What the Hell Are Syntactic Slots?

Yesterday I alluded to John Gardner’s book on writing, The Art of Fiction, and casually mentioned syntactic slots. Since then, I’ve received a few emails asking me what these are. I’ll do my best to explain.

Mind you, although I taught college English for several years, I am not a grammarian. That being said, let me refer to the book where I first learned of this concept: Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.

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For those of you unfamiliar with Gardner and his work, he was an English professor at SUNY Binghamton who had achieved literary fame from his novel Grendel, which was the story of Beowulf told from the monster’s point of view. Earlier in his career, he had taught at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1982.

On page 104 of his fiction writing classic, Gardner wrote, “Sentences in English tend to fall into meaning units or syntactic slots—for instance, such patterns as…” (Below, the numbers in superscript indicate the start of a new syntactic slot.)

1Subject, 2verb, 3object.
OR
1Subject, 2verb-modifier.
 

Gardner’s main idea is this: “A writer may load one or two of the slots with modifiers, but if the sentence is to have focus—that is, if the reader is to be able to make out some clear image, not just a jumble—the writer cannot cram all three syntactic slots with details.”

So I’m not borrowing exclusively from his book, I’ll give you my own made-up example:

1Subject, 2verb, 3object.
1Jack and Jill 2went 3down the hill.
 

Okay, there’s our sentence with the slots empty of modifiers. Now, let’s load up slot 1:

1Jack and Jill, dressed warmly for their journey, smiling, laughing, feeling frisky with the warm spring air, 2went 3down the hill.
 

See how only modifiers were added to the first slot? Those details only modify the subject. Now let’s load up slot 2:

1Jack and Jill 2went slowly, carefully as though walking over a bed of rattlesnakes, making a chore of going 3down the hill.
 

As you probably noticed, loading up slot 2 (the verb) makes for awkward constructions. My example is not the best, but of the three slots, I’ve found the verb slot to be the most resistant to modifiers. Here’s the sentence with slot 3, the object, loaded up:

1Jack and Jill 2went 3reluctantly down the steep and slippery hill, a hill from hell, a hill that should not have been there in the first place, a hill that, by all rights, they should not have had to traverse—ever.
 

There it is with the object heavy with modifiers. Finally, to prove Gardner’s point, let’s see what the sentence would look like if all three slots were loaded up:

1Jack and Jill, dressed warmly for their journey, smiling, laughing, feeling frisky with the warm spring air, 2went slowly, carefully as though walking over a bed of rattlesnakes, making a chore of going 3reluctantly down the steep and slippery hill, a hill from hell, a hill that should not have been there in the first place, a hill that, by all rights, they should not have had to traverse—ever.
 

I rest Gardner’s case. The same is true, by the way, if you invert sentences to form “Yoda Talk”—1Object, 2subject, 3verb. (“To the moon he goes!”)

So there you go—syntactic slots. I hope this has cleared matters up. Enjoy them in your own writing, and remember, you can load up one or two, but three, unless you’re William Faulkner, probably won’t work.

Just for fun, here’s an example of a long sentence from Faulkner’s The Hamlet:

Hill-cradled and remote, definite yet without boundaries, straddling into two counties yet owing allegiance to neither, it had been the original grant and site of a…plantation, the ruins of which—the gutted shell of an enormous house with its fallen stables and slave quarters and overgrown gardens and brick terraces and promenades—were still known as the Old Frenchman place…and even some of the once-fertile fields had long since reverted to the cane-and-cypress jungle from which their first master had hewed them.

Good luck beating Willie. You’ll have to get juiced up and write on your wallpaper first.

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By Chris Orcutt

Writer — The Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, Short fiction, Plays — Editor & Speechwriter for Hire — Avid Golfer, Chess Player & Awesome Wood-Splitter — Twitter: @chrisorcutt

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