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Another Look at Subordination

Author(s): Conrad Geller


Source: The English Journal, Vol. 56, No. 8 (Nov., 1967), pp. 1185-1186+1196
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
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Another Look at Subordination
Conrad Geller
Department
of
English
Horace
Greeley High
School
Chappaqua,
New York
O NE of the chief axioms of the con-
ventional wisdom in
composition
is
that the main clause carries the
principal
idea of the
sentence,
and subordinate
clauses
carry
less
important
ideas. The
precept
is
very
old. Here is what a
well-known
composition
manual of a
previous generation
had to
say:
In
general,
the skillful writer is he who
composes
his sentences so that
they
abound in subordination-in
dependent
constituent
thoughts,-who
in each
group
of
thoughts infallibly picks
out the most
important
for
expression
in the main
clause or clauses and
puts
the subordi-
nate
thoughts
in subordinate clauses and
phrases.
Sentences and
Thinking:
A Handbook
of Composition
and Revision
(Houghton, 1923),
pp.
11-12.
Modern
high-school
texts use less ele-
gant prose,
but
they say
much the same
thing:
When ideas of a sentence are
unequal
in
rank,
the ideas of lower rank are sub-
ordinate.
(Sub-
means "under" or
"lower.") If the idea of lower rank is
expressed
in a clause, the clause is a
subordinate clause. The main idea of the
sentence is
expressed
in an independent
clause.
Warriner's
English
Grammar and
Composition: Complete
Course
(Har-
court, 1965),
p.
211.
The main clause is the basic structure
in
any
sentence. It states the main idea
of the sentence.
Modifying
clauses and
phrases
are used to add details or to
explain
the conditions that define or
limit the
meaning
of the main clause.
English
Arts and Skills
(12) (Macmil-
lan, 1965),
p.
456.
Well,
everyone says
it,
but is it true?
In the case of most noun clauses there
can be no doubt: Not
only
is the con-
ventional wisdom
untrue,
the
opposite
is
actually
true. The italicized noun clauses
in these sentences
obviously express
the
principal
ideas:
Someone discovered that the
building
wuas
on
fire.
1185
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1186 ENGLISH
JO URNAL
The trouble was that she had the
pills,
but no water.
The idea that matter and
energy
are
dif-
ferent forms of
one
reality
occurred
suddenly
to the
young
scholar.
Sentences with relative clauses
present
a
wholly
different
problem
of
analysis.
Relative clauses are the ones most often
presented
as evidence for the
supposed
lower semantic rank of subordinate
clauses. The relative clauses in these sen-
tences,
for
example,
do
appear
to
get
less
emphasis
than the main clauses:
This
pen,
which Mr.
Lorry bought
at a
charity
auction,
was once owned
by
Hemingway.
Mr.
Lorry bought
this
pen,
which was
once owned
by Hemingway,
at a
charity auction.
We can
readily
see here that the first
sentence comes out as a sentence
mainly
about the
pen
and
Hemingway;
the sec-
ond,
mainly
about the
pen
and Mr.
Lorry.
These next
sentences, however,
have
about the same rhetorical
emphasis-
Hemingway's ownership
is the
important
point-even though
in one case that
part
of the information is in a relative clause.
The
pen
with which I am
writing
these
words was once owned
by Heming-
way.
I
am
writing
these words with a
pen
that was once owned
by Hemingway.
In these
examples
the
principal emphasis
derives from the
periodic position
of
the clause about
Hemingway, regardless
of its
syntactic
constitution.
N still other sentences the relative
clause
always
carries the
principal
idea. In the first
example
of
English
texts cited earlier the main clause, "The
skillful writer is he . . ."
hardly compares
in
importance
with the relative clauses
that follow. In
general,
relative clauses
that
modify generalities
like
person
or
someone
regularly get primary emphasis
over the syntactically main clause:
Ray
is one
person
who can be trusted
completely.
Transforming
a sentence like this to
"correct
the
upside-down
subordination"
results in an absurdity:
*Ray,
who is one
person,
can be trusted
completely.
Similarly, complex
sentences contain-
ing
clauses introduced
by subordinating
conjunctions
are often
remarkably
like
the same sentences in which the clauses
are technically coordinated:
complex
sentence: We couldn't reach
the second
floor,
because the stairs had
collapsed.
equivalent compound
sentence: We
couldn't reach the second
floor,
for the
stairs had
collapsed.
