Words, Phrases, Clauses

...writing that needs elbow room
or
...don't fence me in!

These chapters are best viewed using Firefox. Internet Explorer causes misalignments and bad formatting. — David McMurrey

When you write, you have lots of choices—choices that you can use to better express your ideas. Sometimes, writers try to cram a complex idea into the constrictive confines of a word or phrase when the better choice would be a roomier clause. Clauses give you more verbal "elbow room" than do words and phrases. In contrast, sometimes writers express a relatively simple idea in the overly spacious realm of a clause, which can lead to wordiness. The point of this chapter is to practice amplifying ideas expressed in words and phrases and to practice economizing ideas expressed in clauses.


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All about Words, Phrases, and Clauses

One set of choices has to do whether to put an idea or some part of an idea in a word, phrase, or clause. Expressing some part of an idea in a word (or small phrase) is the most confining. Expressing the same idea in a phrase (perhaps using a gerund or participial phrase) gives you more room. And expressing that same idea in a clause (a noun, adjective, or adverb clause) gives you maximum room.

Consider these examples which show how essentially the same idea is stated first in a word, then in a verbal phrase, and finally in a clause:

Word The nomination of Jane Smith surprised us.
Verbal phrases Nominating Jane Smith surprised everyone.
To nominate Jane Smith would be a surprise to everyone.
Clauses When Jane Smith was nominated, we were all surprised
Jane Smith was nominated, and we were all surprised

As you can see, some of the transformations are better than others. The phrases are quite awkward. The second clause example, a compound sentence, sounds like a young child talking.

The term verbal phrase is used here to indicate that verbs are involved in the phrase. If we just used the term "phrases," noun phrases could join the club. Strictly speaking, The nomination is a noun phrase, not simply a noun. This list of phrases includes the following:

Participial phrase Working all night, the programmers managed to have the code ready for product shipment by the next morning.
Gerund phrase Working all night enabled the programmers to have the code ready for product shipment by the next morning.
Infinitive phrase To get the code ready for product shipment by the next morning, the programmers had to work all night.

If you are uncertain whether you can recognize these types of phrases, see the link to the chapter on phrases and clauses at the end of this chapter.


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Clauses include the following:

Adjective clause Working all night, the programmers managed to have the code ready for product shipment, which was scheduled for that morning.
Adverb clause Because they worked all night, the programmers managed to have the code ready for product shipment the next day.
Noun clause What enabled the programmers to have the code ready for product shipment was the fact that they worked all night.

All of these clauses belong to category of dependent clauses. True, the noun clause sentence is quite lame. You'll see better examples later. If you are uncertain whether you can recognize these types of clauses, see the link to the chapter on phrases and clauses at the end of this chapter.

Remember: the point here is that, at any moment, it's your choice whether to compress an idea into a word, give it more room in a phrase, or to amplify it into a clause.

Expanding Words and Phrases

What should be apparent in the preceding examples is that verbal phrases give you more room—and clauses still more room—to provide detail or to create emphasis. Consider these examples:

Weak noun phrase: Proponents of this theory are not concerned with the location of power and authority.

Try transforming this 6-word phrase that ends the sentence into a clause beginning with where.

Revision with clause: Proponents of this theory are not concerned with where power and authority are located.

True, there's very little difference between the two sentences. To some eyes, the noun clause where power and authority are located may carry a bit more emphasis and may be clearer. In any case, this gives you an example of transforming a noun phrase into a noun clause.


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Here's another example:

Weak phrase: Stay on schedule because delays may result in a domino effect of the weekly service being thrown off course.

The participial phrase being thrown off course is weak here. Notice how the clause beginning with in which provides more verbal room to state this idea. The phrase-to-clause transformation also gives the idea more emphasis. True, the phrase a domino effect seems unnecessary; why not just say may cause the weekly service to be thrown off course?

Revision with clause: Stay on schedule because delays may result in a domino effect in which the weekly service will be thrown off course.

Here's still one more example:

Weak phrases: The reductionist idea of all objective knowledge being reducible to the laws of physics really means reducible to mathematical structures.

Another weak participial phrase here: being reducible to the laws of physics. Also weak is the adjective phrase reducible to mathematical structures trying to function as a direct object.

