Arranging Subordinate and Coordinate Ideas

Image of wild mushrooms on grass

Source: Wild Mushrooms, Lyn Lomasi, Wikimedia

Learning to subordinate lesser ideas to main ideas may be one of the hardest skills writers can acquire. It requires them to think clearly about what they want to emphasize equally, or coordinate, and what they want to make less important, or subordinate. If they used nothing but coordination, the equality would grow monotonous, and no one idea would seem any more important than the others. When writers use subordination, they may draw on many techniques to avoid monotony and to emphasize more important ideas.

This is an illustration of what happens when all or most of the subordinate ideas in a sentence are
made coordinate:

  1. I picked the mushrooms.
  2. I picked the mushrooms for the menu.
  3. I picked the mushrooms to vary the menu.
  4. I picked the mushrooms carefully.
  5. The mushrooms were poisonous.
  6. I did not know the mushrooms were poisonous.
  7. There was one side effect.
  8. The side effect was some convulsions.
  9. The convulsions were minor.
  10. Men suffered the convulsions.
  11. Most of the men suffered the convulsions.
  12. The convulsions were disconcerting.
  13. The men seemed embittered.
  14. The men’s embitterment seemed uncalled for.
  15. The dinner was unlucky.

Here is the original sentence from Woody Allen:

“As luck would have it, the mushrooms I so carefully picked to vary the menu with, turned out to be poisonous, and while the only disconcerting side effect was some minor convulsions most of the men suffered, they seemed unduly embittered” (Getting Even, 129).

To keep from writing 15 sentences in exactly the same pattern and with exactly the same emphasis, Woody Allen uses an order:

Remember this demonstration while you do the exercises in this lesson. You should gain an understanding of the power of coordinating and subordinating ideas by working with what you have learned so far. In addition to managing phrases and clauses as a way to coordinate and subordinate elements in your writing, also try these helpful techniques:

  1. Long and short sentences: Good writers will usually mix long sentences with short sentences for variety but also to control the meaning of their writing. Long sentences convey description, explanation, and complex ideas; short sentences carry power or drama and often the main ideas. Here is an example from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden:
  2. “In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.”

    “Simplify” is the main message of Walden. One word is all it takes, but Thoreau first had to create a sentence that mimicked the complexities of life to make his two-word thesis sentence, “Simplify, simplify,” seem so striking in contrast.

  3. Rhetorical fragments: Some writers employ a sentence fragment for more power than a short sentence. They may even use a single word set apart by itself. Here are examples from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
  4. Green Flash in Santa Cruz, California. There’s a small cloud beyond the horizon, miraged by the same layers near the sea surface that stretch the normally invisible green rim into a green flash.

    Source: Green flash in Santa Cruz CA, Mila Zinkova, Wikimedia Commons

  5. Sophisticated punctuation—parentheses, dashes, semicolons, colons: These punctuation marks signal varying degrees of pause. Here’s how to use them:
    • Parentheses: used to enclose material that has no structural relation to the rest of the sentence. Example: “The document was brief and clear: Antonio’s estate amounted to about two hundred thousand dollars in American money (a considerable fortune in those days)” (Death Comes for the Archbishop, 187).
    • Dashes: sometimes divide but like parentheses can also enclose strongly interruptive elements. These informal punctuation marks indicate an abrupt break in thought or construction. They can set off an introductory appositive or an appositive at the end of the sentence. Example: “Beside the river was a grove of tall, naked cottonwoods—trees of great antiquity and enormous size—so large that they seemed to belong to a bygone age” (Death Comes for the Archbishop, 222).
    • Semicolon: divides. The semicolon gives equal weight to the independent clauses, directing the reader to pay equal attention to the ideas in both. A period would make too strong a break where a semicolon goes. The clauses it divides are structurally complete enough that they could stand as separate sentences. Example: “Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock” (Death Comes for the Archbishop, 95).
    • Colon: signals a division like semicolons, but unlike semicolons which mean “stop,” colons mean “go.” These formal punctuation marks introduce a quotation, a list, or a follow-up statement for which a preceding independent clause has made the preparation. They can also emphasize a word, phrase, or clause that explains or adds impact to the main clause. Example: “Your grandparents took you out to dinner Sunday nights at the country club, and you could take your own grandchildren there when that time came: more little towheads, as squint-eyed and bony-legged and Scotch-Irish as hillbillies” (An American Childhood, 216).
  6. Loose and periodic sentences: In a loose sentence a writer puts the main independent clause first with all subordinating elements after it. Or a writer may choose to put all the subordinating elements first and end with the main independent clause. This is called a periodic sentence. Overall, loose sentences are most commonly used because periodic sentences require readers to wait for the main idea. Too many periodic sentences can become boring, irritating, or anticlimactic—which is probably not the author’s intent. Examples:
Image signage on road indicating pedestrian and bicycle traffic

Source: Bernate Ticino (Milano) — “...mi ritrovai per una selva (di cartelli) oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita”, giovanni Novara, Flickr

Part A: Unscramble the following sentences and put them in the proper order. Using your notes, write the fragments below as one sentence. Punctuation and capitalization should provide you with enough clues to figure out the original order. Then check your understanding to see how close you came to the original sentence.

