Writers need to love words—the good, the bad, and the irregular. And they need to respect syntax, the patterns that give words their form. But when writers understand the power of phrases, their sentences shine.
Phrases are bigger units than words, but smaller than sentences and clauses. You can describe them by form (noun phrase, prepositional phrase, etc.) or by function (appositive, contrastive, modifying, and so on). Regardless of what you call them, they allow writers to employ rhetorical strategies that help sentences flow and cohere.
Let’s look at some examples. Here is John McPhee writing about his research on oranges:
In Polk County, at Lake Alfred, though, I happened into the University of Florida’s Citrus Experiment Station, five buildings isolated within vast surrounding groves. Several dozen people in those buildings had Ph.D.s in oranges, and there was a citrus library of a hundred thousand titles—scientific papers, mainly, and doctoral dissertations, and six thousand books. Then and there, my project magnified.
There is much to admire in that snippet from his New Yorker piece on “Omission”: the casualness of happening into the Experiment Station. The whimsy of people with Ph.D.’s in oranges. The pacing of Then and there in the final short sentence.
Notice how the phrases work: the in and at propositional phrases in the first sentence set the scene geographically; the appositive noun phrase at the end—five buildings isolated within vast surrounding groves—paints a bird’s-eye picture. You are there.
In the second sentence, the phrase in those buildings situates the several dozen people: it simultaneously ties the sentence back to the earlier mention of buildings and provides a pause before getting to the whimsical Ph.D.s. The appositive noun phrase after the word titles builds out the details, with the dash providing the necessary emphasis to the size of the collection. It’s great writing.
Examples abound. Here is Margalit Fox, writing about World War I, in her book The Confidence Men:
A barren, dusty patch of desert near the river, Shumran was the staging area for the journeys into captivity–to a half dozen prisoner-of-war camps across Turkey for the officers, to labor camps for the rank and file. At Shumran, they were at last given something to eat: a pile of the hardtack known among Britons as Turkish army biscuits, dumped in a heap in the dust.
Fox starts with an appositive phrase describing Shumran, putting the dusty barrenness in your mouth at the outset. She ends that first sentence with a compound prepositional phrase explaining what captivity entailed depending on one’s rank. Her second sentence uses a prepositional phrase (At Shumran) to reiterate the setting, an appositive to characterize the meal (a pile of hardtack), and a couple of participle phrases (known among Britons as Turkish army biscuits and dumped in a heap in the dust) to build out the historical and visual detail.
Of course, you can’t just drop phrases anywhere. Imagine if Margalit Fox had begun her paragraph with the appositive after the subject instead of before it. That choice yields a much different rhythm: Shumran, a barren, dusty patch of desert near the river, was the staging area for the journeys into captivity. The emphasis is on the name rather than the description, and the dusty appositive between the subject and predicate chokes flow of the sentence.
Or suppose that John McPhee has ended his first sentence with the prepositional phrase. That would give the sentence a trudging pace: I happened into the University of Florida’s Citrus Experiment Station, five buildings isolated within vast surrounding groves, in Polk County, at Lake Alfred. By the time you get to Polk County, you’ve already read the focal point of the sentence and the prepositional phrases just grind things to a halt.
I’d invite you to find and analyze examples from writers you admire. Reflect on the way that writers build cohesion and rhythm out of grammatical units bigger than words. Once you begin thinking about appositives, prepositional phrases, participle phrases, and the like, you will look at sentences in a whole new way.