Revision with clauses: The reductionist idea that all objective knowledge can be reduced to the laws of physics really means that it can be reduced to mathematical structures.

Notice in the revision that the first phrase is transformed in an adjective clause; the second into a noun clause. How can you tell? The first clause, the adjective clause, modifies the word idea. The second clause functions as the direct object of the verb means; thus, it is a noun clause.

Compressing Phrases and Clauses

The examples you've seen to this point have all transformed a less-roomy element into a roomier element. Phrases give you more verbal room than words (or noun phrases); clauses give you more verbal room than words or phrases. However, it can be just as effective to transform unnecessarily roomy elements into less-roomy ones. In other words, you can create tighter, more succinct phrasing by converting to less-roomy elements.

Clause: Science uses myriad observations to create an image of the universe that is all-embracing and coherent.


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The transformation of the clause to a few words is no earth-shaking thing. Both versions are equally acceptable. The point here is to see that you can convert clauses to phrases and phrases to words.

Individual words: Science uses myriad observations to create an all-embracing, coherent image of the universe.

Clause: The unformulated feel for how things work is familiar to all of us.

Once again, there is not much difference between these two versions. Just another illustration of a clause-to-phrase transformation.

Individual words: The unformulated feel for the operation of things is familiar to all of us.

Clause: Taxonomy is about how we classify living and extinct organisms.

In this transformation from a clause to a few words, there is some difference. The phrase is about is wordy and clumsy. This original version might be preferable for younger readers.

Individual words: Taxonomy is the classification of living and extinct organisms.

Clause: Popularly, how living organisms are classified often arises from superficial reasons.

Do you find the clause version just a bit wordy?

Individual words: Popularly, classifications of living organisms often arises from superficial reasons.

Clause: Formal classification supports a uniform, international nomenclature, which thereby simplifies cross-referencing and retrieval of information.


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Again, there's not much difference between the two versions in terms of wordiness, awkwardness, or emphasis. In any case, you can see a clause transformed into a participial phrase.

Individual words: Formal classification supports a uniform, international nomenclature, thereby simplifying cross-referencing and retrieval of information.

Clause: The pyramids of Giza, which are the oldest of the seven wonders and the only one substantially in existence today, were erected from around 2575 to around 2465 BC on the west bank of the Nile River in northern Egypt.

In this original, the clause creates a huge interruption between the subject and verb. If we downshift to an appositive beginning with one of, the problem still exists. A nice trick is to move the resulting appositive ahead of the subject.

Individual words: One of the oldest of the seven wonders and the only one substantially in existence today, the pyramids of Giza were erected from around 2575 to around 2465 BC on the west bank of the Nile River in northern Egypt.

What's an appositive? It is eseentially a noun phrase—but a fancy one. It renames an adjacent noun. For example, in this sentence, The current mayor, Jane Smith, will speak tonight, the appositive is Jane Smith; it renames mayor. This next example has a similar problem and solution.

Clause: This example of the seven wonders, which is a large, ornate figure of Zeus on his throne, was made around 430 BC by Phidias of Athens.

The interruption between subject and verb is not quite as lengthy here. In any case, you can convert this clause to an appositive and move it to the beginning of the sentence.

Individual words: A large, ornate figure of Zeus on his throne, this example of the seven wonders was made around 430 BC by Phidias of Athens.

Clause: It is technically impossible that the Colossus of Rhodes statue could have straddled the harbor entrance.

In this example, you can reduce the part of a clause all the way down to one word—an adverb.

Individual word: Technically, the Colossus of Rhodes statue could not have straddled the harbor entrance.

In this section where clauses have been shrunk to phrases, phrases to words, and even clauses to words, the differences have not been so noticeable. In most cases, the roomier, wordier versions have been as acceptable as the less-wordy versions. This lack of difference may be because as readers we don't mind the legitimate extra words needed to create a roomier phrase or a clause. Or it could be I just haven't worked hard enough to develop good examples!


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If you are confident with what you've studied so far in this chapter, use this exercise to test yourself:

Fun with Expanding Phrases and Compressing Clauses

If you can recklessly, irresponsibly transform words into phrases, words into clauses, and phrases into clauses (as well as transformations in the reverse direction), you have mastered the central idea of this chapter.

