A Word, Please: Sentences that give you clause

To many people, the word "grammar" connotes a bunch of nitpicky rules expressed in scary terms and enforced with cruel glee. Dangling participles, split infinitives, misplaced modifiers and assertions that you can't start a sentence with "hopefully" are enough to turn most people off of the topic altogether.

But grammar is more useful than the nitpicking issues with which it's most often associated. Real grammar — the good stuff — comes when we set aside minor usage questions and focus on the mechanics that, if understood, can turn a bad writer into a competent one.

Take, for example, this sentence, which is a thinly disguised version of a real one I edited: "Supporting each other through their education and in their career dreams has been a vein running through the Wilsons' 12-year relationship that continues today as Peter pursues his dreams of becoming a medical doctor and Sarah works toward her master's."

It's the kind of writing that makes editors see red and makes readers turn the page. It's abstract, convoluted and clunky. And the secret to turning this into something better lies in grammar.

In my opinion, if there's one thing everyone should know about grammar, it is how to identify the main clause of a sentence. A clause usually means a unit containing a subject and a verb, like "John walks," and which may or may not appear within a longer sentence, "John walks with confidence."

Sentences can have more than one clause, but each of those clauses can, if you choose, form the basis for its own sentence. So once you're in the habit of identifying the main subject and verb in any sentence, a whole world of options opens up to you.

Look at our example sentence. Its main clause, pared down, is "Supporting has been." Every other idea in the sentence rests on this basic foundation. But is it a good foundation? Hardly.

Our subject is a gerund, which is the abstract idea of an action expressed in noun form. The most interesting sentences, writing experts agree, usually have tangible, vivid subjects. Mary quit. Cadillacs retain their value. Protesters marched on Washington.

Sentences centered around a real person or thing are usually more vivid.

The verb in our main clause, "has been," is a form of "to be." Sometimes forms of "to be," especially "is," are the best choice. But, writing experts say, real actions can be more interesting to readers than states of being: "Pete is the person who punched Lou" vs. "Pete punched Lou."

So now that we see our main clause, we can see that the central idea of our sentence was "Supporting each other has been a vein." That's pretty lame.

To improve our example sentence, we can ask whether there are any real, tangible subjects whose actions might be interesting to the reader. In this case, yes. We have the Wilsons. And we know they're doing something. They're supporting each other. So we could, if we wanted to, make that our main clause, replacing the vague assertion that "supporting has been a vein" with the more substantive, "The Wilsons have supported each other throughout their 12-year relationship."

Then we can decide whether all the other ideas in the sentence are worth keeping and, if so, where to keep them.

Assuming we agree that our "vein" idea can be dispensed with, we could opt for something like: "The Wilsons have supported each other throughout their 12-year relationship and continue to as Peter pursues his medical degree and Sarah works toward her master's in music education."

There are countless other ways to rewrite the sentence. But the choices exist only to writers who can find the main clause and assess its merits.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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