ENGLISH 101.  ACADEMIC WRITING
 22. Dr. E's grammar sequence


Home page  

Course Info  
Schedule  
Course index
  


22-5 Use Phrases 
to add texture to your writing 

 

 


Lessons 

Module 1

1: Orientation  
2: Goals   

Module 2

  3: Euthyphro  
     4: The Library
 5: The Apology   
    6: Citation   
    7: Crito
    8: Phaedo  
    9: Exam Prep   
10: Plato Exam
   

Module 3

11: Research Project 
12: Research 101   
13: Books   
14: the Librarian   
15: the Web   
16: conferences  
17: Joy of Research 
18: Reasoning 


Module 4

19: Outlines 
20: Review the Plan:
21: Language 
22: Dr E's Grammar
23: Peer Review  
24: Hit Parade 

Module 5

25: About the Exam
26: Mock Final 
27: Exam Prep
28: Graduation 

 

 

Phrases are powerful. We might start with a basic narrative sentence such as

The quarterback jogged back a few steps

and then add further details to help reveal the picture more clearly:

his eyes scanning the field, his right hand cradling the ball.

As you now know, these particular add-on 'details' are phrases of the type known as noun absolutes. Of course, we could have clarified our picture of the quarterback in other ways: We could have used other phrase types as add-ons. In fact, we could have used them all:

Tired and beaten, the quarterback jogged back a few steps, his eyes scanning the field, his right hand cradling the ball. (adjective phrase)

Tired and beaten, hoping to hear the final whistle, the quarterback jogged back a few steps, his eyes scanning the field, his right hand cradling the ball. (participial phrase)

Tired and beaten, hoping to hear the final whistle before another sack, the quarterback jogged back a few steps, his eyes scanning the field, his right hand cradling the ball. (prepositional phrase)

Tired and beaten, hoping to hear the final whistle before another sack, the quarterback jogged back a few steps, his eyes scanning the field to display fearlessness, his right hand cradling the ball. (infinitive phrase)

Tired and beaten, hoping to hear the final whistle before another sack, the quarterback jogged back a few steps, an unsteady retreat, his eyes scanning the field to display fearlessness, his right hand cradling the ball. (appositive phrase)

Now the quarterback is a bit less cartoon-like than the flat stereotype or clip-art figure that he was before he had phrases. As Francis Christensen observes, writing is ‘thin’ when it contains few modifying phrases like these, but writing is ‘textured’ when the proportion of these phrases is high. Use phrases to avoid "leanness" in your writing. Use phrases to add meaning. Student writing in general is far too lean.

Practice your recognition of phrase types by doing the following exercise:

pick a subject/verb. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jack left.

add an adjective phrase. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Angry and hurt, Jack left.

add a participial phrase. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Slamming the door, angry and hurt, Jack left.

add a prepositional phrase. . . . . . . . . . . . Slamming the door, angry and hurt, Jack left in a hurry.

add an appositive phrase . . Slamming the door, angry and hurt, Jack, my impetuous brother, left in a hurry.

add an infinitive phrase. . . . Slamming the door, angry and hurt, Jack, my impetuous brother, left in a hurry
                                                                           
to find what he’d lost.

add a noun absolute: . . . . Slamming the door, angry and hurt, Jack, my impetuous brother, left in a hurry 
                                                                      to find what he’d lost, his eyes flashing.

 

pick a subject/verb. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Murray stretched.

add an adjective phrase. . . . . . . . . . . . Calm and silent, Murray stretched.

add a participial phrase. . . . .  Bending and concentrating, calm and silent, Murray stretched.

add a prepositional phrase. . . . Bending and concentrating, calm and silent, Murray stretched in the gym.

add an appositive phrase . . . .  Bending and concentrating, calm and silent, Murray, a senior
                                                                              stretched in the gym.

add an infinitive phrase. . . . . .  Bending and concentrating, calm and silent, Murray, a senior, 
                                                               stretched in the gym
to get ready for the race.

add a noun absolute. . . .  Bending and concentrating, calm and silent, Murray, a senior, 
                                                   stretched in the gym to get ready for the race
, his mind centered.

Your turn:

pick a subject/verb;
add an adjective phrase;
add a participial phrase;
add a prepositional phrase:
add an appositive phrase:
add an infinitive phrase;
add a noun absolute
.

Look for phrases in your reading. Now that you know about phrases, you can compare styles of different authors. You might contrast, for example, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. These are two very different accounts of slavery that differ sharply in style.

Washington’s sentences tend to be unencumbered with free modifiers (with adjective phrases or participial phrases, for instance); they’re clear, straightforward, relatively unadorned. The following passage, for instance, is characteristic of his direct plain descriptions:

The most trying ordeal that I was forced to endure as a slave boy, however, was the wearing of a flax shirt. In the portion of Virginia where I lived it was common to use flax as part of the clothing for the slaves. That part of the flax from which our clothing was made was largely the refuse, which of course was the cheapest and roughest part. I can scarcely imagine any torture, except, perhaps, the pulling of a tooth, that is equal to that cause by putting on a new flax shirt for the first time.

Because his sentences are so lean, Washington’s narrative passages are often clean-edged, unforgettable, and elegant:

Finally the war closed, and the day of freedom came. It was a momentous and eventful day to all upon our plantation. We had been expecting it . . . . Early the next morning word was sent to all the slaves, old and young, to gather at the house. In company with my mother, brother, and sister, and a large number of other slaves, I went to the master’s house . . . . [A] stranger made a little speech and then read a rather long paper--the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

Toni Morrison’s writing, on the other hand, is richly textured, dense, generous, often exuberant, crowded at times with sensuous, perfect, haunting detail. Consistently, she uses participial phrases and appositives:

Covering the lower half of her face with her palms, she paused to consider again the size of the miracle; its flavor.

adjective phrases:

He recovered, mute and off-balance . . .

participial phrases:

Scratched, raked and bitten, he maneuvered through . . .

appositives and noun absolutes:

It had been a long time since anybody (good-willed whitewoman, preacher, speaker, or newspaperman) sat at their table, their sympathetic voices called liar by the revulsion in their eyes.

and noun absolutes and participial phrases:

In the very teeth of winter, Sethe, her eyes fever bright, was plotting a garden of vegetables and flowers--talking, talking about what colors it would have.

In the teeth of the horrors of slavery she describes, Morrison’s sentence structures carry the richness, depth, and overwhelming beauty and passion of her characters’ lives.

 

Left: from Raphael's The School of Athens, the philosopher Epicurus apparently works on his cook book.

 


gutchess@englishare.net                    Academic writing home page                    Gary & Elizabeth Gutchess © 2003