Sentence structure in English

Critically acclaimed, popular writer Jonathan Franzen is being used as an example of sentence structure in English. 

In Freedom, I counted how many adverbial phrases Franzen has between a verb and object in the first ten pages (with or without commas): zero. There is however one instance of an adverbial phrase appearing (with commas) between the subject and verb: “When Seth, at a dinner party, mentioned patty for the third time...” (7) There are two instances of one adverbial phrases following another before the subject (6,9) and there is one instance where two independent clauses float additional information (12). Eschewing the primped sentences of Scott and Gogol, Franzen’s idiom recalls Austen’s narration, its proximity to discourse and the stimulus shifting between narration and indirect discourse. His narration is peppered with introjections like “yeah,”  words like “fucking,” “weird,” “goddamned” and formulations reflective of discourse.

In The Corrections, I counted 14  cases of adverbial phrases, inversion, or independent clauses interrupting the subject-verb-object or subject-predicate unit in the first seven pages. For a contemporary English text, this total represents a large number, almost two on each page. Below I have highlighted the interruption in bold typeface:

Page 3 (first page in novel): By now it had been ringing for so many hours that the Lambers no longer heard the message of "bell ringing" but, as with any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper rapidly stiking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones... 


Page 4: Then Enid and Alfred - she on her knees in the dining room opening drawers, he in the basement surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table - each felt near to exploding with anxiety.


Page 4: ...Enid was realizing that their expiration dates (often jauntlily circled in red by the manufacturer) lay months and even years in the past: that these hundred-odd coupons, whose total face value exceeded sixty dollars (potentially one hundred twenty dollars at the Chiltsville supermarket that doubled coupons), had all gone bad.


Page 4: He'd continued to shout her name, coming closer and closer, and because the sender of the letter was the Axon Corporation, 24 East Industrial Serpentine, Schwenksville, PA, and because there were aspects of the Axon situation that Enid knew about and hoped that Alfred didn't, she'd quickly stashed the letter somewhere within fifteen feet of the front door.


Page 5: By night, beneath a charming but too-dim scone at a too-small talbe in the breakfast nook, she staged various actions: paid bills, balanced checkbooks...


Page 6: ...and so the random Nordstrom shopping bag that was camped behind a dust ruffle with one of its plastic handles semi-detached would contain the whole shuffled pathos of a refugee existence...


Page 7: At the western end was the portable color TV...


Page 8: At the eastern end Alfred's calculator was ambushed by floral print pot-holders and souvenir coasters from the Epcot Center and a device for pitting cherries which Enid had owned for thirty years and never used, while he, in turn, at the western end, for absolutely no reason that Enid could ever fathom, ripped to pieces a wreath made of pinecones and spray-painted filberts and brazil nuts.


Page 8: On the hood of a binocular microscope lay big chips of peeled paint from the ceiling.


Page 9: ...because what early reason could he have, with a nice little half-bathroom not twenty feet away, for peeing in a Yuban can?


Page 9: To the west of the Ping-Pong table was alfred's great blue chair.


Page 9: A few years later, when Alfred retired from the Midland Pacific Railroad, he set about replacing the old cow-smelling black leather armchair in which he watched TV and took his naps.


Page 9: So he went, alone, to a non-discount furniture store...


Page 10: This argumentation had been effective in the past - it was, so to speak, the constitutional basis of the tyranny's legitimacy - but it didn't work now.


Page 10: Enid's words filled him with such sorrow - he felt such pity for the chair, such solidarity with it, such astonished grief at its betrayal - that he pulled off the dropcloth and sank into its arms and fell asleep.

Nonetheless, due to practice and the structure of the English sentence, this represents a small number compared to German and Russian.

For example, we find 14 instances of such constructions in the first 16-18 sentences (depending on how you count) of Dead Souls, primarily due to the various forms of inversion on account of more flexible word order. 



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