How Does Garth Greenwell Make Such Wonderful Sentences?

Christian Kiefer on Grammar as Meaning-Maker in Cleanness

Discussions of prose style very seldom concern themselves with the actual grammar of sentences. We think of grammar as strict and harsh, something punitive, prescriptive. And yet grammar is the key to much of what makes sentences sing. It is a subtle art, or can be, and the many brilliant writers who use grammar in this way do so to very different ends. Even a casual comparison of the prose styles of Yiyun Li, Rachel Cusk, Lauren Groff, Julie Otsuka, or Z.Z. Packer reveal such differences. These are all writers of prodigious ability and they are all writers who use sentence structure and its grammar(s) in very specific ways for very specific reasons.

Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness is a novel the sentences of which are particularly engaged in grammar as a function of meaning-making. Greenwell’s unnamed protagonist, an American educator in Bulgaria, is adrift across a set of stories and landscapes, alienated not only by culture and sexuality and circumstance but by his struggle to identify himself as an agent capable of meaningful engagement with the world. His relationships are often marked by their sense of difference, rendered in shades so subtly acute that readers come to understand that Greenwell’s protagonist is removed even from his own experience, watching himself watch others in a kind of mirrored distancing that creates, across the book’s nine stories, a pervading sense of life-as-other, ultimately asking the reader to contemplate not only the path of the novel’s protagonist, but their own place in the world, their own foreignness of experience.

Greenwell is a brilliant writer and the tools he makes use of in Cleanness are myriad, but among the most important of these is his use of specific kinds of grammar, re-informing or re-grammaring the text in ways that point to specific kinds of meaning-making. At times this project of meaning-making pushes Greenwell to break what a prescriptivist might consider the hard and fast rules of grammar, but it is in these interstices—this remaking of grammar in his own image—that we find Greenwell’s genius for sentence-level work and, in particular, for grammar as a specific methodology for building meaning in the text.

To explain how Greenwell uses specific kinds of grammar in his work, I will refer to two short passages from Cleanness, the first of which is but a single sentence. As you read it, pay attention to the ways in which the rhythm stutters, the influences of the commas and the location of the sentence’s single semicolon, all of which will be discussed in the paragraphs to come.

And maybe there actually was something saintly about him, his slightness and quiet in the hoodie that framed his face like a monk’s cowl when I saw him that first time, or in the bathrobe he wrapped around himself later, when I came to his door; and maybe there was something saintly in his endurance, too, I guess I think there was, in his desire for pain.

The tumble of phases and clauses here are split unevenly by a semicolon, a semicolon which, by some reckoning, is actually used incorrectly. And yet its placement serves a very specific function in the text, one which can be identified via a discussion with how it breaks the rules.

The most important regular use of the semicolon in contemporary English grammar is to connect two independent clauses. As a reminder, an independent clause is a group of words that can stand alone as a complete sentence without any additional words to support it: This is part is an independent clause, although this part is not. (The “although” here is a grammatical signal, a subordinating conjunction, announcing that the stuff to come next is in some way meant to address or add to the independent clause that has come before.) Were we to replace the “although” with a semicolon, we would need to make sure that the words to the left and the right of the semicolon were both independent clauses. This part is an independent clause; this part is too.

So what’s the point of a semicolon then? Fundamentally it is to show an important connection between the two sentences, a connection so important, in fact, that one might initially want to place both clauses in the same sentence, perhaps connected only by a comma as in This part is an independent clause, this part is too. This, though, is technically a grammar error—a comma splice—because it misuses the comma, a unit the function of which, in this context, would be to mark off a dependent clause or phrase from the independent clause that forms the center of the sentence, which is only to say that you can’t put a comma in the middle there; it has to be a semicolon.

An understanding of grammar is utterly fundamental to the ways a writer can and does shade their work with meaning.

Another way to connect two clauses with a semicolon to is use the semicolon in much the same way you might use a comma and coordinating conjunction to connect two independent clauses: “I want cheese, and I want bread.” If you’re going to connect two independent clauses with a comma, you’re going to need a coordinating conjunction. (And you can easily remember these by the acronym FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.) You could use a semicolon to present no coordination between the two independent clauses—giving them exactly equal grammatical weight and removing the syllable necessitated by the coordinator (one of the FANBOYS), or you could add a conjunctive adverb (such as however, therefore, or finally) in order to present a meaningful relationship between the two clauses. “I want cheese; therefore, I want bread.” Now we have a sentence that is not simply a list of items but rather offers the beginning of meaning. Something about the cheese has led us to the conclusion of the bread; one is directly related to the other. (Note that we could have created meaning too with a coordinating conjunction such as “yet” or “but.”)

And so our choices for connecting independent clauses are as follows:

Independent clause + comma + coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS) + independent clause  (as in I want cheese, and I want bread.)

Or

Independent clause + semicolon + independent clause (as in I want cheese; I want bread.)

Or

Independent clause + semicolon + conjunctive adverb + comma + independent clause (as in I want cheese; however, I don’t want bread.)

These three possibilities present the basic rules differentiating the ways in which we might grammatically connect independent clauses in the wild, which is to say that we should not find instances of semicolons followed by coordinating conjunctions. At least in theory, it should not be done!