  1. A. hoping to trap
    B. The sky was orange,
    C. waving their tentacles,
    D. and eat an unsuspecting cloud.
    E. and the coconut trees were sea anemones

  2. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    The original order was B, E, C, A, D: “The sky was orange, and the coconut trees were sea anemones waving their tentacles, hoping to trap and eat an unsuspecting cloud” (Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things).


  3. A. and choking the lilt out
    B. sifted down on them like ash,
    C. of what should have been girlish voices.
    D. dulling their buttery complexions
    E. The disappointment he felt in his daughters

  4. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    The original order was E, B, D, A, C: “The disappointment he felt in his daughters sifted down on them like ash, dulling their buttery complexions and choking the lilt out of what should have been girlish voices” (Photo of Author, Toni MorrisonToni Morrison author of “Song of Solomon”
    Author Toni Morrison
    , Song of Solomon).


  5. A. depending on its angle to the sun,
    B. With its golden eye in a bright red and white head,
    C. with throat and belly of a darker gray that seems to turn a lustrous black or reflects light,
    D. it is surely the most “oriental” of the cranes, and the most striking.
    E. and the shining white column of its nape in the fresh morning reeds extending down to the warm silver of its mantel,

  6. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    The original order was B, E, C, A, D: “With its golden eye in a bright red and white head, and the shining white column of its nape in the fresh morning reeds extending down to the warm silver of the mantel, with throat and belly of a darker gray that seems to turn a lustrous black or reflects light, depending on its angle to the sun, it is surely the most ‘oriental’ of the cranes, and the most striking.” (Peter Matthiessen, “Alighting upon the Daurian Steppe“)


  7. Which of the above sentences is a periodic sentence?
    A. #1
    B. #2
    C. #3

  8. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    In sentence #3, the independent clause comes at the end. In the first 2 sentences, the independent clause is at the beginning of each sentence. A is the correct answer.


  9. Why did the writer of the periodic sentence you identified in question 4 use a periodic sentence and not a loose sentence?
    A. To stress the details of what is being described
    B. To annoy the reader
    C. To create anxiety in the reader

  10. Check Your Understanding

    Sample Response:

    He wants the reader to visualize the beautiful bird’s qualities before he pronounces it the most oriental and striking of all, perhaps so the reader will make this conclusion on his/her own before reading Matthiessen’s conclusion. The author isn’t trying to create tension or stress the reader out, so neither B nor C works.


Part B: Previously you ordered subordinate and main ideas in the sentences above. Writers also order their main and subordinate ideas in paragraphs. Unscramble the opening paragraph from Alice Walker’s short story “The Child Who Favored Daughter.”

Part C: Answer the questions about the syntax of the paragraph formed in Activity B and the next two paragraphs of this story. All three appear in the box below. Once again, look at the lengths of Walker’s sentences as well as their complexity. Every other sentence is underlined to make it easier for you to differentiate one sentence from the next.

Photo of black-eyed susans.

Source: Black-eyed Susans, lndhslf72 (Linda), Flickr

(¶1)He is sitting on the porch with his shotgun leaning against the banister within reach. If he cannot frighten her into chastity with his voice he will threaten her with the gun. He settles tensely in the chair and waits. He watches her from the time she steps from the yellow bus. He sees her shade her eyes from the hot sun and look widely over the rows of cotton running up, nearly touching him where he sits. He sees her look, knows its cast through any age and silence, knows she knows he has the letter.

(¶2) Above him among the rafters in a half-dozen cool spots shielded from the afternoon sun the sound of dirt daubers. And busy wasps building onto their paper houses a dozen or more cells. Late in the summer, just as the babies are getting big enough to fly he will have to light paper torches and burn the paper houses down, singeing the wings of the young wasps before they get a chance to fly or to sting him as he sits in the cool of the evening reading his Bible.

(¶3)Through eyes half closed he watches her come, her feet ankle deep in the loose red dust. Slowly, to the droning of the enterprising insects overhead, he counts each step, surveys each pause. He sees her looking closely at the bright patch of flowers. She is near enough for him to see clearly the casual slope of her arm that holds the schoolbooks against her hip. The long dark hair curls in bits about her ears and runs in corded plainness down her back. Soon he will be able to see her eyes, perfect black-eyed Susans. Flashing back fragment bits of himself. Reflecting his mind.