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Grammatical Constructions Filling Sentence Modifier Slots

Content

Punctuation

Tactics and Strategies

Examples

Sentence Modifiers

The sentence modifier slot holds constructions that modify the remainder of the sentence, much as pre- and post-modifiers modify a central noun in a noun phrase.

pre-modifier noun post-modifier

*

SENTENCE MODIFIER ] subject + predicate [ SENTENCE MODIFIER

We shall mark front and end sentence modifiers with the notation

front modifier ] ................................ [ end modifier

Recall the second model sentence from the set of three at the introduction to this section:

2. The boy ate the apple      [ in the summer.

Here the final phrase, in the summer , modifies the earlier sentence as a whole. It indicates when the boy at the apple.

What proof do we have that this last phrase really modifiers the remainder of the sentence as a whole?

The proof lies in the fact that

  • the main portion can stand alone as a simple sentence, and

The boy ate the apple.

  • the modifier portion of the sentence can be shifted between the front and back without essentially changing the meaning.

(Emphasis may change slightly, and there is a stylistic convention of putting short sentence modifiers first.)

The boy ate the apple in the summer .

In the summer the boy ate the apple.

There are, in effect, front and end "slots" that can be filled with comments on the remainder of the sentence. You can, with little trouble imagine all sorts of comments that might be inserted into the sentence modifier slots at the front and end of the sentence.

________________ ] the boy ate the apple [ ________________

Note that in the test for a sentence modifier does not work with the other two of the three sample sentences:

1. * In the pie.         the boy ate the apple.

3. * In a hurry         the boy ate the apple.

Here the sentences are clearly incorrect, or at least awkward. We will explain what is happening in the final model sentence in a moment.

Grammatical Constructions Filling Sentence Modifier Slots

Any slot in a sentence can be described in terms of the position of that slot, the constructions that can fill that slot, and the meaning imparted by construction within that slot.

Sentence modifier slots can be filled by anything from a single word,

Yesterday,

to long phrases.

Whenever it rains,
After the game was over and we had lost our third game...
Because it would be senseless any other way...

Content

Sentence modifiers typically

  • qualify (in what way, under what conditions),
  • limit, or set conditions or circumstances (for whom, why, when, where), or
  • indicated reasons or conclusions.

Punctuation

Sentence modifiers generally take a comma when they appear at the front of a sentence and are more than a single word. No comma ever appears before a sentence modifier in the end position.

SENTENCE MODIFIER ] , _______________________ [ SENTENCE MODIFIER

The comma brackets off the front sentence modifier. Stylistically, shorter constructions appear early, and after a comma; longer ones appear at the end.

Tactics and Strategies

Some basic tactics and strategies for reading and writing should be apparent.

You can make better sense of long and complicated sentence by attempting to recognize sentence modifiers.

If a sentence begins with a word like whenever , after , because, or in , the odds are you have a sentence modifier in the front slot. If a sentence begins with the, a, every, or my , that is, with any of the words that commonly begin noun phrases, the odds are that there is no sentence modifier in the front position. But there may still be one in the end position.

As a writer, you can shape your thoughts more carefully and specifically by adding sentence modifiers. When or where is this true? Why is this the case? Under what circumstances does the remark apply?

Examples

Amendment II, U. S. Constitution

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

How should we understand this amendment? Is the right to bear arms a right designed only to assure a well regulated militia, or a broader right? To Charlton Heston, President of the National Rifle Association, the answer is clear:

The Founders' intent in framing the Second Amendment is perfectly clear and undeniable. Thomas Jefferson wrote, "No man shall ever be debarred the use of arms." ....

Some anti-gun elitists declare this notion outdated. However, many constitutional scholars from this country's most prestigious universities agree that the Founders' intent is clear and irreversible: To "keep and bear arms" is a right for all law-abiding citizens. (2)

To William H. Dunlop, the situation is quite different:

The words "Second Amendment" and "keep and bear arms" will be bandied about ad infinitum, but just as in the N.R.A.s ads, the full amendment will never be seen or heard.

Why not? Because the first half of the amendment's "well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State" clearly limits the meaning of the second half, 'the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." (3)

Or, in the words of novelist and journalist Pete Hamill,

To most literate people, this sentence [the amendment] obviously connects the right to keep and bear arms to the existence of a well-regulated militia. The words seem to say what they do say. That is, the right to keep and bear arms is essential to the existence of a well-regulated militia. (4)

This is not the only instance in which a "constitutional comma" matters. During early negotiations the Constitutional Convention of 1787 agreed to include:

The Legislature of the United States shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises.

The sentence was later extended to indicate how this money was to be spent

The Legislature of the United States shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare.

In the final version a comma was changed to a semicolon.

The Legislature of the United States shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises ; to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare.

Examples of sentence modifiers throughout a text are offered in an annotated version of the Text for Discussion: Annotation - Needle Exchange Programs and the Law - Time for a Change.


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