We could also
transform,
without
any
demonstrable
change
in
effect,
compound
sentences with
but, yet, or,
and even
and
into
equivalent complex
sentences.
In none of these
examples
has the first
clause been reduced in semantic stress:
compound:
My supervisor
attends
many
meetings,
but he seems to learn
nothing.
complex:
Although my supervisor
at-
tends
many meetings,
he seems to
learn
nothing.
compound: iWe
must
assign
clean
novels,
or
we
will lose our
jobs.
complex:
Unless we
assign
clean
novels,
we will lose our
jobs.
compound:
The
principal
raised his
hand,
and all the teachers raised theirs.
complex: When the
principal
raised his
hand, all the teachers raised theirs.
(Continued on
page 1196)
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1196 ENGLISH
JO URNAL
Questions
must be asked in order to
cause mental
inquiry.
A
simple
answer
should be
rephrased
into a
simple
state-
ment.
Leading questions
should be left
to insurance salesmen or the like. A stu-
dent who is in a class which is
discussing
Julius
Caesar hears this
question:
Now
class, Julius
Caesar was killed with what?
And as he was
stabbed,
he what? An-
swers to these
questions
are beneath the
intellect of
any
class which has as the
assignment,
Julius
Caesar. These
ques-
tions are asked to
satisfy
the unconscious
knowledge
of the teacher which
says
"A
good
teacher asks
questions!"
Indeed,
a
good
teacher does ask
ques-
tions; questions
which
penetrate deeply
into the
complexity
of the mind. Con-
sider some of the
following possibilities:
Did Brutus stab Caesar?
Why?
Who
was first to raise his hand?
Whvy?
Did
Cassius stab Caesar?
Why? Why
was a
knife used in the
killing?
What would
you
call the
killing-an
assassination or
a murder? If you were
Cassius,
what
would
you
call it? If
you
were
Antony?
"Quay, you
are Brutus. What would
you
call the
killing?
Let's
pretend you
are in a court to answer for the
killing
of
Caesar. Defend
yourself."
Any question
should have a
purpose
behind
it. That
purpose
should be well
in the teacher's mind as it is asked. For
example,
who killed Caesar has a col-
lective one word
answer,
and it
requires
only
knowledge
to
get
an answer.
Any
child could be
taught
the correct answer.
"Why
was Caesar killed?"
requires
thought,
deliberation,
and
analytical
judgments
based on
mores,
historical
evidence,
and
complex judgments.
The
purpose
of the first
question
seems to be
oral
quizzing by
the teacher as she tests
the
knowledge
of the student. The
pur-
pose
of the second is to cause
thinking
through
the use of the
play.
Questions
which lead to a
"why"
are
thought questions
which work the think-
ing process
and build the student's
ability
to
inquire.
Questions
of this nature
should be a
vital,
functional
part
of all
classroom verbal
interchange. Any
ma-
terial can be better
taught through ques-
tions than
through
lecture.
Something happens
to
Quay
as he
talks his
way through
school. He learns
not to ask
questions.
When
knowledge
is as
slippery
and tentative as it is
today,
teachers should
guide
him as he learns
how to ask
questions.
Questions
asked in
the
upper grades
should be as vital and
as
stimulating
as
they
are in the first
years.
And when he reaches the twelfth
grade
he should be
just
as enthusiastic
about
asking questions
as he was in the
first
grade.
Each
year
of school students
become more interested in life and more
curious about their
place
in
it,
and
yet
less
likely
to ask
questions
in school. This
special
art of
asking questions
should be
a functional
technique
of the schools
developed
to the fullest
by
each teacher
so that
Quay
will
question
his
way
to a
full mind which is able to
sort,
catalog,
reject,
and
accept
all
types
of
information.
Another Look at Subordination
(Continued from page
1186)
What, then,
does all this leave us to
say
about the
relationship
of structure
to
style?
The
teaching
of
composition
has
always
been a
tricky
business,
but
once,
at
least,
there were some
hard,
substantial
things
we could teach: "Pre-
fer the active to the
passive"; "Vary
your
sentences";
"Express
the main idea
in the main clause."
If these are denied
us,
what can we
do?
My
God,
use taste?
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