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How the Language Really Works:
The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing
Reading / Writing
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Inference
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Ways to Read
Grammar

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The Position of Inserts

The Grammatical Constructions within Inserts

The Meaning of Inserts

Punctuation of Inserts

Special Aspects Of Inserts

Punctuation and Levels of Insertion

Implications For Reading

Implications For Writing

Inserts

The section on sentence structure introduces the slot model for describing sentences. Here we use the slot model to describe a feature of English sentences that is one of the most common and powerful devices of grammar, and yet one that is generally not covered, or covered poorly, by other models of sentence structure. (Using traditional terminology, the notion of inserts covers apposition, absolute phrases, non-restrictive clauses, conjunctive adverbs, and various adjectival and adverbial clauses, among other features.)

In keeping with the earlier slot model, we describe inserts in terms of their position, grammatical construction, and meaning.

The Position of Inserts

Inserts are, as their name implies, inserted remarks. Inserts, can, appropriately enough, appear anywhere within a sentence, including at the beginning or ending of a sentence.

     ( INSERT ) �� Subject ( INSERT ) Predi�( INSERT ) --cate ��� ( INSERT )

You can see inserts at work in the previous sentences. Inserts are marked in bold face.

Inserts are, as their name implies , inserted remarks. Inserts can, appropriately enough , appear anywhere within a sentence, including at the beginning or ending of a sentence.

Or, using the notation of parentheses to mark the inserts,

Inserts are, ( as their name implies ) , inserted remarks. Inserts can, ( appropriately enough ) , appear anywhere within a sentence, ( including at the beginning or ending of a sentence) . �����

The brackets separate the inserts from the remainder of the sentence. If we remove the inserts, we are left with a basic sentence.

Inserts are, ( .................................. ) , inserted remarks. ��� Inserts can, ( ........................ ) , appear anywhere within a sentence, ��� ( .................................)

[A careful reader will quickly realize that when inserts appear at the front or end of a sentence, they can be confused with sentence modifiers, a point we will get to in a moment. Hint: remember the test for sentence modifiers.)

The Grammatical Constructions within Inserts

Inserts can take various forms, but are usually individual words or short phrases---as in the example above.

The Meaning of Inserts

Inserts contain material that is not essential for the basic meaning of the sentence as a whole. (Obviously inserts do contribute to the meaning of the sentence as a whole, or they wouldn't be there. But a simple meaning is still there without them.) Inserts generally

  • provide additional information
  • offer clarifying remarks
  • hedge or qualify
  • contain editorial comments
Inserts can range from relatively important concerns to frivolous remarks.

Inserts often indicate a contrasting element, especially at the end of a sentence

  • He was merely ignorant, not stupid .
  • The chimpanzee seemed reflective, almost human .
  • The speaker seemed innocent, even gullible .
  • Some say the world will end in ice, not fire .
  • The puppies were cute, but incredibly messy .

A basic test of inserts is that they can be removed with essentially no loss of meaning.

Punctuation of Inserts

In keeping with the notion of being inserted material�both in terms of their insertion into the sentence and in terms of their containing additional material inserted into the discussion�inserts are usually bracketed off from the remainder of the sentence by commas or other punctuation.

If commas are present in a sentence and they do not

  • indicate a sequence of items (as in bottles , boxes , and cans) , or
  • separate a front sentence modifier from the rest of the sentence (Yesterday , I slept.), or
  • reflect special usage, as with dates (April 6 , 1987) or locations (Austin , Texas)

they probably bracket an insert. (Note that the initial capital letter or final punctuation of a sentence can function as one of the brackets around an insert.)

Special Aspects Of Inserts

The notion of inserts provides a simple way of explaining what traditional grammar otherwise refers to as dependent and independent clauses. Consider the two sentences below:

����������� My brother, who is in the first grade, had a headache.

����������� My brother who is in the first grade had a headache.

In the first, we assume the existence of one brother, who happens to attend the first grade. In the second, we assume the existence of more than one brother, and find a reference to the one who attends first grade.

The first sentence contains an insert, as indicated by the punctuation.

����������� My brother , ( who is in the first grade ) , had a headache.

The second contains an expanded noun phrase for the subject.

����������� My brother who is in the first grade ������������ had a headache.

