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Author Topic: Dealing with long, complicated noun phrases  (Read 89 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: November 30, 2017, 07:56:49 AM »

In my discussion last week on how to deal with long, complicated noun phrases, I presented this grammar perfect but utterly disorienting sentence with a 15-word noun phrase as subject: “The time for our two companies to consolidate resources against our increasingly tough foreign competition has come.” What can we do to make its sense clearer and more understandable?



The problem with that sentence is that its subject—“the time”—and its predicate—“has come”—got too precipitously separated from each other in the normal word order, making their semantic relationship too difficult to connect and comprehend. The simplest fix that doesn’t require total restructuring of that sentence is to use the so-called expletive “it” as its subject.  

A word of caution though: the expletive “it” I’m referring to isn’t the exclamatory obscene or profane word or phrase that people say in moments of anger or disappointment, as in “Doggone it!” Instead, “it” here is a “dummy” subject made to occupy the position of the subject (or object) of a verb in normal English word order to make it as close as possible to the operative verb. Take a look at how the expletive “it” works very well in this slight reconstruction of that sentence: “It is now time for our two companies to consolidate resources against our increasingly tough foreign competition.”


Without the expletive “it” as a fix, it often becomes necessary to break the long noun phrase to allow an earlier appearance of the operative verb and make the sentence more easily understood. A noun phrase broken for that purpose is called a discontinuous noun phrase, as in this reconstruction of the original tough-as-nails sentence: “The time has come for our two companies to consolidate resources against the increasingly tough foreign competition.”


Here’s another sentence rendered almost incomprehensible by an overly long and complicated noun phrase—a total of 18 words—as subject: “Many disturbing reports concerning cellular phone thefts brazenly perpetrated in city buses in the full view of passengers have been reaching us.” Now compare it with this reconstruction that breaks the noun phrase to allow the earlier appearance of the operative verb: “Many disturbing reports have been reaching us concerning cellular phone thefts brazenly perpetrated in city buses in the full view of passengers.”

Once again we can see that in such cases, using a discontinuous noun phrase can make convoluted sentences clearer because it allows the operative verb to work right beside the operative noun of the long noun phrase. This, of course, is in keeping with the general principle that an operative verb performs its job best when placed closest to its subject or to the noun (or noun form) doing the action of the verb.

When confronted with long and complicated noun phrases as subject, we need to make a judgment call whether to stick with the construction or use the discontinuous phrase strategy. Some sentences are a toss-up. This one of moderate length obviously can stand without the discontinuous phrase treatment: “A disturbing number of accidents involving derailments of light-transit trains have been reported recently.” However, its sense can be more easily grasped with that discontinuous phrase treatment: “A disturbing number of accidents have been reported recently involving derailments of light-transit trains.”

Definitely, though, much longer and more complicated sentence structures like this one call for more aggressive reconstruction: “The anecdote that he was once an itinerant circus barker in the provinces is often told about the accused big-time swindler.” See and hear how much more readable it becomes when we use the discontinuous phrase strategy to bring subject and predicate virtually side-by side: “The anecdote is often told about the accused big-time swindler that he was once an itinerant circus barker in the provinces.”

This essay, 1,068th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the November 30, 2072 issue of The Manila Times, © 2012 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.



(Next: How noun clauses behave in a sentence)      December 7, 2017
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