Six impossible things

The Lego Theory, Part 3

Every set of Legos has the basic square and rectangular blocks that you build most of your castles and dinosaurs and pirates with, and then a bunch of oddly shaped pieces that you use to make the fancy bits. Last post, I compared the basic Legos to the first four basic parts of speech – nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

With both Legos and words, you can get along reasonably well with just the basic parts, but as soon as you want to make something complicated, you really want those pieces that are triangular or round or trapezoidal or long and skinny, to link things together or put the pointy tops on the towers or teeth or party hats. That’s what the rest of the parts of speech do – the pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. None of them are particularly strong on their own, but they are invaluable once you start putting words together into phrases.
Phrases are the next level of English, up from “words,” and this is the point where things begin to get interesting. Because as soon as you put two or more words together to make a phrase, they not only interact with each other, but they suddenly develop a couple of new properties that affect the impact they make.

The first of these is position or order. At the phrase level, the order that the words go in doesn’t have a lot of flexibility in English. You can say “the red flower,” but not “red the flower” or “flower the red.” If you move a preposition to a different position, you often change the meaning of the phrase; “of the African jungle” is not the same as “jungle of the African” or “African of the jungle.”

Nevertheless, position in phrases is where the writer starts being able to control what is going on in his/her prose. Words are what they are; unless the writer goes to the same extreme as J.R.R. Tolkein and invents whole new languages, the only control the writer has is over which words he/she chooses to use. The order the words go in is something the writer does have control of, at least to an extent, and that control grows with every level from phrases on up. You may not be able to move prepositions or conjunctions around without changing the meaning, but you can choose between “bedknobs and broomsticks” and “broomsticks and bedknobs” or between “on his champagne-polished black boots” and “on his black, champagne-polished boots.”

The reason you want to control position or word order is that, as a general rule, the first element in a phrase or clause or sentence has the most impact and is the most memorable; the last element has second-most; and the ones in the middle have the least. “Bedknobs” has slightly more weight or strength than “broomsticks” in the phrase “bedknobs and broomsticks,” for instance.

Position stacks on top of whatever strength the word has on its own. “Bedknobs” and “broomsticks” are both nouns, so they start off more-or-less equal in strength; it’s only the relative position in the phrase that makes one a little stronger than the other. But the first word in “to boldly go” is a preposition, which is a relatively weak linking word; the fact that it comes first doesn’t add much strength because it doesn’t have much of a base to add onto. “Go,” on the other hand, is a verb, the strongest part of speech, and it comes in the second strongest position, at the end of the phrase. Putting “go” in the middle (so as not to split the infinitive) weakens it significantly.

The second key property of phrases (as compared to words) is rhythm. Multi-syllable words can have rhythm because of the differing emphasis on the syllables; this is what makes some words fun to say (like “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”), but it’s built-in and the writer can’t do anything about it. As soon as there are multiple words, as in a phrase, the writer can control the rhythm by choosing words carefully and positioning them properly. By doing so, the writer can increase or decrease the natural strength and impact of any shorter unit that is part of a longer one (that is, you can use rhythm to put greater or lesser emphasis on a particular word in a phrase, or a particular phrase in a sentence, sentence in a paragraph, etc.).

Rhythm stacks with position and the other things that give a word strength. For example, with “bedknobs and broomsticks,” the rhythm (DUH-da-da-DUH-da) is the same, whichever noun you put first. But “to boldly go” has a nice, regular rhythm – da-DUH-da-DUH – and ends on a strong beat. So the phrase has a verb, at the end, on a strong beat – three strengths all stacked together. “To go boldly,” on the other hand, puts two strong beats together in the middle (“GO BOLDly”), interrupting the rhythm, and ends on a weak beat as well as with a weaker part of speech (the adverb). This is why “to boldly go” has so much more of a ring to it than “to go boldly” (for everyone except really strict grammarians, anyway). Poets do this kind of thing all the time, but it’s useful in prose, too.

More on phrases coming up. I did mention that this was going to be long, yes?

  1. I am eagerly soaking this all up, because I know that when I go back and revise, it will help me.

    I especially like how you mentioned rythm. I am a poet and a writer, so every so often I’ll stop and see how the words sound together. Also, the phrases’ order section was *really* useful! I can’t wait until the next post. Thanks!

  2. “Red the Rose” sounds like a line of old-English poetry to me. 🙂 I’m glad you mentioned that the first word in a sentence has the greatest strength, because that’s something I didn’t know. I’d always heard that the LAST word was the strongest.

    • Chicory – I think it’s almost a coin flip between first and last word, actually, in part because English is positional enough that the first word of a sentence is “the” or “A” or “if” – in other words, not a noun or verb – and the last word is often a noun or verb. So it gets hard to tell how much of the “strength” is due to position and how much is due to other factors. It’s easier with paragraphs (which are coming up in a few more posts, if people are still interested by then) – there have supposedly been actual studies done that show that the order that people retain information in is what’s in the first sentence, what’s in the last sentence, and what’s in the middle.

  3. It is true that both the first and last position in a sentence are important. In most languages the first position sets the scene, or the topic, or brings something out of the background into focus. But it’s the whole phrase that’s strong. “the” and “a” are hardly ever stressed, so it would be the noun following that gets the benefit.

    (Though I’m not willing to say that syntax is actually valid,) it does seem that the end of a sentence, in English, usually contains both the verb and its object. Its difficult to separate them: John quickly ate the pasta vs John ate quickly the pasta, so probably they both also get the benefit of being at the end of the sentence.

    Definitely it seems that if you have a long multi-clausal sentence (which i often do), it’s the first and the last that are important, the others can only get you from one place to the next.

    This reminds me of something i thought of while editing, that a full clause is often more comprehensible than a complex noun phrase.
    “drawn to me despite my far more casual than normal attire”
    “drawn to me despite the fact that i had dressed far more casually than normal”
    I think it’s easier to work out things when you have a verb telling you where to go.

    (I’m really enjoying this series of posts!)

  4. What are your thoughts on split infinitives, by the by?

    • Cara – Thanks.

      Ilse – My opinion on split infinitives is that sometimes you need them for clarity or rhythm or for a variety of other good reasons; that if you have a good reason, you should use them; and that if you don’t have a good reason, it’s usually better to avoid them, if only to keep the really strict, old-fashioned grammarians off your back. 🙂 Also, I think that any rule of grammar that is the subject of as much argument as split infinitives has been is probably not an actual rule yet (and I am told that modern grammarians do not have a prohibition against splitting infinitives any more anyway, so apparently the pro-splitting side of the argument has more or less won).

  5. Order is something I’ve become much more aware of now that I speak Spanish where order is rather arbitrary often. Explaining to someone that “I like beer” is different from “beer likes me” really brings home the difference for me. 😉

    Ilse – here’s a whole discussion about split infinitives. The place that I really use them is in negations. For me “He asked me not to say anything” has a different meaning than “He asked me to not say anything” – to me the second is more active (in a negative-void kind of way).

    • Alex – Order gets more flexible the further up you go. The order of words in a phrase like “to the lighthouse” has little to no flexibility, but the order of phrases in a long sentence may have more, and you can move sentences around fairly easily within a paragraph.

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