Literature Made Simple: A Lexical Approach to Long Sentences

My name is Jasper, an English Language and Literature instructor at The Edge Learning Center. I receive quite a few emails from students, particularly those who have recently started doing literature courses, asking if I could explain the meaning of some ridiculously long sentence in literature. I was once also a literature student and, yes, English is my third language, so I deeply understand how hard literature is for some non-native speakers. The good news is, once you know how each grammar device functions, it is actually not as hard as you might have imagined. In addition, once you have developed your linguistic awareness, the good reading skills you acquire from this blog are not only confined to reading literature but also applicable to reading academic journals as well as taking most of the English tests you will have to take before entering university.

W.G. Sebaid

W.G. Sebaid

Before we move on to the next step explaining the mechanism of constructing extensive sentences, challenge yourself with this long sentence written by W.G. Sebald, an acclaimed German writer:

All I know is that I stood spellbound in his high-ceilinged studio room, with its north-facing windows in front of the heavy mahogany bureau at which Michael said he no longer worked because the room was so cold, even in mid summer; and that, while we talked of the difficulty of heating old houses, a strange feeling came upon me, as if it were not he who had abandoned that place of work but I, as if the spectacles cases, letters and writing materials that had evidently lain untouched for months in the soft north light had once been my spectacle cases, my letters and my writing materials.

After reading this extensive sentence, maybe you have no idea what it is about. Undoubtedly, this is hard, especially to second language learners. However, sentence simplification is actually much simpler than you think. In order to extract the essential information, all you need to do is to follow the step-by-step guide I created. The first three steps are for extraction of main clause, on which the next three steps for elaboration are based. The final step is to break down a long sentence into several short independent parts, into a more digestible structure.

Step by step guide

1st step (main verb identification):

The first device I usually look at is main verbs. A main verb, as its name suggests, is an essential element that a sentence cannot go without. Also called as finite verb, a main verb functions as the root of an independent clause. It is so important that it gives crucial grammatical information such as number, tense and mood. One point to remember, do not confuse a main verb with a subordinate verb. A subordinate verb is the verb under a relative clause, and it will be explained in detail in step 5. Despite the fact that a subordinate verb also conjugates, it does not express the key meaning in a group of verbs. For instance, ‘I ate the apple that belongs to Tony.’ If you choose ‘ate’ as a main verb, then congratulations, that choice is spot on. The first verb, “ate,” tells us the action has already happened in the past. The second verb, “belongs,” simply describes the apple’s ownership, and as ownership is a fact that cannot be changed, present simple tense is used here. As far as the long sentence is concerned, the main verb is the stative verb ‘is’ (be) after ‘all I know’.

2nd step (subject identification):

Then here comes the subject. Try this tricky sentence from Homer’s Iliad: ‘without a sign, his sword the brave man draws, and asks no omen but his country’s cause.’ Probably now you know what the main verbs are. They are ‘draws’ and ‘asks’. Having a third-person singular s at the end of both verbs, we know the subject must be singular. Grammatically speaking, the subject of a sentence refers to a person, place, thing or idea that controls the verb in the clause. A subject can be realised in various forms, the most common of which is noun phrases, but it is noteworthy that it can appear in the forms of to-infinitives, gerunds, as well as relative clauses. In the above quotation, as you may have observed, two sets of noun phrase are used, which are ‘his sword’ and ‘the brave man’ respectively. We also need to know that the inversion technique is used for this sentence. The object placed upfront serves the purpose of emphasis. Therefore, the subject is actually ‘the brave man’, and the message should become clearer if you rearrange the word order: ‘The brave man draws his sword without a sign. He asks no omen but his country’s cause.’

3rd step (object/complement identification):

Identifying objects should be straightforward if inverted structure isn’t involved. Complements, especially those having ‘that-clause’ structure, are a bit tricky. Look at this example: ‘What he really cares is that his wife supports him wholeheartedly.’ The that-clause is a subject complement that cannot be ignored nor deleted. The reason for emphasising this is that removal of relative clauses (which include that-clauses) will be later used as a part of the technique for better comprehension. You must be aware that the subject complement using ‘that-clause’ is essential as it is integral to a sentence’s meaning. The two ‘that-clauses’ are the major subject complements in the long sentence.

4th step (searching for conjunctions):

A conjunction is a device that connects words, phrases, clauses or sentences. Probably you already knew what words and sentences are, but it comes to my attention that a lot of students are not aware of the differences between the other two. A phrase is defined as a group of related words that may have nouns or verbs, but without a subject performing the action; a clause, on the contrary, does have a subject actively doing the action.  If a clause can form a complete sentence standing by itself, it is called an independent clause. For the fourth step, I would like you to circle all the conjunctions connecting independent clauses. The reason for doing this is that it allows us to see how many main verbs there are in a long sentence.