����������� �������� * ������ ������

This final sentence contains no insert; all of the information is essential for an understanding.

State identifications and titles function much like inserts, with a comma before and after.

����������� Philadelphia , Pennsylvania , is a neat town.

����������� Jim Jones , Professor of English , entered.

Similarly, commas are used to insert the name of a speaker within a quote, a special form of insert.

����������� "The book , " he said , "is interesting."

Inserts also offer a way to stress elements within a sentence. One way speakers emphasize a word (and hence an idea) is by raising the volume of their voice. Writers do not really have this option, other than maybe by CAPITALIZING and punctuation! Speakers can also introduce a �pregnant pause� that draws attention to last word uttered and introduces anticipation of the next idea. Writers can achieve somewhat the same effect by introducing inserts.

����������� My brother is a chemist.

����������� My brother, you recall, is a chemist.

The comma before an insert introduces a visual pause that stresses the word preceding the comma.

Punctuation and Levels of Insertion

Various forms of punctuation (the comma, dash, parentheses, and bracket) indicate progressively lower levels of insertion, that is progressively less important information or comments. An additional form of insertion, when we feel we have to insert something but do not want to break the flow at all, is the footnote.

Simple sentence :

����������� The Constitution gives the Congress power to declare war.

�����������
Commas :

����������� The Constitution , our basic law, gives the Congress power to declare war.

�����������
Dashes :

����������� The Constitution �in Article 1� gives the Congress power to declare war.

�����������
Parentheses :

����������� The Constitution (or so I believe) gives the Congress power to declare war.

�����������
Footnote :

����������� The Constitution (1) gives the Congress power to declare war.


Finally, square brackets are used to indicate an insertion of material into a quotation by someone other than the original author. �������

Square Brackets :

"The Constitution [of the United States] gives the Congress power to declare war."

The choice of punctuation is determined by the writer's view on the importance of the insertion, and hence the degree to which it is emphasized or de-emphasized. In different contexts, the same insertion could take on more or less importance.

Implications For Reading

Readers use the knowledge of insert slots in their analysis of complex sentences. By recognizing inserts, they uncover the simple sentences underlying otherwise complex sentences.

The role of punctuation as a tool in sentence analysis can be seen in the following passage, the opening to a book review of a psychoanalytic reinterpretation of two novels:

One of the reasons that so many people have lost interest in psychoanalysis�as a convincing and useful story about the kind of people we are�is that it has made so many spurious claims for itself. As a science, as an efficient cure for misery, as a secular religion, as a supreme explanation of virtually everything, it is wholly implausible. As one good story�among many others�about what we are and who we want to be, though, it can be remarkably illuminating. There is no cure for being alive, but useful and interesting descriptions of our predicament can make a difference. [2]

Notice the opening sentence

One of the reasons that so many people have lost interest in psychoanalysis �as a convincing and useful story about the kind of people we are� is that it has made so many spurious claims for itself.

A definition of psychoanalysis ( as a convincing and useful story about the kind of people we are ) is inserted within the initial observation. The sentence makes complete sense without that insertion, but the insertion is useful for understanding.

As the next sentence starts ( As a science,�. ), we expect a sentence modifier limiting the focus of the discussion, but instead we find reference to a series of possible viewpoints:

As a science,

as an efficient cure for misery,

as a secular religion,

as a supreme explanation of virtually everything,

����������� it [psychoanalysis] is wholly implausible.

The commas here do not mark off inserts but items in a series.

The following sentence contains two insertions bracketed off by dashes and then commas: �� As one good story

����������� �among many others�

about what we are and who we want to be

, though,

it can be remarkably illuminating.

the first insert (� among many others �) emphasizes the notion that there are other options to psychoanalysis as a "good story." The second assertion (, though ,) emphasizes the contrast with the earlier observation on the value of psychoanalysis: no longer "wholly implausible", now "remarkably illuminating." Note that dashes are used to bracket somewhat of an aside, added for emphasis, while the commas bracket an insertion that is more critical to assuring the proper understanding.

As always with inserts, we can read straight through without the inserts.

As one good story

����������� ......................................

about what we are and who we want to be ,

........................,

it can be remarkably illuminating.

or run together

As one good story about what we are and who we want to be ,

it can be remarkably illuminating.

