Sing Us a Song, You’re the Grammar Man

Tonight I’m stalking the wily sentence. As a writer of nonfiction I’m quite proficient, but I’d like to learn more about the luminous prose styles the great novelists use. How do they do that? Not that I’ll ever be a great novelist, but I can surely become a better one.

Now and then I get mailers from the Great Courses. I’ve always resisted buying the series of DVDs called Building Great Sentences — this was before I decided I need to know more about prose style — but as it happens, the series has been turned by its author, Brooks Landon, into a nice paperback book. Which I have now bought.

Landon plunges in boldly, but he soon gets in over his head. He approves of long sentences, and I approve of his approval. But early on — on page 4, in fact — he founders while trying to dissect this sentence of Gertrude Stein’s: “Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?”

Landon offers eight different paraphrases of this, such as, “Why should a sequence of words not be a pleasure?”, “A sequence of words should always be a pleasure,” and “We should always find pleasure in a sequence of words.” But he misses the kernel of Stein’s meaning. If you’ve read any of Stein’s writing, you’ll know that quite often her sequences of words are, as to their meaning, impenetrable. Opening her book How to Write at random, I come upon this sequence of words: “Custom a custom do accustom they come accompanied they will venture to arrive with a variety of circumstances that they can have come to be to them as if which they can prepare to be alike.”

Given this — and it’s a fine example of Stein’s “difficult” style — it seems clear to me that we have to read the sentence Landon quotes, first, by lopping off the last three words. Stein is saying, to begin with, “Why should a sequence of words be anything?” As we finish reading the sentence, adding the rest of her thought, we can see that a better paraphrase would be, “A sequence of words need only give pleasure. That is its primary function.” Its meaning, Stein implies, is of secondary importance, if indeed it conveys any meaning at all.

To have teased out this meaning would rather have undercut Landon’s agenda. But I don’t want to get distracted by talking about Gertrude Stein. We have bigger fish to fry.

Landon notes that there are three ways to construct long sentences. (Actually, there are four; he misses one.) We can add coordinate elements using “and” or other connective words; we can add subordinate clauses; or we can add modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and so on). The one he misses, in case you’re wondering, is that we can make a long sentence by breaking it off in the middle and interject a new element without stopping.

He gives as an example of a long sentence, an example of which he seems proud — proud enough at least to put it in the book — this horrifying mess: “Cumulative sentences that start with a brief base clause and then start picking up new information, much as a snowball gets larger as it rolls downhill, fascinate me with their ability to add information that actually makes the sentence easier to read and more satisfying because it starts answering questions as quickly as an inquisitive reader might think of them, using each modifying phrase to clarify what has gone before, and to reduce the need for subsequent explanatory sentences, flying in the face of the received idea that cutting words rather than adding them is the most effective way to improve writing, reminding us that while in some cases, less is indeed more, in many cases, more is more, and more is what our writing needs.”

He then says, “I would argue that neither [this sentence nor the one before it] is hard to follow….” But of course he’s quite wrong. Why is this sentence hard to follow? If you look closely, you’ll see that it contains three infinitives: “to add,” “to read,” and “to reduce.” The difficulty is that the first and third are parallel in structure within the sentence: “…with their ability to add information … and to reduce the need….” However, “to read” is in a subordinate position (modifying “easier”). Because “to read” interrupts the parallel structure, the sentence is not just wildly self-indulgent but a true grammatical train wreck. When we reach “and to reduce,” we have lost the thread of the structure. We have to backtrack to see what Landon is attempting to say.

At the end of each chapter, he gives the reader a little exercise assignment with which to try out the techniques discussed. Having bludgeoned us with this monstrous knockwurst of a sentence, he invites us at the end of Chapter Four to compose a single sentence (using one or more of the strategies I mentioned above) that incorporates all six of the following underlying propositions:

  1. The boy sat down at the table.
  2. The boy was young.
  3. The boy was out of breath from running.
  4. The boy flopped down into his chair.
  5. The table was made of heavy oak.
  6. The table was covered with steaming dishes of food.

These six elements could, of course, be combined in any of a number of ways — we might write, for instance, “Out of breath from running, the young boy flopped down in his chair at the heavy oak table, which was covered with steaming dishes of food.” — but it’s clear that any sentence we could construct using these elements would be wildly deficient if used in a work of fiction. There is too much information here, and yet not enough. We don’t know where the boy has run from, or why he has arrived at the table immediately after running. We don’t know who has laid out the steaming dishes of food. We don’t know in what sense the chair is “his” chair. We don’t know how young he is; six? nine? fourteen?

We notice at once that “covered by” is imprecise; surely the top of the table was not entirely covered by the dishes. We may also wonder why it’s the dishes that are steaming rather than the food itself, but that’s a trivial detail. “Food” is deplorably vague, and that would be less trivial in a work of fiction. The fact that the table is constructed of heavy oak, on the other hand, would be entirely trivial, and not worth mentioning at all unless this fact were connected in some way to the rest of the furniture in the room, or to the boy’s bone structure (he might be either sturdy or, by way of contrast, as frail as a stick), or perhaps to the overbearing character of the cook, who will insist that the boy eat all of the dishes — or rather, all of the food in the dishes — even though he isn’t hungry, just out of breath.

In sum, to include these six elements and no others in a complex sentence can only give us a dreadful sentence. Should we prize a book that gives us exercises that will have us constructing dreadful sentences? Contrariwise, if we try to construct a valid and interesting fictional scene out of these elements by adding missing details and clarifying what has been left vague, we’re surely going to need more than one sentence.

Oh, well. The book only cost $16, and it reminded me to read some Gertrude Stein.

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