Some time ago, we looked at a tricky sentence -- evocative and beautiful, but not perfectly balanced -- and I asked for feedback from all of you on how you might edit it. Or if you would edit it. Here's the sentence again:
But it felt so good to be out in the open land, sunlight pouring on her head and arms, bees buzzing in the anemone, the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.
I have to start by saying, again, that this is a good, evocative sentence, but bits of it nag my eyes when I read it. In the original post, I broke the sentence down, or started to, anyway , which I think I ought to re-post here:
But it felt so good to be out in the open land,
(1) sunlight pouring on her head and arms,
(2) bees buzzing in the anemone,
(3) the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.
If you've been reading this blog for any stretch of time, it probably won't surprise to you learn that my eye first snagged on the present participial phrases. (If you aren't familiar with our long rants against PPPs, I'll just suggest you read this post and this post. And maybe this one, which is long but excellent.) Whenever I see a PPP, my eye immediately searches out the sentence for the noun modified by the PPP. In this case, pouring modified sunlight, buzzing modifies bees, ticking modifies scent. So that's all fine.
But something about that sentence still made me pause, so I went to the next check. What did that list of three modify? Open land. And the series lines up in neat order after open land, so that seemed to work just fine.
And yet, I wasn't satisfied. So, if we can see that everything is in the proper order, the next check has us look at the relationships between the parts. And this is where I started to dither, and it's also where I get to touch on another old rant. You see, all those little words that we think of as mostly invisible -- the conjunctions, the relative pronouns, the prepositions, and the like -- are crucial for creating relationships between the "idea" words in a sentence. We could have a list of idea words:
sports car, zoomed, grocery store
And not know the relationship between the parts. There's a world of difference between,
The sports car zoomed to the grocery store.
The sports car zoomed through the grocery store.
Right? Changing one word, one tiny little preposition, changes the entire meaning of that sentence because it changes the relationship between the parts. When we skip those relationship words (as when we substitute a semicolon for a conjunction), we might still be getting the right words down, but we sacrifice our ability to control the reader's interpretation of the relationship between the parts.
Sometimes the ambiguity is exactly what we want, as in Alicia's favorite semicolon from Auden:
I thought love would last forever; I was wrong.
He could have said,
I thought love would last forever, AND I was wrong.
I thought love would last forever, BUT I was wrong.
Either of those would signal a slightly different shade of meaning, but in this case, the semicolon creates an ambiguity that works strongly for the sentence -- because it could be BUT, it could be AND, or it could even be both or neither. The nature of the relationship between those clauses is ambiguous for a purpose, and the ambiguity actually adds meaning to the poem.
But that's another issue, and frankly, it's a rare semicolon that adds more than it detracts. And this sample sentence is not about semicolons, but about the way we glue pieces together with tiny words. And in this case, I think we need some glue. It's not technically necessary, but it would add clarity and precision. Maybe something like,
But it felt so good to be out in the open land with sunlight pouring on her head and arms, bees buzzing in the anemone, and the scent of pine tickling her nostrils.
Adding two words -- the preposition with and the conjunction and -- converts that series into a prepositional phrase with a compound object. Note, too, that now we can get rid of the comma after land, which was previously used to signal the ellipsis. (Ellipsis = missing word = the preposition with)
Or maybe we want to make it adverbial.
But it felt so good to be out in the open land when the sunlight poured on her head and arms, bees buzzed in the anemone, and the scent of pine tickled her nostrils.
Now we have a compound adverbial clause, and notice that we can again eliminate the comma after land. We also can shift the form of the verbs in the clauses to past participles, which always read a little more easily. Of course, now the clause signals something different about the nature of the relationship between the main clause and the dependent clause. Where before we had a preposition indicating something about the nature of the land, now we have a temporal adverb indicating something about the moment in time spent on the land. It's a different relationship between the parts.
There might be other ways to solve that sentence, too, and shore up the relationship between the parts. Or it might be that the author will choose to leave the relationship ambiguous. Worked for Auden, right? In any case, it's a good sentence, and it's a good example of how to tinker with pieces using those little relationship words.