How to write better sentences 5—what is a clause

Every sentence contains at least one revolution. Every full sentence in English requires a subject and a verb, and so every sentence depicts change, overthrow, creation. Democrats may call the verb an “action,” and the subject an “actor,” but another, less humanistic view might be that sentences ceaselessly depict alteration. They affirm the world’s constant, pitiless motion. The red door opened. Only the things we call “sentence fragments” speak with the voice of permanence—only their voice is free of consideration of causality and time, able to present objects directly, without predication. “A red door, dented at the base.” This is the humble mystic speaking, merely observing a door and its features. But, instead, to say “There is a red door” is a act of creation, an act presumably not very different, grammatically speaking, to the Deity’s creation of the universe. 

The doer and the thing done part of sentences can be analysed on their own, and when they are looked at separately from the rest of their sentence, they are called clauses. We can sense this when we look at a sentence like

In a sleepy suburb of London, last Tuesday, my old friend Tim—a lovely, sweet man—killed his girlfriend with a hammer, and then called me to ask what he should do next.

The main idea, before the “and,” is clearly Tim’s murder of his girlfriend. He is the doer, it the thing done, and the rest of the sentence (up to the “and then”) hangs off his act, explains it, situates it. It is the main clause.

Yet it is perfectly possible to write well and not know what a clause is. I have to admit that I still feel a little unsure what they are. Googling the question, “What is a clause?” one finds the basic idea repeated everywhere—

A clause contains a subject and a predicate

But odd other conditions lurk around that simple combination of noun and verb, doer and the thing done. Cliffnotes adds,

A clause is a closely related group of words that includes both a subject and a verb.

I am not sure how to determine what makes words “closely related.” Lingualinks recommends, additionally, that a clause

expresses a proposition

And so while I understand that the sentence

I climbed the tree and watched the street all day

contains two clauses, connected by “and,” I feel uncomfortable lingering too long on the grammarian’s turf, and while I will talk later about the more usual ways of dividing clauses into independent, subordinate, relative and noun, I’d like to describe here a more practical way of understanding clauses—treating them as the building blocks of the sentence. In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte calls independent clauses “kernel sentences,” implying that they are the essential parts of sentences. They provide the simplest ways of writing. Indeed, if you keep all your sentences down to the kernel, you will probably not confuse your reader, thought you may bore her.

It was a sunny day. Lots of children were eating ice cream. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. My mum didn’t buy me an ice cream. We played in the park. We threw a frisbee. We counted clouds. We played hide and seek lots of times. I was hungry. My stomach hurt. My mum’s eyes were very bright.

And so, using this idea of independent clauses as the kernels of sentences, we can distinguish between writers who stress the kernel, and those that obscure it. For the former, one immediately thinks of the American minimalists, of writers such as Grace Paley. Here is the opening section of her story, “Wants.”

I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
I said, O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.
The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.

In this section we see many sentences with only one clause, only two subordinating terms (“so” and “because”) and only two cases of “and.” When the narrator says, “Because I don’t understand how time passes” we believe her, because her prose suggests a mind constantly surprised by the world’s thereness, far too surprised to interpret it much. In contrast, in the sentences of a more byzantine writer like M.R. James, the famous teller of ghost stories, a reader is forced to search through masses of sentence-stuff for the main idea. This is the opening sentence of “The Mezzotint,”

Some time ago I believe I had the pleasure of telling you the story of an adventure which happened to a friend of mine by the name of Dennistoun, during his pursuit of objects of art for the museum at Cambridge.

This sounds like someone telling a story, someone in no particular hurry, and the main idea, if there is one, is so buried that to pick it out would involve paraphrase—“I have already told you Dennistoun’s story.” Teaching a fiction class last semester, I often found that my undergraduates tended towards this style, the “chatty,” rambling style, and usually I suggested cutting much of it. Let the scene / story speak for itself. Here in James’s story, however, the style supports the theme, which is of a tale distant from the reader, uncertainly reported, its evidence imperfectly preserved in sketches and blurred photographs. It is as if such a narrative style is meant to act as a bridge for the reader, taking him slowly out of his skepticism, and out towards, step by step, the hinted, never quite shown world of horror that abides in distant shadows.

Virginia Tufte proposes that there are four types of sentence kernel, and (this is interesting) that they can be ranked in terms of “energy.” The four types of kernel are:

1. Clauses with “be” (is, are, were etc).

The hills are dark to the east.

2. Clauses with linking verbs such as become, seems, resembles, causes.

His dog became tetchy with age.

3. Clauses with intransitive verbs (lacking an object).

Jane cried so hard that night.

4. Clauses with transitive verbs (which take an object).

The two dogs bit the kitten.

(All these example kernels are mine; I am in England right now, and so lack access to Tufte’s book, which lists dozens of more skillful examples.)

She suggests that when a writer wants to present a passage full of energy, grabbing the reader’s pulse, the third and fourth types of kernel are the way to go. Stuff your sentences full of intransitive and transitive verbs—use be verbs and linking verbs only when you want to ease the pace. Don’t lose energy by mistakenly switching out of action verbs, or your reader will lose interest in your narration. In contrast, if you want to signal to the reader that your prose is stepping out of action, moving to reflection and observation, stepping down the energy path will assist the transition. Here is a half-way successful use of high to low energy, the final sentence being a shift in point of view as well as kernel-type.

The larger boy held a thick stick and hit Justin in the head. Justin cried out and staggered back. Watching from across the playground, I went red hot and began to run, dodging around three girls skipping. The boy stepped up as Justin retreated, and hit him again, low in the leg. Justin fell, wailing. I wanted to grab that bully and smack him against the wall. Knock out a few teeth. Bloody both his eyes. I would rip that stick out his hands and snap it in two. I was thirty seven years old and a terrible father. 

The final sentence there pulls out the point of view, reflecting on the action and the character of the actor, and the switch from transitive verbs to a linking verb assists that jump in perspective.

So. The basic idea, for beginning writers, is that high energy verbs are usually better than low energy ones, and that writing that keeps the kernels of sentences clear is usually better than writing that keeps them hazy. On a more advanced level, the idea is to know these implied relations and use them to evoke specific effects, such as the dope-head narrator who never gets away from linking verbs. Readers may like to try writing the narration of a heavily doped young man who rarely gets away from linking verbs, his verb choices stressing his lack of connection to the world.

I have been talking about sentence kernels as a way into the more complex techniques of the cumulative sentence, which I will continue working towards next week.

Best wishes,


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