LawProse Lesson #239: More on subordination.
Following up on last week’s Lesson #238 (“Are you coordinated, or subordinated?”), we’ve found some striking examples to illustrate the point that subordinate clauses are crucial to persuasive writing. As we saw last week, it’s often useful to avoid merely joining two independent clauses of equal importance with a conjunction such as and. Instead, a sophisticated writer is likely to make one of the clauses dependent (usually starting with although or because), so that it can’t stand on its own as a complete sentence. With subordination, the phrasing shows that you’re amplifying one clause and diminishing the other. The prose starts flowing better almost immediately. Some otherwise advanced writers have problems with overcoordinating their clauses. Take for example a British professor who teaches college courses in rhetoric and critical thinking. In his recent book, the opening paragraph consists of eight sentences, five of which are compound (all without the requisite comma before the conjunction in the compound sentence). Here’s the opening line: “We learn most of what we know from teachers and experts of one kind and another and this is not surprising in a highly specialised modern society.” This sentence has several faults. First, it contains three ands. Second, it has no internal punctuation, which makes it more difficult to tell which one of the three ands connects clauses as opposed to noun elements. Third, without subordination, it’s hard to say precisely what the main point of the sentence is, especially given how it ends. Let’s try using subordination with the sentence, casting it three different ways: (1) Given the highly specialized society in which we live, it’s hardly surprising that we learn most of what we know from teachers and experts. (2) We learn most of what we know from teachers and experts—hardly surprising given how highly specialized modern society has become. (3) It can hardly come as a surprise that we learn most of what we know from teachers and experts. After all, we live in a highly specialized society. Each of those versions has a slightly different emphasis based on the words at the beginnings and ends of the sentences. The end, of course, is of paramount importance. The third revision creates two sentence ends and therefore two points of emphasis. Doing that also improves the average sentence length. In the second sentence of our author’s book, the flaw of overcoordinating surfaces again: “However, it is possible to rely too heavily on experts and this approach to learning and knowledge tends to encourage passivity and receptiveness rather than inventiveness and imagination.” This sentence, containing four ands, begins with the clunky However. Once again, someone wanting to use subordination instead of coordination could devise three more appealing versions: (1) Yet if we rely too heavily on experts for our learning and knowledge, we tend to become passive and receptive rather than inventive and imaginative. (2) But this heavy reliance on others for our learning and knowledge may encourage passivity and receptiveness rather than inventiveness and imagination. (3) Yet when it comes to learning and knowledge, an overreliance on experts can encourage passivity and receptiveness rather than inventiveness and imagination. Note once again that the revisions are shorter. Subordination typically promotes economy with words. It also makes the syntax more interesting because there’s more variety. The prose is more than a series of compound sentences with undifferentiated main clauses linked by conjunctions. Subordination is always a key to good writing. It’s like learning to ride a bike: although you’ll occasionally wobble and produce less-than-pellucid sentences, once you’ve learned the technique, you’ll write better more and more automatically. You’ll avoid bumps in your prose.