it seems that whenever you use -- as an en dash, you don't use a space-- like so-- and it confuses me because I've never seen it done like that before. I am tempted to assume it's correct that way since you clearly know so much about writing, grammar, and punctuation, but like I said, I've never seen it done like that, and it's obviously bothering me enough to make me write this comment.

Jami G. said...

Nels,

There's a good chance that Alicia might not see your comment as they usually only keep up with comments of their most recent posts. You may want to trying asking this (even though it's not related, they won't mind) in the most recent post, or you could email them with the question.

If I had to take a guess, it might be related to a habit left over from manuscripting. You're supposed to turn em-dashes into -- as they're easier to catch. So maybe it's just an em-dash?

Jami G.