Here we have a sentence with two major parts. How should we understand the sentence structure now? The chunk in front

As one good story about what we are and who we want to be ,

it can be remarkably illuminating.

might seem to be a front sentence modifier, modifying the remainder of the sentence, but it will not pass the sentence modifier test: it won't shift to the end.

* It can be remarkably illuminating, �� as one good story about what we are and who we want to be ,

Whether we place this chunk ( As one good story about what we are and who we want to be) at the beginning or end of the sentence, it is another insert, inserted to define what is meant by "it."

In the final sentence of the paragraph, we can bracket off the end of the sentence:

There is no cure for being alive
, but useful and interesting descriptions of our predicament can make a difference.
We have a series of two simple sentences joined by "but" and divided by a comma. Both elements seem crucial to the meaning.

How we analyze a sentence controls how we understand that sentence. When the sentence analysis is spelled out like this, reading seems decidedly difficult and time consuming. In practice, the analysis suggested here is accomplished in split seconds, and usually instinctively. The only reason for spelling it out, as it were, is so that you can apply the technique consciously, slowly, and carefully when needed.

The paragraph is repeated below with inserts marked in orange.
One of the reasons that so many people have lost interest in psychoanalysis�as a convincing and useful story about the kind of people we are�is that it has made so many spurious claims for itself. As a science, as an efficient cure for misery, as a secular religion, as a supreme explanation of virtually everything, it is wholly implausible. As one good story�among many others�about what we are and who we want to be, though, it can be remarkably illuminating. There is no cure for being alive, but useful and interesting descriptions of our predicament can make a difference.

Another Example

The following is the opening of a book review of, among other books, David Halberstam's The Children, a history of the early days of the civil right movement.

It was lucky for David Halberstam, for the civil rights movement, and for all of us that Halberstam became a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean in 1956. �� Just a year out of Harvard, he was given a front-row seat for one of the most significant of the early struggles against America's apartheid. �� The Nashville sit-ins of 1960 were not the first ones ( the honor for that goes to four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina ) but they were the most thoroughly prepared and skillfully conducted. �� Those who defied the local power structure knew very well what they were risking. �� For a year they had undergone spiritual exercises under the guidance of a thirty-one-year-old Gandhian, James Lawson, who had served prison time as a conscientious objector during the Korean War and studied nonviolence for three years in India. (3)

To make sense of the passage, you, the reader, instinctively separate out chunks

It was lucky for David Halberstam,

������ for the civil rights movement, and

����� for all of us

that Halberstam became a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean in 1956.

Just a year out of Harvard, ]

he was given a front-row seat for one of the most significant of the early struggles against America's apartheid.

The Nashville sit-ins of 1960 were not the first ones

( the honor for that goes to ����������� four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina) ���

but they were the most thoroughly prepared and skillfully conducted.

Those who defied the local power structure knew very well what they were risking. �� For a year ]

they had undergone spiritual exercises under the guidance of a thirty-one-year-old Gandhian �����������������������

( , James Lawson, )

( who had served prison time as a conscientious objector during the Korean War and studied nonviolence for three years in India ) .

The paragraph is repeated below with the inserts in orange and sentence modifiers in blue.

It was lucky for David Halberstam, for the civil rights movement, and for all of us that Halberstam became a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean in 1956. �� Just a year out of Harvard, he was given a front-row seat for one of the most significant of the early struggles against America's apartheid. �� The Nashville sit-ins of 1960 were not the first ones ( the honor for that goes to four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina ) but they were the most thoroughly prepared and skillfully conducted. �� Those who defied the local power structure knew very well what they were risking. �� ) .

The paragraph is repeated below with the inserts in orange and sentence modifiers in blue.

It was lucky for David Halberstam, for the civil rights movement, and for all of us that Halberstam became a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean in 1956. �� Just a year out of Harvard, he was given a front-row seat for one of the most significant of the early struggles against America's apartheid. �� The Nashville sit-ins of 1960 were not the first ones ( the honor for that goes to four college students in Greensboro, North Carolina ) but they were the most thoroughly prepared and skillfully conducted. �� Those who defied the local power structure knew very well what they were risking. ��