Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wrangling Long Sentences

We talked recently about this myth that all sentences should be short -- utter nonsense, but the kind of pervasive nonsense that has just enough truth in it to keep it alive. Short sentences are usually (but not always) easy to read. Are they easy to read because of their length, though, or because of other factors?

A basic sentence has either two or three core parts.

The boy jumped.

Subject-verb-direct object.
The boy kicked the ball.

I'm going to color coordinate these elements so that we can see them better when we look at longer sentences.We'll use yellow for subjects, green for verbs, and that pretty robin's egg blue for direct objects. For right now, I want you to notice that these colors are right next to each other. Yellow-green, with nothing in between. Yellow-green-blue, stuck together like glue. These pieces work together to form units, basic units of meaning, that make complete thoughts. The boy and the jumping action go together to make one idea. Remove either piece, and we lose meaning. Ditto for the boy and the kicking action and the ball. These three parts join together to make one unit of meaning.

That joining is important. That joining is what creates meaning. Imperfect joinings, like fragments and run-ons, either break the pieces apart or jam too many pieces together. We talk a lot about the fact that in fiction, fragments and run-ons are permissible to indicate natural dialect, but we always issue a warning: It must still be easy to read. It cannot be awkward. It cannot be confusing.

When we start to add extra meaning to the sentence through the addition of words, phrases, and clauses, we have the same kinds of concerns. Extra pieces, added incorrectly, can be distracting, confusing, and unclear. John Gardner advocates for limiting any such additions to only one piece of the sentence. That is, if we add more words to the subject to add meaning, we should not also add words to the verb and direct object. Choose one piece, elaborate, and leave the rest alone.

This is a pretty good rule of thumb, but it's still open to abuse.

Subject-verb-direct object.
The boy kicked the ball, whooping and hollering with joy.

See that last participial phrase? This phrase adds meaning to only one part of the sentence, as Gardner advocates, but it will still read "off" to most people. Why? Because it develops the subject, but it is next to the direct object -- a misplaced modifier. This is what happens when we color it.

Subject-verb-direct object.
The boy kicked the ball, whooping and hollering with joy.
When we do that, it's pretty easy to see that these pieces belong together but have been split apart. Move the colors together, and the meaning will be more clear and the sentence will be more smooth.

Subject-verb-direct object.
Whooping and hollering with joy, the boy kicked the ball.
This is how you control a long sentence. You keep the subject and verb close together -- yellow and green with nothing between. You keep the subject, verb, and object close together -- yellow, green, and blue, stuck together like glue. And then you make sure that any added pieces are close to the parts they link to.

I have some lovely long sentences I want to share with you, so that you can see this principle in action in more complicated sentences. We'll do that next time.



green_knight said...

Stop teasing and post already. I just *love* these insights into your toolbox.

Edittorrent said...

LOL, thanks -- I'm so swamped right now that I probably won't get to it for at least another day, but it's in the works. The sentences are ready to go. I just have to write the post around them

Iola said...

Thank you for the post.

Personally, I'd prefer "the boy whooped and hollered with joy as he kicked the ball into the goal".

Is that still correct?

Edittorrent said...

Lola, it's not a technical error, if that's what you mean. It does change the subordination, though. In my version, the boy kicking the ball is the independent action, and the whooping and hollering is dependent on that. In your version, that's reversed. So it's a matter of emphasis. I you want more emphasis on the hollering, yours works better.


Clare Wilson said...

The misplaced modifier is something that makes me squirm. I'm pretty good about it in my own writing, but my students, needless to say, are not so careful about it. Their sentences often turn out unintentionally hilarious.

Can I just say, by the way, how much I love your clear, concise posts on grammar? I think few people explain grammar well, but you do a great job making it simple.

Emma Darwin said...

At last, someone else who goes on about the joys of the long sentence, and in a really practical way. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Great post- it's rare for me to look in depth at the most effective structure of a complex sentence, but you're right- it's easy to spot in someone else's writing, less easy in your own.

Christopher said...

This is simple, clear and brilliant. I've heard misplaced modifiers explained before, but not like this. It clicked. Thank you.