Sentence Patterns: Part 3 of 4

by F.

And now on to Part 3: patterns 11-15. (1-5 are here; 6-10 are here). Oh. And I lied in my last post. No more repetition. Today, on with other stuff.

11. Marmots have one endearing trait: they whistle.

This sentence has an emphatic appositive at the end after a colon (or dash). The colon highlights what comes after. Using this sort of sentence can create nice variation for the reader. It sets up a sort of dramatic tension which is resolved after the colon: “What is the endearing trait? Oh. Whistling. Got it.” You can also use a dash instead of a colon.

12. Frank—an alcoholic as well as a great wit—never did complete his collection of 17th century stamps.

This sentence has interrupting modifier between subject and verb. Once upon a time, this sort of construction was quite popular. For instance, Henry James loved this sort of construction. It’s less fashionable now, I think. Why? It’s hard to process, particularly if the subject (here it is Frank) is difficult to think of. You can imagine the interrupting modifier as expressing a sotto voce aside to the audience: “Psssthe was an alcoholic as well as a great wit.” Personally, I find this kind of construction annoying: it slows down reading.

13. Frank—Why did he drink so much?—never did complete his collection of Hummel figurines.

This is a slight variation on the previous. Here, we get a full sentence in between subject (“Frank”) and verb (“complete”). This is actually more confusing that the previous example, I feel. But, again, James loved this sort of twisted construction. Here’s an example from The Real Thing:

These things were true, but it was not less true (I may confess it now–whether because the aspiration was to lead to everything or to nothing I leave the reader to guess), that I couldn’t get the honours, to say nothing of the emoluments, of a great painter of portraits out of my head.

Got that? I think the contemporary reader would skip that sentence if it were presented to him or her. It’s just too convoluted.

14. Running out of the house, the cat leaped into the air and caught a dragonfly.

This is your old friend the introductory (or concluding) participle. The participle can just as easily go at the end of the sentence, but you have to be careful when you move clauses because sometimes it screws up the meaning you intend. Take the above example. We could move the clause “Running…house” to the end of the sentence: “The cat leaped into the air and caught a dragonfly running out of the house.” Huh? The dragonfly was running out of the house? This exemplifies the heinous error of the dangling participle: the participle applies to the wrong thing. Just make sure that the subject of the participle is clear: the cat, in this case, is the one running.

15. Outside, the neighbor cat was drawing a picture with her claws on the sidewalk.

Here, we have a single modifier out of place for emphasis. The modifier is “outside.” “Outside” could also go in the middle or end of the sentence: “The neighbor cat was outside drawing…” or “The neighbor cat was drawing a picture with her claws on the sidewalk outside.” By putting the modifier at the beginning, you get two benefits: (1) you end the sentence with “sidewalk,” which gives it emphasis; and (2) you have “outside” at the beginning, which gives it some emphasis.

Update: Part 4 is here.