And yet we find many instances in which great writers break all the rules of grammar, semicolons notwithstanding. James Baldwin, for example, loves run-on sentences, many of which (but not all) appear as comma splices. For me, these are instances where the writer is not so much breaking the rules as they are simply remaking them in the image of their own text. Baldwin isn’t making grammar errors; he is making a new grammar for himself. Remember that we are discussing grammar as a tool of meaning-making. (And I would argue that befuddling, confusing, obfuscating, and un-meaning-making are also forms of meaning-making.)

Let us return now to Greenwell’s sentence:

And maybe there actually was something saintly about him, his slightness and quiet in the hoodie that framed his face like a monk’s cowl when I saw him that first time, or in the bathrobe he wrapped around himself later, when I came to his door; and maybe there was something saintly in his endurance, too, I guess I think there was, in his desire for pain.

We’ll get to the semicolon in this sentence soon enough, but first let’s turn an ear toward the syllabic content. The sentence begins with a coordinating conjunction, which Greenwell is using after a period (rather than after a comma), to start an introductory phrase: “And maybe there actually was something saintly about him.” He ends this with a comma, thus setting it off as a syntactical unit and indicating to the reader that the material to come might well influence or illustrate the phrase he has just given you about the character’s possible saintliness. But then Greenwell offers a series of prepositional phrases, the central three of which are all four syllabic beats long, but which also hit their stressed syllables in a way to increase tension across the passage. (I’ve bolded what I read as the stressed syllables here.)

his slightness and quiet
in the hoodie
that framed his face
like a monk’s cowl
when I saw him that first time

The effect here is, at least to my ear, to play a kind of stuttering delay on the details of the protagonist’s recollection and remembrance, the identical syllable count of “in the hoodie,” “that framed his fame,” and “like a monk’s cowl” creating a kind of sonic undulation, pausing and pausing like end-stopped lines of poetry by pushing the stressed beats against the ends of the prepositional phrases. Note, though, that Greenwell has not actually end-stopped any of these phrases (nor would a prescriptive grammarian ask him to do so), but rather has implied a kind of end-stop by the syllabic content of the phrases themselves, a point he makes clear in the subsequent two phrases after the comma: “or in the bathrobe he wrapped around himself later” and “when I came to his door,” phrases set off by commas and, in the case of the latter, ending in the sentence’s semicolon.

As we learned above, the semicolon should not technically be followed by a coordinating conjunction (one of the FANBOYS); nonetheless, Greenwell does, in fact, coordinate here. He is not really interested in the role of the semicolon to connect two independent clauses but instead is utilizing that grammatical tool as something like a hard comma (as, for example, one might employ a dash). So why not a dash here rather than a semicolon? I would argue that the physicality of the dash implies a break greater than Greenwell needs here, drawing attention to the grammar in ways that the semicolon does not. What the semicolon does here is offers a grammatical pause at a higher level than that implied either by the (enjambed) syllabic content of the stacked phrases that precede it, or by those broken up by Greenwell’s judicious and careful use of commas. The semicolon here is something more than both—not quite a hard end-stop but certainly something that breaks the sentence into two syntactical units, indicating that we have, in this single sentence, two different but very related thoughts, the first half of which circles the physical in a way that is visible to the protagonist.

What this points to, and this is key to Greenwell’s style, is a deeply embedded interest in parataxis, the arrangement of information in a side-by-side manner, rather than hypotaxis, the arrangement of information in unequal constructs, i.e. subordinating certain clauses to others. Greenwell’s narrator is positioned as a character almost wholly devoid of agency, experiencing a story that is seldom his own. His desires are in utter opposition with each other, for he wants simultaneously to disappear and to be seen. One of the main and most subtle methods of employing this great opposition of desire can be found in the grammar itself, for the lack of hypotaxis forces the reader to take on the task of meaning-making for themselves. The grammatical agency is shifted away, the author (or narrator) refusing to offer up a ready hierarchy of meaning and so forcing the reader to parse the information on its own terms. What is important here and what is merely detail? The effect of Greenwell’s use of parataxis is to blur that distinction until it ultimately becomes an irrelevant concern. Everything is equal because everything is both filled with meaning and meaningless at the same time.

And yet in very subtle ways, we can locate moments where the reader is directed, not with the announcement of subordinate clauses or any kind of Faulknerian fireworks, but rather with the subtle shift from one kind of pause to another. And hence we return to our lowly semicolon once again:

And maybe there actually was something saintly about him, his slightness and quiet in the hoodie that framed his face like a monk’s cowl when I saw him that first time, or in the bathrobe he wrapped around himself later, when I came to his door; and maybe there was something saintly in his endurance, too, I guess I think there was, in his desire for pain.

