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Notes for:
A Sentence from "The tragedy of the nests" by John Burroughs

Exercise AK SC - WB Combining

     This 115-word main clause is interesting, obviously, just because of its length, but it may also provide an interesting text for discussing Walker Gibson's idea that left-branching modification implies a more orderly mind. 1Gibson's premise is that in order to write left-branching modification, the writer must already have in mind what it is that will be modified. In this case, the main S/V/C pattern appears in the last seven words of the sentence. The implication, therefore, is that Burroughs more or less had the entire 115 words in short-term memory as he wrote the sentence. That is somewhat amazing when we consider that the average main clause length of professional writers is twenty words. 
      There may, however, be more going on here. Note the difference, in style, and in nuance, if the main S/V/C pattern is put at the beginning:

Some untoward fate seemed hovering about them, from the first nest I noted, which was that of a bluebird, -- built (very imprudently I thought at the time) in a squirrel-hole in a decayed apple-tree, about the last of April, and which came to naught, even the  mother bird, I suspect, perishing by a violent death, -- to the last, which was that of a snow-bird, observed in August, among the Catskills, deftly concealed in a mossy bank by the side of a road that skirted a wood, where the tall thimble blackberries grew in abundance, from which the last young one was taken, when it was about half grown, by some nocturnal walker or daylight  prowler. 
It is extremely difficult to re-perceive the style of a sentence once one has read it. Sentences are, after all, meant to be read, not read, analyzed, and then reread. In this case, however, it seems clear that the logical structure of the sentence is reversed. 
     The main S/V/C phrase ("some untoward fate seemed hovering about them") is the logical conclusion of the details presented in the (originally preceding) prepositional phrases {"From the first,..." "to the last...") and their modifiers. Thus the first nest was built in a squirrel-hole, where squirrels can get to it. Thus the narrator suggests that it was built "imprudently," and then further notes his suspicion that the squirrels may even have gotten the mother bird. The last nest was "deftly concealed in a mossy bank by the side of a road," but that road "skirted a wood, where the tall thimble blackberries grew in abundance." The implication seems to be that the abundant blackberries attracted nocturnal walkers or daylight  prowlers, who then noted and looted the nest.
     In essence, what we have here is a clear distinction between what rhetoricians call "inductive" and "deductive" structure. Burrough's original sentence, with the main pattern at the end, is inductive. The writer wants to lead readers into his conclusion, and thus he presents the evidence first, then the conclusion. When we put the main pattern at the beginning of the sentence, the structure becomes rhetorically deductive -- in effect the writer would be saying here is my conclusion, and then here is my proof. 
     Although this distinction between inductive and deductive structure may seem subtle, it is the type of thing that college Freshmen composition books attempt (in general with little success) to get Freshmen writers to see. They cannot deal with it in terms of sentences, but they often discuss inductive and deductive paragraphs. The concept can also be extended to entire sections of essays. Consider, for example, William Golding's famous essay "Thinking as a Hobby" [Off-site link] [Another off-site link]. Golding describes a number of his former teachers and then states:
     I have dealt at length with my teachers because this was my introduction to the nature of what is commonly called thought. Through them I discovered that thought is often full of unconscious prejudice, ignorance and hypocrisy. It will lecture on disinterested purity while its neck is being remorselessly twisted toward a skirt. Technically, it is about as proficient as most businessmen's golf, as honest as most politicians' intentions, or -- to come near my own preoccupation -- as coherent as most books that get written. It is what I came to call grade-three thinking, though more properly, it is feeling, rather than thought.
As in Burrough's sentence about the nests, Golding gives the details, his examples, first, and then states his conclusion -- that these teachers were grade three thinkers.
     I suggested above that college textbooks deal with the rhetorical inductive / deductive distinction unsuccessfully. There are two reasons for my opinion. First, these texts cannot deal with sentences such as Burrough's at the level of syntactic style. Most college Freshmen cannot identify subjects and finite verbs. Thus they cannot identify clauses, main or subordinate. The distinction is simply lost for these students. Second, most of the instructors of college Freshman composition whom I know struggle just to get students to put details that support their generalizations into their papers. Within that framework, most of us probably focus on the deductive approach -- general idea followed by supporting details.
     Much could be written about this distinction, but I would suggest that there is a major difference in tone between the two. Deductive structure is somewhat imperative -- Here's what I want you to believe, and here is why! Inductive structure seems to be much more polite -- Look at this, and this, and this. Doesn't it all suggest this?
     Note that with the KISS Approach, students can attack this deductive / inductive rhetorical distinction at three levels -- the paragraph (where it is usually taught), the entire essay (or parts thereof), and the single sentence. One of the ways this specific sentence might be used is simply as a general model for sentences in which supporting details are put in subordinate constructions at the beginning of sentences. I don't suggest trying this, however, with students before tenth grade. Let students grow naturally. On the other hand, and just for fun, students in earlier grades (5-9) might enjoy doing the sentence combining exercise and then sharing and discussing the ways in which they combined the sentences.
    This sentence was suggested by "Celia" in Australia. (I owe a lot to Celia's suggestions for this site.) It is from a Project Gutenberg text by John Burroughs called Birds and Bees, Sharp Eyes and Other Papers, a short way into the essay called "The Tragedy of the Nests."

1. Tough, Sweet, and Stuffy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1966, 113-136.