Writing for radio 7: how I wrote 'Calling'
Two or three ways of thinking about a sieve

How a subordinate adverbial clause of purpose might just help you to sing

A while ago, I was thinking about how the order in which you arrange the phrases of a sentence makes a difference to its effect. And then on the WriteWords forum someone queried whether a sentence like this was good writing:

My hand reached out, seeking Adam's rough warmth but finding only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

The grounds for the query were that "finding" implies that the sentence is going to go on with something like "My hand reached out but, finding only the cool sleek linen of the sheets, gave up in despair". Only it doesn't. (And yes, it's arguable that traditional punctuation dictates that there should be a comma between "cool" and "sleek". But for now I need my commas for more structural things.) Failing "gave", the querier felt that "finding" should have been changed by the editor to 'found'. That would be a perfectly correct and clear sentence, but it definitely feels different. As always, what's really going on is buried in the grammar. The main clause, able to stand alone because it has a finite verb, is this:

My hand reached out.

Then there's a subordinate clause, which tells us more about the main clause. Here, it's an adverbial clause of reason: "adverbial" because it's the action which the more concerns, and "of reason" because the more it's telling us is why this action is happening. So

My hand reached out, seeking Adam's rough warmth.

is also a perfectly good sentence. You could equally well write

My hand reached out, finding only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

And you could equally well change that adverbial clause to another kind of clause:

My hand reached out, but found only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

Putting back the original, first subordinate clause we get what the WriteWorder wanted:

My hand reached out, seeking Adam's rough warmth, but found only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

So what's the difference? It seems to me that in the original version, because the "seeking" clause and the "finding" clause have the same grammatical form they can form a single phrase, albeit a longish one. Present participles always have a sense of ongoing action, and so the two clauses easily become two stages of a single process. It's not coincidental either that they also have the same rhythm and similar vowel sounds: "ee-i" and "eye-i", and that's probably what sold this version to me.

Whereas with the second version, "found" doesn't echo "seeking" in grammar, sound or rhythm. It echoes "reached" in grammar, because they're both finite verbs, and in the terminal "-d" sound. The necessary second comma after "warmth" is the giveaway: this version has three bits to it, not two. Instead of the single process of "seeking-and-finding", "found" curls the sense and therefore the reader back to find its subject: "my hand". "Seeking" is sidelined: it's not irrelevant that pairs of commas like that are called "parenthetical". Sidelining the process of "seeking", relative to "finding", to make a pair instead of "reached/found", may or may not be the effect the writer is after.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to write this sentence without changing the order of the important words, but only the grammatical relationships - and therefore sounds - between them. Off the top of my head:

My hand reached out and sought Adam's rough warmth, but found only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

My hand reached out to seek Adam's rough warmth but found only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

My hand reached out and in seeking Adam's rough warmth, it found only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

My hand reached out but, in seeking Adam's rough warmth, it found only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

and perhaps more poetically, in that they play faster and looser with formal prose conventions in working with sound and rhythm:

My hand reached out, sought Adam's rough warmth, found only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

My hand reaching out - seeking Adam's rough warmth - finding only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

Notice how "sought/found" is what poets call a slant-rhyme or a half-rhyme, as "seeking/finding" are:  some elements echo though not necessarily the final vowel+consonant of a full rhyme. Poets work with this stuff all the time.

And the editor's bête noir (please don't try this at home!) is variations on:

My hand reaching out, it sought Adam's rough warmth, finding only the cool sleek linen of the sheets.

Of course you don't need to be a grammar nerd like me to get a feel for this kind of thing, anyone with any kind of 'ear' will be working intuitively with the differences all the time. But in the end this is why grammar and syntax and punctuation are worth finding out about and understanding: not merely to look as if you've bothered to get things correct, but to take you beyond correct, to right. Just like an actor and their body, you want your writing to respond freely and flexibly to whatever you're trying to say and how you're trying to say it. Paradoxically it's purely technical work like this which will help you as much as anything will to find that supremely un-technical, un-learnable thing: your own voice.

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