Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sentence revising

Here's a sentence that I felt was wrong-- wrong rhythm or something-- and couldn't figure out what. I'm not trying single anyone out (this is from a book review I was reading-- don't know the author), but I did wonder if it's an example of an author trying to cram too much into one sentence?
That fictionalized version of his own turbulent adolescence, sexual proclivities and drug use made Elliott a cult favorite, known for transforming brutal experience into piercingly honest prose.

How would you revise that?
I'm thinking at first glance, there are too many adjectives-- each ends up depriving the next one of some power.

Alicia

12 comments:

MeganRebekah said...

Eek! I hate sentences that pair an adjective with every possible word. You know what's worse? The double offenders!

I started reading a free e-book the other day and stopped on the first page (probably my first time turning down a free book so quickly!) because the opening paragraph had all double-adjectives.

"Jack's broad, muscular shoulders and chocolate brown eyes made him the absolute top choice for all single, available women at the conference"

(That wasn't the real sentence, but something similar).

Wes said...

Dang, that is an unfortunate sentence. The adjectives didn't bother me too much, but if I interpret the intent of the sentence correctly, I'd split it into two.

That fictionalized version of his own turbulent adolescence, sexual proclivities and drug use made Elliott a cult favorite. He became known for transforming brutal experience into piercingly honest prose.

Babs said...

I like breaking it into two sentences as well. If I were going to write this in one sentence I would take out: own, brutal and piercingly and cut turbulent to rework in a different spot.

That fictionalized version of his adolescence, sexual proclivities and drug use, made Elliott a cult favorite known for transforming these turbulent experiences into honest prose.
Babs

Adrian said...

Now that I've parsed the sentence, it reads fine. The problem was that it took several attempts to parse it correctly.

The first couple times through, I didn't see "turbulent adolescence, sexual proclivities and drug use" as a list. As I got to the first comma, I expected it was introducing an appositive, not separating the first two items in a list. Of course, that failed.

On subsequent attempts, I took the first part of the sentence to the comma as an introductory phrase, leaving "sexual proclivities and drug use" the compound subject, "made" as the main verb, "Elliott" as an indirect object, and "cult favorite" as the direct object. I figured "Elliot" might be the title of the book being reviewed, rather than a person's name, so the "known for transforming ..." phrase seemed to connect to this book called Elliott. That parsed, but I couldn't reconcile it with the "That ..." phrase I had skipped as introductory.

At last it dawned on me that the bit in the middle was a list, and the phrase at the end refers to the Elliott the person rather than Elliott the book.

My first fix would be to put a serial comma in before the "and". That helps me a lot in recognizing the list as a list.

Next, I'd try to get rid of the "That" as the first word, as it makes it tricky to pick out the subject. "That" got me expecting a construction like, "That bees sting goes without saying."

Elliott's fictionalized version of his own turbulent adolescence, sexual proclivities, and drug use made him a cult favorite, known for transforming brutal experience into piercingly honest prose.

I also think it's weird to refer to a "cult favorite" as "known". To me, "known" suggests "widely known" or "well known", which seems to contradict the idea of "cult favorite". Are cults generally small?

Edittorrent said...

You're good editors! I'd also probably go with 2 sentences-- it's got maybe too much going on.

What I don't like is "made Elliott a cult favorite, known for..." I don't know what is "known for"-- Elliott? His version?

Whenever I hit a confusion like that, I want to fix it by adding a clear antecedent.

Alicia

Jami G. said...

These are all excellent points.

Adrian hit the nail on the head with pointing out the difficulty in parsing the sentence (I'm a serial comma user myself, and I always stumble over sentences that don't use them as I wonder if it's a compound item or not), as well as for the "That" at the beginning. Unless it fits within the context around it, I think starting with sentences with "that" is terribly clunky. "That" usually clues the reader in to knowing that some meaning will be made clear later on in the sentence. So it makes no sense to have it at the beginning as the entire sentence is being referred to.

And Alicia, yes, I also thought that the "known" clause needed its own subject as it wasn't clear on what it was modifying.

Jami G.

Wes said...

I agree, Alicia. It's not clear what it is that is "known for". That's why I put the caveat in my post. And as for too many adjectives, there is one too many in "piercingly honest prose". On second thought, there is another problem there. "Piercingly"??? If this is an adjective, why does it have an "ly" at the end? "Piercing, honest prose" would be better.

Anonymous said...

I actually encountered this sentence in the original article. I liked it, but I confess, I like complex sentences in general.

I like the fact that the sentence links "cult favorite" with "known for transforming brutal experience into piercingly honest prose." When you put both clauses together in the same sentence, you show that Elliot's a cult favorite BECAUSE he transformed brutal experience into honest prose. If you separate the clauses, you lose that causal connection.

It's not Hemingway, but I like it!

br drager said...

Yeah, that sentence is a bad one, imo. :(

That fictionalized version of his own turbulent adolescence, sexual proclivities and drug use made Elliott a cult favorite, known for transforming brutal experience into piercingly honest prose.

At first, I thought there were 3 big thingees (ideas) in there. But that phrase at the end just doesn't make sense. I, too, agree that the missing subject for that ending phrase is causing me to scratch my head. (If that ending phrase had an explicit subject in there, which would then make it into a clause, then that might have helped the reader out.) As written, I have no idea what that ending phrase thinks it is modifying.

Originally, I was breaking up the sentence into,
1.) That fictionalized version of his own turbulent adolescence, [his own] sexual proclivities and [his own] drug use

2.) [That fictionalized version] made Elliott a cult favorite,

3.) [??? What is the implied subject?] known for transforming brutal experience into piercingly honest prose.

I'm now thinking--besides the sentence being overly convoluted--that perhaps an extra comma got slipped in there, that perhaps the last comma ought to be deleted,
i.e.,
[That fictionalized version] made Elliott a cult favorite known for transforming brutal experience into piercingly honest prose.

Yeah, maybe that's the ticket. :) Maybe the last comma ought to be deleted. At least then, the sentence might have some meaning to it. *shrugs*

Aside: I have been noticing that a lot of extra commas seem to be getting inserted into prose nowadays (even in commercially published prose). And those commas seem to be inserted to allow for a "pause" in the reading that the writer thinks is actually in there. But I tend to think that the "pause rule" for commas actually more often creates bad or incorrect sentences (like 9 out of 10 times). :) imo.

Dave Shaw said...

Back when I still had a little tolerance for alcohol, I rated sentences like this by how much I'd need to drink before I thought I understood it. This one looks like about 3 screwdrivers.

Since 3 screwdrivers would probably put me under the table these days, I'll vote for something like what Wes and Babs wrote.

Charlotte said...

I actually like the sentence (like Anonymous at 2:57, I confess to liking complex sentences), but for one detail that's more logic than grammar: a "fictionalized version of his own [blabla]" somehow is an antecedent for the "brutal experience [turned] into piercingly honest prose". Yet writing "fictionalized version of his own turbulence" does NOT prepare me to see the writer as piercingly honest... I had to double-check that.

Leona said...

I think the 'that' probably referred to something previous. For me, I wondered, if he let someone else make up his background because he hated his own background so much.

I think it can be split into two sentences, but the use of piercing, brutal and turbulent were meant to display a sense of violence, or turmoil within the character. Maybe keeping it as one sentence would keep that feeling better than splitting it into two.

However, I think for clarity, it either needs to be split into two, or something done with the commas!