A Novel Approach

Out of Step

“Somebody had decided that all these soldiers marching around town needed recreation, so the pier—a fishing pier hitherto known simply as Municipal Pier and whose claim to fame was that down at the end of it was Minsky’s Burlesque Theater- was renamed Servicemen’s Pier and reinvented as a recreation venue.”

When it was Our War, Stella Suberman, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003

Subordinate clauses, those bits within a sentence that stand alone between commas or hyphens, modify the independent clauses of the sentences. Used skillfully, they can serve as an adjective, an adverb, or even as a noun clause. Unfortunately, even when grammatically correct, subordinate clauses are like soldiers and easily can get out of step. So what?

The polite answer, by Elmore Leanord: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

As more subjects, adjectives, and adverbs creep into subordinate parts of the sentence, the harder it is to keep track of what the sentence is about. These become the parts that people skip. Consider this:

“Polinichelle, in black and white, his doublet cut in the fashion of a century ago, with humps before and behind, a white frill round his neck and a black mask upon the upper half of his face, stood in the middle, his feet planted wide to steady him, solemnly and viciously banging a big drum.”

Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini, 1921, Signet Classic 2001

By the time the reader sorts out all the clothes he has lost track of what Polinichelle was doing. Why? The fashion clause is inapposite to the action clause, the subject of the sentence, and does not modify it.

The worst offenders neither complement the subject nor move the action: Consider:

“Retiring his carriers – and ordering the Enterprise back to Pearl Harbor for repairs – he was promising to stand ready to defend a twenty-five hundred-mile front, and assuring high command that the threadbare Cactus Air Force-which by Ghormley’s own count at month’s end had just eight fighters capable of intercepting Japanese bombers and which was struggling to fend off destroyers, much less the entire Combined Fleet—could hold off Nagumo’s still-potent carrier force.”

Neptune’s Inferno, James D. Hornfischer, Random House 2011

At last count there were six, but maybe seven, topics in the subordinate clauses alone, and I have no clear idea of what the primary parts of the sentence were about.

So, if three really good writers can fall into the trap, what about the rest of us? First, we all write subordinate clauses, and should. Second, however, we should mentally check off a few points:

Do not write more than one subordinate clause into a sentence.

Do not write more than one adjective phrase into a subordinate clause, that is, a phrase that modifies the clause rather than modifies the subject of the sentence. If the word ‘and’ appears in a subordinate clause it is a good bet that there is more than one adjective or adjective phrase in it. Run.

Third, even if grammatically correct, a subordinate clause that contains both a subject and a verb should be sized up for its own clothes – why not write it as its own sentence?

And, finally, multiple sentences that contain subordinate clauses and are within a single paragraph will wreck that paragraph such that keeping track of what it’s about is more trouble than it’s worth.

Go back over what you wrote yesterday. Read it in the fresh light of day. Take each sentence and parenthesize or strike out all the subordinate clauses. Read the sentences without them to see if they make as much sense standing alone as when decked out in your verbal tuxedos and ball (point) gowns. If the super phrase doesn’t add to the sentence and the paragraph, let it go.

The use of subordinate clauses that are at tangents to the subject becomes like crying wolf—eventually the reader learns how to skip over them over what is written such that when a real howl is made, it is ignored.

Don’t stand for such insubordination; your reader won’t.

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Number 2: February 2009


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