Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Subordinating Style

I've been talking about sentence structure and how to develop skills in writing better sentences.  I've been using examples from a book called How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish and applying them to scientific writing.  In the last post, I mused about sentence style versus content.  In this post, I will describe two basic categories of style: subordinating and additive.

The subordinating style refers to sentences in which the components are arranged according to relationships of causality, temporalness, or priority.

For example:

"It was the older, classic papers in science I was assigned during college rather than the more recent, specialized articles I read in graduate school that influenced the choices I later made in my career."

In this sentence, there are two actions that each occur at different times in relation to each other (temporalness: college and graduate school) and that also have different influences (causality), one more important than the other (priority) on events occurring at a later time (career).

An additive style would not link components in terms of their relationship to each other:

"I read 'On the Origin of Species', and I passed all my courses and began dating Mark."

We don't get any hint of how or whether these different actions relate to each other or when they occurred in the writer's life.  These are constructions that teachers commonly encounter in student writing. The problem with this one is that the writer is just stringing together different actions without establishing their relationships. They may have some relationship, but the writer is unable to structure the sentence so that this relationship is clear.

There is nothing inferior, necessarily, with the additive style.  Here's another example that is less scatterbrained than the one above:

"I read ancient texts, studied classic treatises, and perused modern articles to achieve a broad view of science and its history."

This example also strings together a sequence of actions without explicitly showing when they were carried out or which were more important.  In contrast to the previous example, this sentence works because it delivers a coherent message.  It conveys a time sequence, but one based on the historical context of the sources: ancient, classic, modern and in that sense there is a temporal relationship among the sentence components.

Fish offers an example of a subordinating sentence in which an assertion is made in such a way as to dismiss any other opinion on the topic.  This sentence by Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice) is also one of the examples I gave earlier of famous first lines in novels:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Here we have a very short sentence, which conveys a complex social conundrum, but does so with a clear tone of authority.  It begins with a claim that what is going to be stated is irrefutable, preempting any effort on the reader's part to challenge the revelation.  The sentence also shows parallel structure: "in possession of" and "in want of".  The authoritative tone is again emphasized by the use of "must be" later in the sentence.  This is a technique that can be used to communicate confidence in any sentence making an assertion.

Darwin did something similar in the opening line of On the Origin of Species, except that his intent was to simultaneously convey a sense of humility:

"When on board H.M.S. Beagle as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South American and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent."

I've already dissected this sentence in an earlier post, but use it again here to illustrate the subordinating style and specifically its usefulness in making scientific assertions.  Darwin begins his opening sentence with a phrase that establishes his credentials as a naturalist, preempting any assumption by the reader that he's just an armchair theorist.  I have no way of knowing if Darwin deliberately used this sentence structure, but it works beautifully to establish his authority without sounding pompous. In this sense, it is more palatable than Jane Austin's assertion about a "universal truth".  He uses the term "facts" to refer to the observations upon which his conclusions are based, terminology that further anticipates and preempts any criticism of the basis of the theoretical musings to come.

What's impressive about Darwin's sentence is that his assertions are tempered by a tone of humility and sense of discovery ("I was much struck").  Darwin's humility was not faked; by all accounts he was a humble person who constantly questioned whether he was the best person to put forth this theory and additionally was quick to acknowledge other authorities who had similar ideas or had made contributions to his thinking.  This point is an important one to understand. If you choose to structure your sentences to convey authority or any other tone, it must reflect reality.  If it's faked, the reader will know.  And as Fish points out, you are more likely to persuade a reader of a "universal truth" if you do not actually use the phrase "it is a truth universally acknowledged".

In the next post, I'll try to describe a sentence structure that, using subordination, delays the "payoff", the kernel of truth that the writer is trying to convey and by doing so, promotes a sense of satisfaction in the reader who has patiently waited for it.

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