As discussed earlier, the semicolon should not technically be used in the manner Greenwell has used it above, namely as a kind of hard comma, but readers should note that the meaning of sentence shifts here, turning from the external (his physicality) to the internal (his saintly endurance, his desire for pain). In poetic terms, we might look at this in the same way we view the volta in a sonnet, that moment upon which the poetic turn occurs (before the final couplet in the Shakespearean form; after the initial octave in the Petrarchan). That poetic turn is often one of theme or argument, a kind of deepening or even a reversal of what has come before. In terms of what Greenwell is doing with his use of the semicolon here, let me be perfectly clear: Greenwell is using the semicolon not as any kind of conjunctive mark of grammar at all, but as a volta, a kind of fulcrum upon which the meaning of the sentence shifts in subtle but nonetheless important ways.

Here’s another example from Cleanness:

And the brushstrokes were imperfect too, visible, haphazard, the paint distributed unevenly, inexpertly; but that wasn’t right, really it was striving for something ideal, that was what I felt, the frequency I wanted to catch. What I took at first for blocks of color dissolved when I leaned in, were modulated, textured, full of movement somehow, not the movement of objects but of light, which fell across them gently, undramatically.

This is a deceptively complex pair of sentences in terms of their grammar. As in the previous example, Greenwell begins the sentence with a coordinating conjunction (And), and then employs a second coordinating conjunction after the semicolon, in this case but, which then leads to “right, really,” which is a classic comma splice. Prescriptive grammarians might be aghast at all of this, and yet, as before, Greenwell is employing specific grammar here as a prime vehicle of meaning-making. His narrator’s voice is not so much breathless (there are lots of pauses after all) as tumbling, his examination of the painting here underscoring his own view of the world around him: uneven, inexpert, and yet, upon closer look, filled with movement.

We find many instances in which great writers break all the rules of grammar, semicolons notwithstanding.

In poetics, enjambment is “the running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation; the opposite of end-stopped” (Poetry Foundation), and I believe what Greenwell is doing here is akin to this technique, albeit in prose. Prose enjambment allows Greenwell’s narrator to continue stumbling forward through his own narrative as he collects, unevenly, information about the world around him. Even at his most dire, as when he is assaulted earlier in the book, he is still an observer, even of himself: his heartbreak, his fear, his love, his sense of alienation. In the example above, the narrator has found himself at a point in which he has begun to feel as if something is possible for him—a sense of connection that will confirm and justify his own existence (a possibility later subverted). He is stumbling toward that something and so the grammar matches that stumbling by continually offering false stops: four commas, the semicolon, three more commas (as a run-on sentence), and finally the period, followed by a six comma sentence, most of the sentence chopped into pieces fewer than eight words long. Again, the grammar of parataxis at work as meaning-making, as the narrator’s constant coordination and pauses (rather than stops) suggests that he does not know what to make of his experience. Meaning is constructed by washing away any easy reading of meaning-making.

We also have another example of the semi-colon as volta here. The “inexpertly; but” presents a shifting of thought; however, I might further argue that here the narrator is really trying hard to make sense of his experience. The semi-colon/volta, then, is a signal to the reader that we are shifting into deeper levels of meaning-making, where in the previous example it was first a shift in detail. Note how the semicolon begins a phrase of negation—“but that wasn’t right”—that leads to a comma splice (“right, really”) and ultimately to the endstop and the next sentence, which draws the reader’s eye (and the narrator’s) closer to the painting in the same way the reader is drawn closer to the text, all of which ends rather (perhaps with dramatic irony) with the word “undramatically.”

What this means is that this semicolon is used differently from the first we examined. Here, the “misused” semicolon is really a kind of nod toward the inability, in that moment, in that sentence, for the narrator to reach a conclusion about what he is seeing, a point made even more clear when the second sentence here ends. It might be noted, briefly, that the sentence to follow “undramatically” begins with the same coordinating conjunction with which Greenwell has followed his semicolon, “But,” this time as the capitalized start of the next sentence, all of which says to the reader: I still haven’t figured this out.

The trick here, and it is a great one, is that the narrative voice is coming from some further point in the time, which is to say that the problem the narrator is having here is not just that he has not (in the temporal moment of this scene) figured out what to say, feel, or think about the painting, but also that he lacks the language by which to articulate the experience he is trying to convey. It is language about the failure of language to adequately convey experience, and the grammar used is reflective and responsive to this experience.

All of this is to say that an understanding of grammar is utterly fundamental to the ways a writer can and does shade their work with meaning. The sentence is, for me, the fundamental unit of prose writing, perhaps even more important than the writer’s vocabulary, for the sentence contains within its syntactical unit a wide array of grammatical possibilities, each of which form a concrete choice the writer must make. Meaning comes first (or can come first) from the very grammar of the text, meaning-making appearing in every comma, every end stop, every semicolon, or lack thereof. It comes in the ways in which parataxis breaks into hypotaxis, in the ways in which the phrases stack upon one another or topple into the next phrase, broken by a comma or by nothing at all. This is where we begin our understanding of the text, the deep grammar being the unit inside the unit, the secret sharer passing meaning between the writer’s pen and the reader’s imagination, perhaps unseen, perhaps undetected, and yet there in the open all the while.

Christian Kiefer
Christian Kiefer
Christian Kiefer is the director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Ashland University and is the author of The Infinite Tides (Bloomsbury), The Animals (W.W. Norton), One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide (Nouvella Books), and Phantoms.(Liveright/W.W. Norton).





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