Author Topic: A potent tool for whittling down complex sentences into simple ones  (Read 4732 times)

Joe Carillo

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Along with clarity, conciseness is a hallmark of good writing. The astute writer knows that in written exposition, what ultimately matters isn’t the flurry of words he or she is capable of generating but the elimination of every word that’s not absolutely necessary to the successful delivery of the idea. One of the potent grammatical tools for this whittling down process is the so-called reduction of adjective clauses, which involves the conversion of adjective clauses in complex sentences into structurally simpler, more concise adjective phrases. When done just right, this process neatly does away with the subordinating conjunction and the passive verb form that links the subordinate clause to the main clause, and voila! what emerges is a compact, smoother single-clause sentence that’s much easier to read both silently and aloud.

                                  IMAGE CREDIT: YOUTUBE.COM

In an essay I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004, “Reducing adjective clauses for conciseness,” I discussed this sentence-simplification tool in some detail. I am now posting that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum in the hope that you’ll find its prescriptions helpful in making your own sentences and expositions more concise and more readable. (September 10, 2010)

Reducing adjective clauses for conciseness

The mark of fluent English-language writers or speakers is the way they effortlessly do away with words that, although mandated by formal grammar, only slow down the delivery of their ideas. Nonnative users of English, on the other hand, often stick to the grammar protocols tenaciously, leaving no grammatical gaps in their sentences that might betray their less than perfect proficiency in the language. As might be expected, of course, this desire to treat syntax and semantics with mathematical precision achieves the exact opposite. It results in stiff, unidiomatic English that clearly identifies the users as nonnative ones trying mighty hard not to be perceived as such.

One aspect of English where exactitude in syntax clearly doesn’t pay is in the use of adjective clauses. Recall that adjective clauses are those extended modifiers that give more details about nouns to put them in better perspective. Adjective clauses, we will also remember, are normally introduced by the relative pronouns “that,” “which,” “who,” “whom,” “whose,” and “where,” which link the additional ideas to the main (and independent) clause.

Let’s see how this relative linking mechanism works by examining the following sentences: “The plane that is flying over the village right now is a Boeing 747.” “An old bidding strategy, which is rarely used these days, won them the lucrative contract.” “The woman who was looking for me this morning is my fiancée.” “The street where she passes every night is always well-lighted.” “The caretaker to whom she entrusted her house proved untrustworthy.” “That candidate whose English is so atrociously bad might just win the election.”

Most nonnative speakers of English, not yet wise to the highly idiomatic character of the language, will often write or articulate those adjective-clause-bearing sentences above in exactly the way they are shown. Native speakers, however, routinely shortcut the construction of such sentences; they get rid of words not essential to conveying their meaning. Their usual targets are the subordinating conjunction and the passive verb form that links the subordinate clause to the main clause. This technique, when done successfully without materially changing the meaning of the sentence, is called the reduction of adjective clauses. The simple, forthright process converts the adjective clauses into structurally simpler, more concise adjective phrases.

See what happens to the six sentences when this reduction technique is done just right (bracketed are the words that have been knocked off without changing the meaning of the sentence): “The plane [that is] flying over the village right now is a Boeing 757.” “An old bidding strategy [which is] rarely used these days won them the lucrative contract.” “The woman [who was] looking for me this morning is my fiancée.” “The street [where] she passes every night is always well-lighted.” “The caretaker [to whom] he entrusted her house with proved untrustworthy.” “That candidate [whose English is] with the atrociously bad English might just win the election.”

The adjective reduction process is simplicity itself when the relative pronoun is followed by “be” in any of its forms. In the case of the first four adjective-clause-bearing sentences above, all of which use “be,” we simply drop the linking phrases “that is,” “which was,” “who was,” and “where” and do absolutely nothing else. The meanings remain the same. But with sentences that use verbs other than “be,” the reduction often calls for a minor revision of the adjective clause to keep their meanings intact. See, for instance, how confusing the fifth sentence becomes when it simply drops “to whom” and leaves it at that: “The caretaker she entrusted her house during her absence proved untrustworthy.” Converting the relative clause into a prepositional noun phrase using “with” restores the meaning: “The caretaker she entrusted her house with during her absence proved untrustworthy.”

Reduction is also possible when what follows the relative pronoun is an active verb. The relative pronoun can then be dropped and the verb changed to its –ing form. In this way, a sentence like “Her allergy is a rabid type that arises from childhood trauma” reduces to “Her allergy is a rabid type arising from childhood trauma.” The adjective clause morphs into an adverb phrase. 

Not all sentences with adjective clauses can be reduced meaningfully, however. In particular, reduction fails when a sentence contains the modal auxiliary verbs “should,” “may,” “can,” or “must.” The element of conditionality provided by these words gets lost in the reduction, distorting the meaning of the sentence. Consider this example: “This uniform, which should be worn at all times during regular working days, will be provided free to all personnel.” Its mandatory tone vanishes in this wrongful reduction: “This uniform, worn at all times during regular working days, will be provided free to all personnel.”

Adjective clause reduction definitely makes sentences compact and smoother, but we should be careful in doing it to avoid mangling our intended ideas. (February 18, 2004)

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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 18, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This piece subsequently appeared as Chapter 100 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.
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