Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What goes with what?

Sentences are usually about one thing-- there's some unity there. But of course, the reason we have more than one sentence in most paragraphs (and we do, don't we???) is because we want to elaborate or define or refine beyond the first sentence's boundaries.

Something I often edit for is sentences that aren't unified. I can't exactly explain, alas, but let me give you an example:

Mom might be saying "jump." Trudy didn't have to ask how high, and she was too old to be ordered around.

Two sentences, and it's all related to Mom ordering Trudy around. But notice that the first two elements are riffing off that old saying, "If I say jump, you ask how high?" Those two really belong together. Putting the second element in with the third is going to lose that unity and the echo of that saying. So try it that way (still need a conjunction for the second clause in a sentence):

Mom might be saying "jump," but Trudy didn't have to ask how high. She was too old to be ordered around.

Now you can see that the first two clauses go together, and the third is in a sentence of its own because it's a conclusion to the combination of the first two.

Actually, if you read that aloud, you'd hear that the first two are meant to be together. Often the rhythm will tell you that something is missing or something needs to be conjoined or separated. Listen. Your inner ear and your mind are connected. :)



Julie Harrington said...

I always read my stuff aloud. Not only is it a killer way to find typos, but you hear awkwardness, you find rough stumbling patches -- and if your brain can't convert it so your tongue can say it, fix it. And you definitely pick up rhythm. I have this annoying habit of being able to pick out sentences for my crit group and say, "You're missing X number of beats in this sentence. It sounds weird."

I think it all goes back to that Writer's Ear thing.


Unknown said...

JewelTones, I'm a former director and playwright, and I agree with you completely. You need to hear the beats. People don't actually speak that crisply, or in iambic pentameter either, but unnatural rhythms intrude on the flow, making the reader or listener work harder than necessary.

Alicia, while I agree in principle with what you suggest, revising the example as you suggest may distort the writer's intent. The edited version focuses on Trudy's age/maturity. The original suggests a kind of spunkiness that gives insight into her character. How old is Trudy? In the revision, she's likely a high-schooler. In the original, she could as easily be an impertinent nine-year-old as a teen.

Edittorrent said...

Trudy is an adult, actually. She's out of college and has a job.

Sure, you can always make a case that something will work if this and that are true. I didn't post the whole paragraph, so you didn't get to see the context.

Context is important, and I'm sorry I couldn't post everything. I'm using this as an example (and in context, the sentence order was better my way). But you know, the more writers think (in revision, not in drafting) about why something belongs in this sentence or that, the better. Even if we come up with different answers, the analysis and evaluation are what count. I'm likely to accept any sequence if I know there's thought behind it.

So your thinking sounds good to me! I fear you gave it more thought that the author did. You'd be a good critiquer. :)

JT, I know, it sounds weird. But I just heard a writing prof say that usually when we hear the rhythm is off, we should realize that something else is off too-- something is missing or ungrammatical. So the "inner ear" is giving us a clue. It's not just rhythm-- the rhythm means something.


green_knight said...

My problem with the sentence is might be saying... didn't have to ask ... and she was too old

It's not the grammar. It's the disunity of the flow. The three verbs/actions are not related.

Mom might be saying 'jump' and Trudy was too old to be ordered around.

really, really does not work for me.

If you substitute 'but' it can work - but then you're left with the 'didn't have to ask how high'.

I'm trying to work out how I would phrase this to make it flow - it's not as easy as I thought at first.