Sentence Basics: Predication

Jeanne Fahnestock

in Rhetorical Style

Published in print October 2011 | ISBN: 9780199764129
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199918928 | DOI:
Sentence Basics: Predication

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Attention to individual words and patterns in word choice can yield important insights into argumentative effects, but what are the words actually doing in a text? Part II takes up this issue by focusing first on sentence forms, beginning with those choices that make a sentence in the first place: the subject and verb. In a first pass, English sentences can be separated into two types, stative versus active, depending on whether they categorize or characterize (typically yoking subjects and predicates with forms of the linking verb to be) or whether they make their subjects agents capable of acting through intransitive verbs or transitive verbs taking an object. Focusing on the subject/verb pairings in a text reveals who gets to be or do what in the universe the arguer constructs. To further that analysis, this chapter offers a semantic taxonomy for the kinds of subjects (agents or entities) that an arguer can use: humans, rhetorical participants, things, abstractions, concepts, and slot fillers (e.g., it is, there are). Verb choices can be analyzed according to the parameters identified by grammarians: tense, aspect, mood, negation, modality, and voice. The often-maligned passive voice is defended here as a rhetorical option. Rhetoricians have linked variables in subject/verb choice to an overall nominal versus verbal style and to individual effects like personification, pairing a thing or abstraction with a verb typically linked with a human, to the historic present, using the present tense to narrate an event from the past and zeugma or to hypozeuxis, the multiplying of subjects and verbs. This chapter includes detailed analyses of passages for subject choice and verb choice alone (in the latter case showing the importance of a progression of tenses) and of further passages from mundane news stories for their subject/verb pairings revealing their construction of a worldview.

Keywords: sentence; predication; subject; verb; personification; historic present; zeugma; tense; passive voice; transitivity; nominalization; nominal versus verbal style

Chapter.  14691 words. 

Subjects: Language Teaching and Learning

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