Once again we need to think about meaning (semantics) and function (syntax) working together. As you saw in Dr. Syntax 2 with word order and parallel structure, your meaning and the syntax of the words with which you state that meaning cannot be separated. In other words, more often than not, when I give a word, phrase or clause a different specific function, I change meaning. Because the reader of your argument has no choice but to believe you mean what you’ve written, you must make sure you do “mean” your sentences. We’ll now focus on some particular meanings conveyed by particular structures. Consider, for instance,
Akhilleus continues to argue with Agamemnon looking for the last word.
This sentence asserts that Agamemnon is the one looking for the last word in the argument. If you mean, however, that Akhilleus looks for the last word, you’ve mis-structured your sentence. Specifically, you have a misplaced modifier. Since your audience merely reads your words–it can’t read your mind–this disjunction between form and meaning needs correction. The simplest option is to rearrange the order of the sentence:
Looking for the last word, Akhilleus continues to argue with Agamemnon.
But this rearrangement may not make clear the point that you want to make; restructuring may be needed. The following models show possibilities for restructuring, each of which has a different meaning. The differences, as you will see, are primarily dependent on the different linkages or transitions that are set up among the parts of the sentences.
Because Akhilleus is looking for the last word, he continues to argue with Agamemnon.
In this case, you assert a causal or explanatory relation between the clauses. But what you might really mean is
When Akhilleus continues to argue with Agamemnon, he is looking for the last word.
Here a temporal relation between the clauses is asserted. Another possible structure, with an entirely different meaning, is
Akhilleus, who argues with Agamemnon, looks for the last word.
What is most important here is the idea that Akhilleus looks for the last word, because that idea is given the structure of an independent clause. To reverse the relation of which idea is more important, the sentence could be restructured as
Akhilleus, who looks for the last word, argues with Agamemnon.
Akhilleus, looking for the last word, argues with Agamemnon.
With both of these last sentences, the most important idea is that Akhilleus argues with Agamemnon, but, in the last, the idea that Akhilleus wants the last word has been demoted from a subordinate clause to a phrase.
In sum, the meaning of a sentence changes based on the choice of:
- total structure/sentence pattern (Dr. Syntax 3) or
- transition word(s) within it (Dr. Syntax 4) or
- phrase vs. dependent clause vs. independent clause for particular bits of “information (resulting in increasing emphasis) (Dr. Syntax 4).
Exercise: Use the sentence, “Blowing down the chimney, the wind chilled the girl” to make a minimum of eight different assertions. Explain in each case, as I do in the model sentences above, what kind of assertion (e.g., temporal, causal) you are making. You might think of these relations in addition to the ones I’ve already used: “although” (concessive), “as”/”while” (simultaneity), “if” (conditional). Don’t forget that a clause will implicitly confer greater importance on an idea than a phrase will and that word order can be used for emphasis. What I’m most interested in here is the explanation you give.