Great Courses, Great Sentences 03 of 24

Brief summary of lesson 3

  • Sentences are not “sequences of words” but propositions.
  • Modifying clauses will not be able to stand on their own.
  • The base clause can stand by itself.
  • Free modifiers, words or phrases, can be moved around the sentence and the same factual information will be there, but it likely will create a different impression.
  • The place in the sentence a writer will usually tend to make the most memorable is the end of the sentence.
  • A sentence can be a narrative with a story all contained within itself.
  • Reminding the reader of the mind behind the writing is part of the style.
  • The part of a sentence that is actually written is the much smaller part, the propositions and impacts unwritten but still contained within the sentence are the much larger part. Landon compares sentences to icebergs.

Questions to consider:

1) Choose a long, fairly complicated sentence. Identify the base clause and count the number of modifiers attached to it.

From “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller, knocking on the moonlit door; and his horse in the silence champed the grass of the forest’s ferny floor; and a bird flew up out of the turret, above the Traveller’s head: and he smote upon the door again a second time; “Is there anybody there?” he said.

Base clause is “’Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller”

Modifiers:

  1. knocking on the moonlit door
  2. his horse in the silence champed the grass of the forest’s ferny floor
  3. a bird flew up out of the turret above the Traveller’s head
  4. he smote upon the door a second time
  5. “is there anybody there” he said

 

2) Use cumulative syntax and as much detail as you can add to write a sentence describing a dramatic situation. Identify the base clause and move it three different times and see how you like the different placements.

Original: I looked at the quilt, taking in all the details, admiring the stitchwork, considering what colors and fabrics I would have made if it had been up to me, noting that there were only a few spots where the corners did not line up correctly, wondering why this person had chosen a pattern with so many small pieces.

Modification 1: Taking in all the details, admiring the stitchwork, I looked at the quilt, considering what colors and fabrics I would have made if it had been up to me, noting that there were only a few spots where the corners did not line up correctly, wondering why this person had chosen a pattern with so many small pieces.

Modification 2: Taking in all the details, admiring the stitchwork, considering what colors and fabrics I would have made if it had been up to me, noting that there were only a few spots where the corners did not line up correctly, I looked at the quilt, wondering why this person had chosen a pattern with so many small pieces.

Modification 3: Taking in all the details, admiring the stitchwork, considering what colors and fabrics I would have made if it had been up to me, noting that there were only a few spots where the corners did not line up correctly, wondering why this person had chosen a pattern with so many small pieces, I looked at the quilt.
Comments:

  • The original reads like something out of a suspense novel, the reader is experiencing the quilt in the same way the speaker is. It makes it feel more immediate and real.
  • Modification 1 is a bit more pastoral, or calm, or contemplative. Instead of a feeling of immediacy and the rapid passage of time and fast train of thought, Modification 1 is more contemplative, I would almost expect the person to take a sip of some hot tea in the next sentence or two.
  • Modifications 2 and 3 are frustrating for me as the reader. By the time I’ve gotten through the third clause and still have no idea what this sentence is about, I want to tell the writer “get on with it!!”

Just as an added note for myself, here is the full text of The Listeners by Walter de la Mare. I first read it in a ninth grade English class, and then for years remembered parts of it but lost where I’d read it or what the title was or who the poet was; and then happily last year I found a reference to it in a book I was reading, so I was able to look it up again.

The Listeners by Walter de la Mare

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head: –
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

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