A Word, Please: Sharpen your main clause

A few weeks ago, I taught two grammar seminars to aspiring novelists at the California Crime Writers Conference in Pasadena. The first session was all about the little stuff: lay and lie, commas, and how to avoid the small-but-serious mistakes that can make a writer look bad to an agent or acquisitions editor.

The second day we took on sentence craft, everything from passives to dangling participles.

I spent hours preparing the sessions and hours more at the head of a conference room passing the information along. But by the time I was done, I realized that the single most important lesson I could offer to writers boiled down to just two words: main clause.

Contrary to popular belief, grammar isn’t just about dodging the slings and arrows of some cruel stickler’s red pen. Grammar is about writing. It’s about understanding how to convey ideas and information. The vehicles that do this, of course, are sentences. At the very heart of every sentence is at least one main clause. And that’s the very place where so many writers go wrong.

Look at the sentence: “Hints that the spring season is nearing its end are making themselves known.” It’s a slightly disguised version of a real sentence penned by a professional writer in an article I edited. The three-page-long article had quite a few such sentences — inelegant and abstract expressions that buried their own message.

Those two little words — “main clause” — are all this writer needs to know to improve his work.

A clause is a unit that usually contains a subject and a verb: Priscilla studied. We ate. The couple walked.

A clause can sometimes form a complete sentence, though often other words are needed to make the thought complete: Priscilla studied engineering. We ate scones for breakfast. The couple walked the dog in the mornings.

A lot of sentences have more than one clause. A coordinating conjunction like “and,” “but,” “or” or “so” can link clauses that otherwise could stand on their own as sentences: “Betty works on Tuesdays or she goes shopping.” These are called compound sentences, and both their clauses are grammatically equal.

In sentences joined with subordinating conjunctions, the clauses are not equal. “Pete can’t have dessert until he eats his vegetables.” Only the main clause “Pete can’t have dessert” is independent, which means it can stand alone as a sentence: The clause with the subordinating conjunction “until” is not a complete sentence on its own. “Until he eats his vegetables” needs a main clause to make the sentence complete.

Because, as, if, when, though, since, and although are just a few of the subordinating conjunctions that link clauses this way.

Independent clauses do the heavy lifting in writing. They’re the heart of every sentence. For example, the main clause in the example sentence I edited says, “Hints are making themselves known.” That’s pretty empty (and, arguably, illogical). And it doesn’t serve our writer, who was trying to make a point about spring.

Once we see that the main clause isn’t pulling its weight, we can consider alternatives. For example, what if we decided that spring should be the main subject of the sentence? We would just have to ask ourselves what verb might go with it — that is, what is spring doing? It’s nearing an end, right? So this whole clunky sentence can be pared down to just “Spring is nearing an end.”

Of course, had it been really important to focus on “hints,” the original clunker sentence would have been better. But in this case, there was no reason to give “hints making themselves known” top billing. Chopping it out completely let the writer’s real message shine through as a main clause.

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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