Bust out those style guides, argue over those serial commas, and question the legitimacy of those split infinitives, because it’s National Grammar Day!
After Halloween, my birthday, National Hat Day, National Homebrewing Day, National Wizard Day, and National Drink Beer and Play Video Games All Day Day, National Grammar Day is my favorite. To celebrate the wonders of this syntactically accurate 24-hours, I’ve decided to talk about three of my favorite grammatical tools:
Appositives and resumptive and summative modifiers.
I normally don’t go for such low-hanging Oz-born fruit in my post titles, but for once, comparing these three constructs to lions, tigers, and bears is actually appropriate. I mean, not directly appropriate, as they’re not technically dangerous apex megafauna, but pretty indirectly appropriate as they are powerful and should be treated with respect.
These three are some of the best spells in the grammar-wizard’s tome of arcane writing knowledge. They are also three of the most challenging to master and use correctly. They help embroider and embolden your prose with more eloquent definition of your subjects, and can add lyricism and emphasis to your writing that phrasing and branching may not.
Much like parallelism, modifiers can transform stumbling, unnatural writing into flowing, organic writing with a few flicks of the predicate and shakes of the subordinate clause.
In Apposition to
Outside of our little grammar bubble, the word “appose” (similar in definition to, but not to be confused with “oppose”) means “to place in juxtaposition or proximity.” When inside said grammar bubble, apposition is the idea of placing one noun next to another to “rename” the first noun.
In practice an appositive is like a fancy adjective, with which you describe specific qualities of your noun, using another noun. For example:
“Oliver, a guy obsessed with wizards, wrote a book about ancient magicks.”
The appositive in the sentence above provides additional, specific knowledge about the main subject and has another noun (or nominative clause) that could theoretically replace the original noun.
An appositive cannot rename a noun that is somewhere else in the sentence:
“Oliver wrote a book, a guy obsessed with wizards, about ancient magicks.”
In this case, my appositive follows the noun in the direct object position (“a book”) which makes it sound like it is renaming the book. This sentence doesn’t really make any sense (unless the book is alive and sentient and really into wizards and wizard culture and HOLY CRAP awesome short story idea).
An appositive always renames the noun that precedes it and is always another noun or noun clause.
In addition to basic renaming or specification, appositives can put on some fancy-ass pants, and rename a subject more than once to create a very rhythmic effect:
“Oliver wrote a book, a treatise on men of mystery, a tome that would bridge a gap between science and spirit, a collection of words woven with the sinew of sorcery.“
Appositives are like grammar-guitar solos in the middle of your sentence-songs. They’re in the same key, but give the main melody a little variation and a lot of vivification.
I think, in all the untamed wilds of the grammatical jungle, that resumptive modifiers are my favorite tool. Don’t tell the adjectival clauses though, it’d break their little nonrestrictive hearts.
The resumptive modifier is exactly what it sounds like; it “resumes” a sentence where it left off, creating an echo-like effect for the end of your original sentence. It shifts the emphasis of a sentence from the main verb of the subject, usually to whatever information is found in the object position:
“And so she wept for his soul, a soul forever doomed to read about, talk about, and be in the company of wizards.”
Where the original sentence would have been focused on her weeping, the resumptive modifier makes the sentence more about his soul. This is a great tool for opening, transitioning, or closing a section where you really want to leave the reader with a clearly defined point of focus.
You can also chain resumptive modifiers together, or repeat an idea to branch into another, tangentially similar idea:
“And so she wept for his soul, a soul turned malignant by years of abuse, abuse of dark magic that should have been left interred.” (Chained resumptive modifiers can make a sentence pretty dense, but pack an amazing syntactic wallop and carry a ton of information in not a lot of words.)
“And so she wept for his soul, a soul entwined in distant lore, a soul that wandered a shadow world of near-forgotten ideas, a soul that had little hope of ever finding the light of tangible reality ever again.” (the resumptive is repeated to add to the idea of this weird guy’s soul)
While resumptives are awesome, they still have rules. To create a resumptive modifier, your original sentence must end with a noun or an adjective, and the section that follows must include (or be) a subordinate clause. The modifier would be incomplete or not make sense otherwise:
“And so she wept quietly, quietly as to not disturb her brother.” (Resumptives with an adverb are redundant as you could just take one out and have the exact same sentence)
“And so she wept for his soul, a tired soul.” (No subordinate clause is also redundant, as you could just include the adjectival information in the original sentence)
For effect, it is still possible to use these forms, but know that if you do you are breaking a grammatical rule and some readers may find this wording garish or silly or just plain pointless.
If resumptives resume, then summatives…?
Summarize. You win one million SAT/GRE vocabulary points.
Unlike a resumptive, which only modifies the previous noun, a summative modifier sums up the entire independent clause of a sentence with a single noun (or nominative clause). A summative modifier is a perfect tool to nudge your reader into believing something about your sentence without beating them over the head with, “HI THERE READER PERSON, THIS IS WHAT THIS SENTENCE MEANS AND WHAT YOU SHOULD TAKE AWAY FROM THE STORY.” It’s more subtle and sneaky, and when pens are down, better writing.
“The wizard lost the battle, a defeat that would mark the beginning of his end.”
You’re very slyly giving your reader supplemental information without having to break it into a separate sentence. This improves the flow and let’s the reader draw the conclusion you want by providing literary breadcrumbs. This has the added effect of naturally “rounding out” an idea, making it a perfect way to end a chapter or section.
Just for fun…
…let’s use all three tools in one sentence:
“Hadrax, a red robed silhouette on the horizon, began to wave his hands, a signal to those below that meant incoming fury, fury that came from a wizard pushed too far for too long.
I’ll include my usual grammatical tools disclaimer: these are great, amazing, wonderful, lovely, super effective constructions, but be judicious. They are very fun to write, and very easy to get carried away with. An entire paragraph of resumptive modifiers is going to be dense and confusing. An entire section of summative modifiers may make your reader feel like you’re spoon-feeding them too much information. Too many appositives and your reader won’t know which descriptor is most important.
Use sparingly, parental guidance recommended, caveat emptor, et cetera, et cetera.
I wasn’t kidding. The first step is admitting you have a problem and then writing about it.