Every set of Legos has the basic square and rectangular blocks that you build most of your castles and dinosaurs and pirates with, and then a bunch of oddly shaped pieces that you use to make the fancy bits. Last post, I compared the basic Legos to the first four basic parts of speech – nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.
With both Legos and words, you can get along reasonably well with just the basic parts, but as soon as you want to make something complicated, you really want those pieces that are triangular or round or trapezoidal or long and skinny, to link things together or put the pointy tops on the towers or teeth or party hats. That’s what the rest of the parts of speech do – the pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. None of them are particularly strong on their own, but they are invaluable once you start putting words together into phrases.
Phrases are the next level of English, up from “words,” and this is the point where things begin to get interesting. Because as soon as you put two or more words together to make a phrase, they not only interact with each other, but they suddenly develop a couple of new properties that affect the impact they make.
The first of these is position or order. At the phrase level, the order that the words go in doesn’t have a lot of flexibility in English. You can say “the red flower,” but not “red the flower” or “flower the red.” If you move a preposition to a different position, you often change the meaning of the phrase; “of the African jungle” is not the same as “jungle of the African” or “African of the jungle.”
Nevertheless, position in phrases is where the writer starts being able to control what is going on in his/her prose. Words are what they are; unless the writer goes to the same extreme as J.R.R. Tolkein and invents whole new languages, the only control the writer has is over which words he/she chooses to use. The order the words go in is something the writer does have control of, at least to an extent, and that control grows with every level from phrases on up. You may not be able to move prepositions or conjunctions around without changing the meaning, but you can choose between “bedknobs and broomsticks” and “broomsticks and bedknobs” or between “on his champagne-polished black boots” and “on his black, champagne-polished boots.”
The reason you want to control position or word order is that, as a general rule, the first element in a phrase or clause or sentence has the most impact and is the most memorable; the last element has second-most; and the ones in the middle have the least. “Bedknobs” has slightly more weight or strength than “broomsticks” in the phrase “bedknobs and broomsticks,” for instance.
Position stacks on top of whatever strength the word has on its own. “Bedknobs” and “broomsticks” are both nouns, so they start off more-or-less equal in strength; it’s only the relative position in the phrase that makes one a little stronger than the other. But the first word in “to boldly go” is a preposition, which is a relatively weak linking word; the fact that it comes first doesn’t add much strength because it doesn’t have much of a base to add onto. “Go,” on the other hand, is a verb, the strongest part of speech, and it comes in the second strongest position, at the end of the phrase. Putting “go” in the middle (so as not to split the infinitive) weakens it significantly.
The second key property of phrases (as compared to words) is rhythm. Multi-syllable words can have rhythm because of the differing emphasis on the syllables; this is what makes some words fun to say (like “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”), but it’s built-in and the writer can’t do anything about it. As soon as there are multiple words, as in a phrase, the writer can control the rhythm by choosing words carefully and positioning them properly. By doing so, the writer can increase or decrease the natural strength and impact of any shorter unit that is part of a longer one (that is, you can use rhythm to put greater or lesser emphasis on a particular word in a phrase, or a particular phrase in a sentence, sentence in a paragraph, etc.).
Rhythm stacks with position and the other things that give a word strength. For example, with “bedknobs and broomsticks,” the rhythm (DUH-da-da-DUH-da) is the same, whichever noun you put first. But “to boldly go” has a nice, regular rhythm – da-DUH-da-DUH – and ends on a strong beat. So the phrase has a verb, at the end, on a strong beat – three strengths all stacked together. “To go boldly,” on the other hand, puts two strong beats together in the middle (“GO BOLDly”), interrupting the rhythm, and ends on a weak beat as well as with a weaker part of speech (the adverb). This is why “to boldly go” has so much more of a ring to it than “to go boldly” (for everyone except really strict grammarians, anyway). Poets do this kind of thing all the time, but it’s useful in prose, too.
More on phrases coming up. I did mention that this was going to be long, yes?