Sentence Writing #02: Clauses and Phrases

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This series of posts owes a lot to, and borrows from, June Casagrande’s book on sentence style, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.

Today, we shall delve in the deepest recesses of the earth, and talk about the abusive step-father of all writers, Grammar Proper. And what’s more proper than talking about clauses and phrases? …Cocktail napkins, perhaps? I don’t get out nearly enough.

Grammar, Stephen King writes, “is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.” Or so Casagrande reports in Chapter 3 of her book on the subject, the topic of which makes the heading of this blog post. I sure hope she hasn’t lied; I’d hate to misquote Mr. King.

Here’s Stevie!

What does a clause need contain to be complete? Simple enough — a noun and a verb*. That’s why statements such as “Filip snickered,” “Mishka groaned,” and “Albert abstained” are complete sentences…if not very informative. Building a relationship between separate clauses is child’s play; take the topic of my last post, subordinating conjunctions: Although Filip snickered, Mishka groaned. Why is Filip snickering and Mishka groaning? We’ll find out once we introduce some prepositional phrases!

Some wot wots, you ask? Bend me your ear, chum, and I’ll tell ya all about phrases! But first, I’ll ask a question of my own:

What’s the difference between a clause and a phrase? A clause can form a sentence on its own, while a phrase cannot. Casagrande has her pulse on those nasty, no-good phrases: “A phrase is a single word or a cluster of words that together work in your sentence as a single part of speech.” They come in five varieties: noun phrases, verb phrases, adverb phrases, adjective phrases and prepositional phrases.

Now, let’s break the simple sentences above into different phrases. We’ve got the noun phrases, which above consist of Filip, Mishka and Albert, and — no, don’t freak out! I know I said phrases, then gave you proper names, what kind of a monster am I?! But y’see, Reader, proper names can function as noun phrases with no problem whatsoever. We can add modifiers to these noun phrases: The mocking Filip snickered, as well as, Mousy Mishka. Both “the mocking”(article and adjective) and “mousy” are now parts of the noun phrases of each sentence.

The verb phrases are simple enough — they consist of the verbs themselves, and any simple additions with nightmare titles such as “Modality,” “Aspects,” “Auxiliaries,” and “THE OPERATOR”. I shall not go into any of these unless necessary, because I do not wish to encourage suicide by grammar cop.

Now let’s expand our complex sentence:

Unsurprisingly, when the ever-mocking Filip snickered at her, mousy Mishka groaned in her hands.

Let’s do a proper breakdown of what’s going on in this sentence. First of all, I hate adverbials with a fiery passion. I’m only using “Unsurprisingly” to give you all an example of an adverbial phrase. You can put an adverbial phrase before or after either of the two clauses. When the ever-mocking Filip snickered at her, mousy Mishka groaned in her hands, unsurprisingly. Or: When the ever-mocking Filip snickered at her, moust Mishka unsurprisingly groaned in her hands.

Moving on. “When” is our subordinating conjunction, and it defines the first of the two clauses as belonging to a lower grammatical level than the second. “The ever-mocking Filip” is our noun phrase, and “snickered” is our verb phrase. “At her” modifies the action, is a prepositional phrase, and plays the part of object of the subordinated clause in this complex sentence.

How about the second part of the sentence? We’ve covered most of this already, except for “in her hands” which is also a prepositional phrase, which describes manner, i.e. how the action is done. And there we’ve got it, an analysis of my relationship with poor Mishka.

We are missing a single type of phrase, the adjective phrase. Let’s throw a pair of examples out, shall we?

His rat-onna-stick smelled mouth-wateringly delicious. Faster than the train to Busan, I bit into it.

The adjective phrase can appear at the start, end, or in the middle of a sentence clause. Its purpose is to describe a noun or pronoun in a sentence. In the first sentence, the adjective phrase is, “mouth-wateringly delicious“, and in the second — “Faster than the train to Busan“.**

We can break these yet further–and indeed, if we were doing a thorough gramatic analysis, we would define the role of each and every word before connecting them into phrases, only then defining each phrase’s role in the overarching sentence using two different types of diagrams. Simple enough stuff, but time-consuming.

Finally, it’s worth looking at the kind of error you might commit if you’re not responsible with your use of prepositional phrases. Casagrande tells us this is a “supposedly real classified advertisement that once offered for sale mixing bowl set designed to please cook with round bottom for efficient beating“.

…What am I supposed to do with the cook’s bottom, again? Anyway, it’s good to see the ol’ chef is breaking away from stereotype and exercising — wonder how many squats he does to keep his bottom nice and round?

Joke aside, the mistake here is that the prepositional phrases which should modify the noun phrase, “mixing bowl set,” are placed after the object, “cook,” and so end up modifying our poor working man in ways at once sexist and demeaning. We will revisit the wonderful and wonderous world of prepositional phrases at a later time.

Until then, thanks for reading!

*I tried adding a rat onna stick in there, but was censured by multiple authorities on sentence structure and style.

**Don’t ask me why I threw that reference in, I haven’t even seen the movie.