5th step (searching for relative clauses):

Relative clauses are used to give additional information about something without the hassle of starting a new sentence. Its most prominent advantage is that repetition of certain words can be avoided. The relative clause is a complex concept that involves relative pronouns, defining and non-defining clauses, as well as relative adverbs. Due to word limitation, I am only focusing on the last three concepts today.

Defining relative clauses give specified information defining the immediate preceding noun. Look at this example: ‘The castle where we went last week is in Edinburgh.’ There are so many castles in the world, so the speaker has to put emphasis on the only one ‘where they went’ to act as definition.

Non-defining relative clauses, however, do not give any definition but rather additional information. Now look at this example: ‘Arthur Conan Doyle, who created a fictional detective called Sherlock Holmes, was an acclaimed Scottish writer.’ As you may have observed, the main independent clause of the sentence is separated by a non-defining relative clause. The clause gives a related but not essential piece of information about the prolific writer. Of course, you can also put the non-defining relative clause at the end of the sentence without any worries that it might change the original meaning.

The major difference between a defining and a non-defining clause, apart from their functions, lies in the presence of commas. Defining clauses are not put in commas at all; their non-defining counterparts are. Whatever kind of relative clause you may encounter, I would like you to underline all relative clauses you see in the long sentence, and subsequently delete them in the process of sentence simplification. Don’t worry, we will reconstruct the sentence at the end of the day.

Dutch supermarket advert

A Dutch supermarket advert, meaning ‘Mama, that one, that one, that one… Please.’

The Relative adverb is another major concept that confuses almost all students. I am aware most Chinese speakers find this particularly hard to master, simply because there aren’t corresponding words or structures in Chinese. Well, we all are lost in translation sometimes, aren’t we?

Look at the example below:

Tony’s studio room is close to the company at which he said he no longer worked.

Basically the sentence is composed of two parts:

A: Tony’s studio room is close to the company.

B: He said he no longer worked at the company.

As you can see, in order to construct a sentence using relative adverbs, you need a common word that both independent clauses share. Once you have a common word, move the preposition to in front of the second clause and then add ‘which’. Two clauses are then successfully combined.

6th step (searching for adverbials):

An adverbial is a word (an adverb) or a group of words (an adverbial phrase or clause) that modifies a verb, usually with information about time and place. It exists in various forms. Apart from just an adverb, it can be a noun phrase, a prepositional phrase or a clause. Look at the examples below. Bold parts are examples of adverbials:

I stood spellbound in his high-ceilinged studio room. (place)

I have been travelling for a fortnight and am already missing home. (time)

The thief had no hope of advancing in his profession. (manner)

In a more digestible ‘student-friendly’ way of speaking, an adverbial refers to most lexical parts that begin with prepositions. If the removal of an adverbial leaves a well-formed sentence, the part being removed is called an adverbial adjunct (rest assured, you don’t really need to know the term). However, be really careful; true adverbials offer information that is integral to the meaning of a sentence and therefore cannot be removed. For this second last step, I’d like you to delete all adverbial adjuncts in the long sentence.

Final step (sentence reconstruction):

Now read again the long sentence given at the outset. Possibly you could not locate the subject, main verb and object/complement in your first attempt. Don’t worry, continue the steps and cross out unnecessary detail. By using step four, you probably will have circled the conjunction ‘and’ after the semicolon. Then moving on to 5th and 6th steps, you will have deleted many relative clauses and adverbials,  and will be able to extract the following essential clause:

All I know is that I stood spellbound, and that a strange feeling came upon me.

Now try to rewrite every single clause (including those deleted) into independent sentences. While you are writing, be careful with the tense and parts of speech.

  1. I only know I stood spellbound in Michael’s studio room.
  2. The studio room had north-facing windows in front of the heavy mahogany bureau.
  3. Michael said he no longer worked at the bureau because it was too cold.
  4. It was cold even in midsummer.
  5. While we talked of the difficulty of heating old houses, a strange feeling came upon me.
  6. It felt like I was the one abandoning the workplace instead of Michael.
  7. It felt like the spectacle cases, letters and writing materials had once been mine.
  8. Those things had evidently lain untouched for months in the soft north light.

There you go. It becomes much simpler now, doesn’t it? Whether you are doing IB, IGCSE, SAT, you need the ability to break down complex sentence structure by having a structural lexical approach to English. Long sentences, complex structures and literature are just inextricable. The technique you’ve just learnt is not confined only to reading but is also applicable to descriptive writing. Here is your final challenge: try to write 10 independent sentences describing an unforgettable travel experience you’ve had, then combine them into one single sentence by using the step-by-step guide in reverse order.


Sentences Clauses and Phrases: