II: TRANSFOMATIONS: CHANGES IN SYNTAX

One kind of variability in the form of sentences is syntactic, a change in the sequence and position of grammatical elements--words, phrases, and clauses. When changes in position are made, several other changes occur because syntax is fundamental in the structure; nearly everything else depends on it. Let's make up an example, some sentences that begin with "there is." It's a perfectly good kind of sentence, but sometimes it's too easy and comes to the paper too often.

There's a park in that part of the city that we visit often. There's a beautiful fountain there that always refreshes us, just to look at it from a distance. There used to be a kiosk there where we'd buy a magazine and sit down and read, but there is nothing commercial in the park any longer.

Notice, first, that two different kinds of "there" appear in these sentences. One kind is nearly always followed by "is" or some other form of the verb "be," while the other kind is an adverb meaning "in that place." The word "there" in "there is" conveys only grammatical meaning; it doesn't stand for anything outside the sentence. This kind of "there" usually, but not always, requires "be" to follow it in contemporary English. (Compare Emily Dickinson's "There came a Wind like a Bugle," an empty "there" but no "be.") Notice, finally, that "there is" sentences also often require some kind of adverb at the end, often an adverb meaning place. We can easily vary these sentences to an improved effect by removing some transformations with "there":
We often visit the park in that part of the city. The beautiful fountain there refreshes us, just to look at it from a distance. We used to buy a magazine in the kiosk and sit down and read, but now there's nothing commercial in the park.

Instead of the "be" verbs (also rather empty) we have "visit" and "refreshes" and "buy" as the main verbs that carry the meaning. The final "there's" construction remains, giving "commercial" an emphasis that makes a strong assertion.

We can also vary the sentences by using "it's" at the beginning. "It" is another empty, grammatical word, often followed by "be" and often signaling the occurrence of a clause beginning with "that" later in the sentence. The "it's" transformation has the stylistic effect of emphasizing one element of the sentence, often an adjective:

It's often that we visit the park in that part of the city. It's refreshing just to look at the beautiful fountain from a distance. We used to buy a magazine in the kiosk and sit down and read, but it's [just as well] that nothing commercial is [allowed] in the park now.
This syntactic change seems inappropriate for the first sentence, but I like it very much in the second, where it gives emphasis to "refreshing," and I'm pleased that the new ideas (in brackets) are required in the third sentence to accommodate the syntactic change. As often happens when the writer is revising, one change leads to another that may be an unexpected improvement. Before we leave this little experiment, notice that the first sentence using "it's" inappropriately would be a good strong sentence if it had a negative meaning: "It's not often that we visit the park. . ." The emphasis on "not often" is effective.

Other changes in syntax could be used with these sentences, and any writer with a little ingenuity and knowledge of possible transformations can easily make them without a trained linguist's skill. The native speaker of English has the transformation programs already installed and stored on his mental hard disk. When a writer feels that a sentence is weak or awkward, he should try ringing some transformational changes on it. An excellent discussion with relevant literary examples is found in Jacobs and Rosenbaum, Transformation, Style, and Meaning.

E-mail and comments to:   Arnold Nelson

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