Saturday, December 1, 2012

The power of free modifiers to make ideas more expansive

From June 2012 onwards I have presented here in this blog six grammar strategies for crafting more readable and compelling sentences, namely (1) the use of synonyms to enliven prose, (2) the use of reference words to avoid unduly repeating ourselves when driving home a point, (3) the use of demonstrative reference words to make what we are saying more immediate and forceful, (4) the use of repeated action and sequence words to give punch and sparkle to our statements, (5) the use of resumptive modifiers to dramatically improve the organization of our ideas, and (6) the use of summative to eliminate verbal sprawl and make our sentences more emphatic.

This time, for the seventh in this blog’s series of grammar strategies for effective writing, I’ll show how we can craft more elegant English prose by making good use of the so-called free modifiers. In the essay below that I wrote for my daily English-usage column in The Manila Times in February of 2004, we will first survey the entire universe of modifiers in the English language, after which we’ll zero in on the eight forms of free modifiers and take up how each of them does its modifying job. (December 2, 2012)

Crafting more elegant prose with free modifiers

To better appreciate the value of free modifiers, particularly of the kind that works in the same league as resumptive modifiers and summative modifiers, we must first survey the entire universe of modifiers in the English language. We will recall, to begin with, that there are two basic types of modifiers: the bound modifier and the free modifier. Bound modifiers are those that are essential to the meaning of a clause or sentence, as the relative clause “those that are essential to the meaning of the sentence” in this particular sentence is essential to its main clause. Without that relative clause, the main clause and the sentence itself cannot exist; all we will have is the meaningless fragment “bound modifiers are.”

On the other hand, in that same sentence, the long phrase that begins with “…as the relative clause” and ends with “…essential to its main clause” is a free modifier. We can knock it off and it will not even be missed in the sentence that will be left: “Bound modifiers are those that are essential to the meaning of a clause or sentence.” The sentence has shed off a substantial chunk of itself, of course, as a lizard might lose its tail and yet grow it again someday, but otherwise nothing serious or untoward has happened to its semantic health.

One distinctive feature of bound modifiers is that they are not set off from the rest of the sentence; they normally form an unbroken chain of words that ends with a period, or pauses with a comma or some other punctuation mark. Free modifiers, on the other hand, are set off by commas most of the time, as the comparative clause “a lizard might lose its tail and yet grow it again someday” finds itself hemmed in by two commas in the sentence we examined earlier. Not to have those two commas, or not to have at least one of them in what we will call their frontline acts, would make free modifiers such a disruptive nuisance or outright killers of sense and meaning.

Now that we are about to examine their semantic structures in detail, we might as well make a quick review of the eight forms free modifiers usually take to do their job. Those forms have familiar and largely self-explanatory names: subordinate clauses, infinitive phrases, verb clusters, noun clusters, adjective clusters, appositives, absolutes, and free relative clauses. For a better understanding of them, let’s now look at sentences that use the various forms of free modifiers (shown in italics):

Subordinate clause: “You may leave now even if you haven’t finished your work yet.”

Infinitive phrase:To win this bout, you must knock him out in this round.”

Verb cluster, a crossover pattern that puts the “-ing” form of verbs into modifying-clause mode: “Taking the cue, the buffoon withdrew his candidacy.”

Noun cluster, a crossover pattern that puts the second noun from a main clause into modifying-clause mode: “A veteran of many campaign seasons, the aging politician knows the turf that well.” (Its basic, rather convoluted form: “The aging politician is a veteran of many campaign seasons who knows the turf that well.”)

Adjective cluster, a crossover pattern that puts an adjective or a verb’s past-participle form into modifying-clause mode: “Desperate over the taunts about her academic deficiencies, the woman withdrew her job application.”

Appositive, the nifty description that we insert between nouns and their verbs: “The widow, a pale ghost of her old self, wailed at her husband’s funeral.”

Absolute nominative, which puts the passive-voice verb into the “-ing” or past-participle form and knocks off the helping verb: “All hope gone, the soldier beat a hasty retreat.”

Free relative clauses. I have deferred discussion of free relative clauses for last because we’ll be giving them much fuller treatment than the rest. There is a special reason for giving them a much closer look. Free relative clauses, along with resumptive modifiers and summative modifiers, are actually among the most powerful tools available to us for achieving clarity and coherence as well as elegance in our prose.

We will first focus on the power of free relative clauses to expand ideas in a sentence way beyond the limits of the usual subject-verb-predicate format. As we already know, a bound modifier is limited to identifying the noun form that precedes or follows it in a clause, as in this example: “The Makati City executive with whom I had a heated traffic altercation last month is now my friend.”

The long italicized clause in the sentence above is actually a bound modifier that closes the sentence in an airtight loop. Every word in that clause is essential to its own meaning and that of the whole sentence. We can liken a bound modifier to an animal species that has already perfected itself genetically, thus arriving at its evolutionary dead-end. Free relative clauses, in contrast, form part of the wide gene pool of language that makes infinite permutations of thought possible.

We will explore that idea in greater detail in the next Forum update.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 25, 2004 issue © 2004 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 63 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

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