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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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As a sometime poet, I can’t deny that I love metaphors. When I’m reading, little delights me more than coming across a figure of speech that’s well crafted and well placed. Of course, metaphors and other figurative language have a robust life outside the narrow furrows of poetry. Using a good metaphor in a section of prose can be like adding a bit of butter or a handful of fresh herbs to a recipe: it can elevate the other elements and make the dish as a whole taste better. However, as is true in the kitchen, you have to carefully consider the other ingredients, and a little experience at the stovetop doesn’t hurt.

It’s worth noting, too, that even the best cooks slip up occasionally.

During my commute to work on Tuesday, I was listening to a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about increasing violence in Turkey. Early in the piece, I heard the reporter say this:

In June, rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared the cease-fire over. Since then, newscasts have once again featured a steady diet of spilt Turkish and Kurdish blood. [emphasis mine]

Yikes! As you can imagine, my mind quickly responded with a vivid and unsavory image, which distracted my attention long enough that I lost track of the narrative. My reaction, I’m sure, wasn’t what the news editors at NPR were hoping for. And while I’m reluctant to criticize any journalist with a beat as challenging as Peter Kenyon’s, this was one unfortunate juxtaposition that needed a rewrite.

Part of the issue here is that the phrase a steady diet is used often enough that it’s become a fixed expression in the collective lexicon — a cliché whose figurative meaning (“consistent input or output”) has lost touch with its original literal meaning. (More poetically, we might say that the metaphor’s tenor has eclipsed its vehicle.) And therein lies the danger.

Thoughtful writers and editors can try on various personae, imagining how different audiences might react to their work. This is a perfect example (and trust me, I’ve encountered many) of why it often pays to review your prose through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy. If anything makes him giggle or gross out, it’s probably a good idea to consider some revision.

With that in mind:

In June, rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared the cease-fire over. Since then, newscasts have once again featured countless stories of spilt Turkish and Kurdish blood.

In June, rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, declared the cease-fire over. Since then, newscasts have once again featured a steady diet of violence and bloodshed.

Business writing is full of phrases like the one below, where complex adjectives are paired up with the copula (the verb to be). Constructions like this allow the writer to use important-sounding adjectives like integrative and applicable, but they remove the reader a level or two from the action.

learning experiences that are integrative and applicable to associates’ jobs

Now, please understand: I’ve got nothing against the be verb or polysyllabic adjectives. But verbs are a sentence’s lifeblood. They communicate what’s happening, and that action is what propels phrases, clauses, and paragraphs forward.

Here, however, two perfectly good verbs — integrate and apply — lie beneath a few coats of syntactic polyurethane. And with them unavailable, the writer has glued the phrase together with are, one of the feeblest verbs in English.

Worse yet, obscuring the verbs has let a mismatched preposition sneak through. The word integrative is questionable to begin with, but like integrate, it should take the preposition with, not to.

Confused yet? Okay. First, let’s extract the verbs from the adjectives and clean up the prepositions.

learning experiences that can be integrated with and applied to associates’ jobs

Better. Removing the passive voice will further improve things. Depending on who’s doing the action, that looks like this:

learning experiences that associates can integrate with and apply to their jobs
learning experiences that we can integrate with and apply to associates’ jobs
learning experiences that you can integrate with and apply to associates’ jobs

Bonus round: Does it still sound a little clunky to your ear? Yeah, mine too. Adding the word with (still a necessary correction) has complicated things a bit. So let’s consider the meaning here. There’s a case to be made for some overlap between the ideas of integrating and applying. I’d examine the surrounding sentences and see if we could do without one of the two verbs:

learning experiences that associates can integrate with their jobs
learning experiences that associates can apply to their jobs

If the context allows it, then we’re golden.

You’ll see more posts from me on this topic as the blog continues. But for now, keep your eyes open for hidden verbs in your writing — particularly any that appear with a word like is or are or being. Then try your hand at a little verb extraction, and see how it goes.

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