Saturday, September 29, 2012

More about long sentences


I promised to show you some lovely long sentences and give you some more tips on how to wrangle long sentences. So let's start by looking at this trio of beauties from Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth." She tends to write long, languid sentences, and her writing never loses its lucidity. So she's always the first writer I reach for when I'm looking for ways to manage long sentences without mangling the meaning. We'll highlight the clauses this time as we did before -- yellow for subjects, green for the verbs, and blue for direct objects.


 Each time, she kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly she watched the news, to make sure there hadn't been a plane crash anywhere in the world.

It was a one-sided correspondence; his trips were brief enough so that there was no time for Ruma to write back, and besides, he was not in a position to receive mail on his end.

She'd slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.


The first thing you should notice is that she always keeps her clauses together. You don't see anything that splits a subject noun apart from its verb, such as --

She each time kept the printout....
She in shabby pensions had slept...

Right away, we can see how dividing those clauses would weaken the sentences. Even with just a few words (six words in each example above), the meaning is a little harder to grasp. Imagine what would happen if those intervening pieces were extremely long --

The car which refused to start on a warm day let alone on a cold day like this snowy January Tuesday that found the elderly lady huddling deep into her old wool coat coughed sluggishly.

(My example. Lahiri would be incapable of such an abomination.) By the time we get to the word "coughed," we have no idea which noun is sick. We've lost track of the subject through all those dependent bits shoved in the middle there. The car is the subject noun, and coughed is the verb that forms the main clause with that subject noun. It's not a fragment. It's just a mess. There are, what, maybe 30 words between the subject noun and its verb? But even if the intervening word soup is brief -- "each time" is only two words in the scrambled bit of Lahiri's sentence above -- the basic sentence will be weaker because the sturdy foundation of subject-verb will have been broken.

So that's our first observation, which we had already started to discuss in the last color-coded post on this topic. Keep the subject nouns and their verbs close together. She does the same thing with the direct objects of the verbs -- they're kept snuggled tight to their verbs. If you break those apart, you also hurt the sentence, like so--

Each time, she kept behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator the printout of his flight information ,

This isn't a technical error. It's just not as graceful. It's a little harder to read, and the readers will probably have to slow down their reading speeds to absorb the meaning. This isn't usually the effect we want.

So, keep that basic foundational unit of the clause -- subject/verb/direct object -- locked tightly together, and the writing gains clarity. There are a couple of other things we see here that are likely to help, too. Notice, for example, that when she has a piece to create a temporal orientation for the clause, she puts it before the subject:

 Each time, she kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly she watched the news

The temporal cues help orient the reader toward exactly how the events unfold. This is particularly important in a long sentence like this one, which has two temporal orientations. "Each time" refers to an event that occurs at one span of time, and "on the days" refers to a specific point within that span. The sentence would lose some clarity if those temporal modifiers were moved --

She kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator each time, and she watched the news on the days he was scheduled to fly

A subtle difference, perhaps, but one with an evident effect on clarity. There is an exception in the final sentence, which ends with the temporal modifier placed directly next to the verb it modifies:

She'd slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

That temporal modifier doesn't describe any part of the sentence other than the part it's right next to. And what is the golden rule of modifiers? Modifiers go next to the words they modify. So we couldn't really move that adverb "now" to any other spot in the sentence without either damaging the meaning or, in the case of "her father now sent," losing some grace.

In most of the sentences, most of the descriptive bits follow the clauses. Alicia and I have observed plenty of times before now that certain forms of dependent pieces just seem to work better when they follow the independent clauses. This is particularly evident with cumulative present participial phrases, such as the pair in that last sentence --


She'd slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

The purple-ish words are present participles leading into present participial phrases. This form of phrase is ripe for abuse, and if you've been reading this blog for any stretch of time, you've certainly heard us rant about the numerous problems they can cause. In this case, the first (practicing) is a cumulative modifier that adds meaning to the entire independent clause it follows. So that works, I think -- and in general, these kinds of cumulative modifiers work best at the end of a sentence. Look what happens when we try to reverse that--

Practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, she'd slept in shabby pensions, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now.

It's not dreadful, but now we have a problem with that final phrase ("buying"), which feels misplaced because it actually modifies the first present participial phrase rather than the independent clause. So we would have to move that, too--

Practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now, she'd slept in shabby pensions.

And that doesn't work because it throws the postcards and the pensions right next to each other, and that is a little disruptive to the meaning.

Anyway, this all boils down to three tips for long sentences:
1. Keep the clauses together.
2. Put temporal modifiers before the clauses when you have more than one time element to contend with.
3. Back-load the sentences with the other additional material, including cumulative modifiers.

None of these rules are carved on stone tablets, but I think you'll find that they help more often than they hurt.

Theresa

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your color coding makes it so clear - thanks for that.

It gives a system for understanding where things have gone wrong.

A parallel system comes from reading - a lot - of good writing: becvause good writers don't separate parts that shouldn't be separated, and make things flow naturally, if you read good writing, a subtle sense of 'wrong' arises in your brain when you've accidentally written something that violates these basic principles.

So the brain signals - and now you've provided us with an easy way to analyze WHY the brain is unhappy.

Long gorgeous sentences that flow add to the reading experience (where appropriate), and provide a way of adjusting the pace. But the reading experience is ruined when the sentences don't work - readers shouldn't have to unpack meaning. If they do, the writer hasn't done her job.
ABE

Edittorrent said...

"Unpack" sentences -- that's a great way to describe the subtle problem. I may have to borrow that!

Theresa

Anonymous said...

All yours - but I suspect I read it somewhere; or maybe it's like a portmanteau word: packed with meaning; or a computer zip file that needs unzipping.

The purpose is compactness - but sometimes the writer gets too clever, and compactness becomes a needless complexity. Too much of that and you lose ordinary readers.

Sol Stein in one of his books on writing talks of the writer creating the experience for the reader. Those long sentences can be a good part of the experience - or can give a reader tummyaches. Worse, not all readers find the same spaghetti sentences indigestible.

So you have to add in 'know your audience' - or hope for omnivorous readers with cast-iron stomachs.

Stein also said that you should share with the reader the job of creating the story, 50/50, providing an envelope full of enough bits to give the reader the raw material needed to construct the story. I guess packing meaning in is on my mind.

As long as you do your job and the meaning is clear.
ABE

Ksenia Anske said...

Fantastic post - thank you. I intuitively follow these rules from picking up patterns from reading novels, so it's great to actually put a name on them (I know, I know, I'll have to revisit my grammar :)