Preferable? Although it also came into being in the last quarter of the twentieth century, electronic book production has nothing in common with offset printing, flexography, and electrostatic printing.

See if you can convert the introductory clause into an introductory participial phrase—or, even more of a challenge, an introductory noun phrase.

Less preferable? Coming into being in the last quarter of the twentieth century, electronic book production has nothing in common with offset printing, flexography, and electrostatic printing.

Preferable? The format of the electronic book in no way resembles that of the convenient codex used for the last two thousand years.

Convert the participial phrase at the end of the sentence into a dependent clause (hint: use that).

Less preferable? The format of the electronic book in no way resembles that of the convenient codex that has been used for the last two thousand years.

Preferable? The electronic book arose from the need for a technology that could handle administrative and commercial technology.

Here's a real challenge: see if you can convert the dependent clause (that could handle...) at the end of the sentence to a noun phrase (hint: based on technology).

Less preferable? The electronic book arose from the need for an administrative and commercial record-keeping technology.

Preferable? The electronic book has met with a reception that is unenthusiastic, presenting such a radical physical change for the user.


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Here's another challenge: see if you can convert the dependent clause (that is unenthusiastic...) to a simple adjective, and then the participial phrase (presenting such...) into a dependent clause (hint: because).

Less preferable? The electronic book has met with unenthusiastic reception because it presents a radical physical change for the user.

Preferable? Electronic books will not be serious competitors of printed books, however, until a new publishing and distribution system has been established and until electronic books have become far more attractive to the general reading community.

Try squeezing the dependent clauses in this one down to noun phrases.

Less preferable? Electronic books will not be serious competitors of printed books, however, until the establishment of a new publishing and distribution system and until the increased attractiveness of electronic books to the general reading community.

Preferable? The advent of the computerized electronic book began in laboratories in the 1960S, with images on CRT screens replacing printed images on paper bound into codex form and with computer power making it possible to enhance text with active images and audio projection in a manner hitherto impossible.

Expand the noun and participial-phrase constructions here into dependent clauses (hint: where and when).

Less preferable? The advent of the computerized electronic book began in laboratories in the 1960S, where images on CRT screens replaced printed images on paper bound into codex form and when computer power made it possible to enhance text with active images and audio projection in a manner hitherto impossible.

Preferable? In 1971, Project Gutenberg began converting to electronic form classic texts that had passed out of copyright.

Expand the -ing verb and what follows into a big noun phrase; compress that dependent clause at the end of the sentence into a simple phrase (hint: use under).

Less preferable? In 1971, Project Gutenberg began the conversion into electronic form of classic texts no longer under copyright.

Preferable? A quarter century later some 250 titles had been transcribed, entirely by volunteers, and made available on the Internet.


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Let's bloat this one! Expand that entirely phrase.

Less preferable? A quarter century later some 250 titles had been transcribed, an effort that had been accomplished entirely by volunteers, and made available on the Internet.

Preferable? The best known of compact discs is the CD-ROM, an enhancement of the original CDs introduced in 1982 by co-inventors Sony Corporation and Philips Electronics.

This example contains a nice appositive phrase (beginning with an enhancement). See if you can expand it to at least one dependent clause (but three such clauses are possible!).

Less preferable? The best known of compact discs is the CD-ROM, which was an enhancement of the original CDs that was introduced in 1982 by co-inventors which included Sony Corporation and Philips Electronics.

Preferable? Research and development has led to DVD-ROMs (Digital Versatile Disc-Read Only Memory), first introduced in 1997, whose capacity is fourteen times that of CD-ROMs.

Expand the participial phrase; compress the dependent clause.

Less preferable? Research and development has led to DVD-ROMs (Digital Versatile Disc-Read Only Memory), which were first introduced in 1997, with a capacity fourteen times that of CD-ROMs.

If you can convert clauses to phrases, clauses to words, phrases to words—even when doing so creates an uncomfortably terse sentence—you've got this concept down. Test yourself with these exercises:


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Exercises

Links to these exercises are provided at the end of the sections where they are relevant. But here they all are in case you read the text straight through:

Additional Resources


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