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There’s nothing inherently wrong with complex sentences. In fact, if it’s well-crafted, a long, intricate piece of prose can be a source of great pleasure. John Updike, for example, was a master at this. Check out this passage from the first page of his novel In the Beauty of the Lilies (which I chose pretty much at random):

From this height the human eye could discern the strip of brick mills clustering about the Fall and its three millraces designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the dour but majestic brownstone spire of Father William Dean McNulty’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the white wedding-cake tower of City Hall, the fantastical varicolored Flemish façade of the Post Office, and the ribbed dome, not ten years old, of the Passaic County Court House, upon whose columned cupola a giant gesturing woman persistently kept her balance.

A single sentence of 84 words, built in such a way that we follow the syntax effortlessly and instead can enjoy flourishes like wedding-cake tower and columned cupola. Updike had a staggering talent, no?

In the marketing industry, writers are often given similar laundry lists — product features! reasons to buy! comprehensive services! — to work into their copy. But beware: the longer the list, the greater the danger of an unwieldy sentence. Here, for example, is a sentence that’s pretty much a worst-case scenario:

Required courses in digital media proficiency, professional practices, contemporary teaching environments and practice, and theory and criticism; ongoing group critiques; an off-campus practicum experience; and interaction with an active visiting artists program will comprise the curriculum, concluding with a thesis project, related written thesis, and oral defense.

Did you catch all that? Tough, isn’t it? The sentence has only half the words of the Updike passage, and yet it’s incredibly difficult to parse. What’s the difference?

Well, yes, the language is somewhat less rich. But that’s not the problem. You might notice that, in the latter excerpt, the list of curriculum items (and the lists within the list) appears up front. This construction can work fine for shorter clauses:

Four full semesters of course work, ongoing group critiques, and an off-campus practicum experience comprise the major part of the curriculum.

But in English, the kernel of every sentence is subject and verb. If our English-speaking brains can’t quickly zero in on those two entities, we get lost pretty easily. In the train wreck above, the subject is so lengthy, and so syntactically complex, that we readers lose our way before we get to the main verb, comprise. And once we find comprise, we have to backtrack to make sense of what the writer is saying. (At least, I do.)

In the Updike passage, on the other hand, we get to the subject and verb in the first eight words, and the seventy-odd words that follow all complete that main thought. Because we can quickly ascertain the central idea, we’re able to build extensively on that foundation.

Can we apply this idea to the other piece? Of course we can:

The curriculum will feature required courses in digital media proficiency, professional practices, contemporary teaching environments and practice, and theory and criticism; ongoing group critiques; an off-campus practicum experience; and interaction with an active visiting artists program. It will conclude with a thesis project, a related written thesis, and an oral defense.

Funny isn’t it? When your brain can latch on to the main subject and verb, it handles the same list with relative ease, because each item is completing a thought that it’s already encountered.

Bonus round: To simplify the paragraph even further, we can unpack the nested lists, like so:

The curriculum will feature required courses in digital media proficiency, professional practices, contemporary teaching environments and practice, and theory and criticism. The course of study will incorporate ongoing group critiques, an off-campus practicum experience, and interaction with an active visiting artists program; it will conclude with a thesis project, a related written thesis, and an oral defense.

So remember: In cases like these, treat your sentence like your car. If you have to load it up with a lot of stuff, it’s probably best to pack it in the trunk — not on the front hood.

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