Category: Style

The Rhythm of Sentences

My friend Matt and I have a reading competition every summer. Last year he beat me by a couple books. I have three weeks of vacation left and, at thirty-one books, I’m well behind schedule. I suspect he will win again this year (even though I stocked up on a pile of the best and shortest books available from your standard online retailers).

Yesterday I finished A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke, a fine memoir that comes in at a longish seventy-six pages. There are plenty of good reasons to read his work, but I want to emphasize his pacing. Here is a typical passage:

In this life of misery, my mother lost her country-round cheeks and achieved a certain chic. She carried her head high and acquired a graceful walk. Whatever she put on was becoming to her. She had no need of fox furs. When her husband sobered up and clung to her and told her he loved her, she gave him a merciful, pitying smile. By then, she had no illusions about anything. 

It is not a particularly cheerful memoir. But the writing is beautiful. Diagramming sentences is fine entertainment, but it should probably be combined with diagramming passages and paragraphs if we want to fully understand and emulate good writing. I am going to forgo the diagramming today and get right on to the emulation. In this case, I am going to simply recount an event from a couple weeks ago, making every effort to match the structure of Handke’s passage.

On this July morning, my uncle discovered the pain of hornet stings and the wonder of explosives. He caressed his aching foot and complained about his nephew’s stupidity. Steve was the source of all the calamities of his life. Yet Dan depended on his nephew. As Steve packed the blaster cap in the hornet nest and ran the ignition wire to the battery, Dan cowered behind the truck, whimpered of his sore foot, fibrillated shamelessly. Indeed, he actually yelped at the explosion of wings and stingers.

To my ear, even as banal an exercise (by U.P. standards) as packing a live hornet’s nest with dynamite blaster caps achieves a certain loveliness by the rhythms of Handke’s prose. But you may judge for yourself.



Which or That?

These terms are not nearly as interchangeable as common usage might lead you to believe.

The guitar that Matty keeps in his basement does not suffer from overuse.

The guitar, which Matty keeps in his basement, does not suffer from overuse.

“That” is used to introduce what are called restrictive clauses. These kinds of clauses limit meaning. Matt might have a bunch of guitars, but the one he keeps in his basement just gathers dust.

“Which” introduces a nonrestrictive clause. In the second sentence we are simply given some extra information, in this case, about where Matt stores his guitar. We signal that this information is dispensable by using the nonrestrictive term and by surrounding the clause with commas.

Matty also has a dog that he is careful not to over-exercise.

Matty’s dog, which he is careful not to strain with exercise, can breakdance in English and Spanish.

Here is a punctuation guideline: if you use “which” then also use one or two commas, depending on where you put the clause. Here is a sentence that needs just one comma:

Matty’s dog eats a lot of spam, which helps explain the flatulence problem.



Nabokov: Why All the Fuss?

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

If you mention Vladimir Nabokov within spitting distance of anyone who spent too long in school, the next comment you’ll hear will be “master prose stylist.” The conversation will quickly degrade into speculations about his alleged perversions, for the poor man has become widely confused with the actually confused Humbert Humbert of Lolita. Sigh.

The quotation (not, you might note, “quote,” which is a verb) is the first sentence of his memoir, Speak, Memory. All authors should ultimately be judged by the first and last sentences of their works. In the winner’s circle stand Melville and Nabokov. “Call me Ishmael,” begins Moby-Dick. You should earn the last sentence yourself.

But let’s take a close look at a bit of Nabokov and see if we can’t learn something about writing. Here is the end of the third chapter of Speak, Memory. (Someone might remind me to return to that title in a later post–the title as  imperative; that perfect comma.)

“A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. The robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.”

Read that late at night when you are maybe a bit drunk, and if you don’t weep actual tears, then destroy your computer and read Shakespeare until a portion of your humanity is restored.

At the risk treating the lyrically sublime like a clinician, I will address three points:

1. The combination of alliteration (sense, security, summer; well, warmth; my memory) and a series of prepositional modifiers (of…) establishes both rhythm and melody in the first sentence, and, in fact, throughout the passage (though other series elements are not prepositional modifiers; they are clauses).

2. Also like music, it thrives in suggestiveness and the symbolic. The mirror and the bumblebee, those are literal elements, but we sense they are also metaphors, though metaphors whose significance we should not trouble ourselves to investigate.

3. Nabokov manages to express with extraordinary clarity the mystery of the past and the imperishable bliss of an ideal childhood. The ineffable is communicated as if we were encountering it on a bright summer afternoon. I think we can credit the structure of his sentences. Each one offers first the subject, then sometimes a modifier or two, then the verb, then the object or complement. Is the the most simple and direct structure English offers. The character of any expression is lent clarity by this form.

The Pleasures and Perils of Yodaspeak

Here is an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

I believe in the flesh and the appetites,

Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,

The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,

This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

I refer to that as the “divine body odor” passage. Whitman’s business was affirming and celebrating what others considered base and decadent. He would have us be proud of our human condition, not ashamed of it:

I do not press my fingers across my mouth,

I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,

Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

What evidence we have agrees that Whitman, however proud of his arm pits’ natural aroma, was hygienically meticulous (I also like to think he wore very good socks). But I am digressing. I want to call your attention to one of his frequently employed techniques: the violation of the standard subject then verb then object (or complement) clause structure: “Divine am I inside and out,” he writes, rather than the expected “I am divine inside and out.”

Subject     Verb       Complement, including Modifier

I                   am             divine                                    inside and out

Complement         Verb            Subject         Modifier

Divine                         am                   I                   inside and out

Yoda and Whitman can do this because they are both really good poets. Whitman wants to emphasize his divinity, so he places the complement in the subject position, and it is effective. It slips into our understanding unconsciously; we more deeply sense his idea and expression.

However, if you are writing prose in an essay about how awesome Whitman or Yoda is, you might not want to emulate the icon. Read Hemingway instead. You should prefer to place the subject first and the verb right after, then throw in all the other stuff (mostly objects and modifiers). If you do this, then you will probably be writing good, clear, well-lighted sentences.

The Natural Congeniality of Adverbials

Adverbials are words, phrases, or clauses that modify verbs. Most of us probably remember that adverbs commonly end in -ly.

Lucy suddenly had the urge to read Steve’s blog.

But entire phrases and clauses can also be used to modify verbs, as in the following:

Dave smoked and sighed like a small-town hipster. (phrase)

Steve wore outrageously expensive socks because his feet really were better than other people’s feet. (clause)

Here is what makes adverbials special: They can be moved around in a sentence quite a bit without butchering meaning. You just have to make sure you put commas where you need them.

Steve, because his feet really were better than other people’s feet, wore outrageously expensive socks.

Like a small-town hipster, Dave smoked and sighed.

Move verbs around like this and you are speaking in Yoda:

Smoked and sighed Dave like Chewbacca at a waxing clinic.

There are limits, but as a general rule, if you can move it around to several places in a sentence, you are dealing with an adverbial. Like Steve’s feet in good socks, they are happy just about anywhere.

Commas in a Series

There seems to be a lot of confusion about punctuating words or phrases in a series. We can blame journalists.

Apparently, column space has value–actual pecuniary value. Dropping commas from a series saves newspapers money. Frankly, this is hard for me to believe, but I am by nature and training miserly with my beliefs.

The sentence below follows journalistic convention:

The audience expressed its approval with jeers, profane hand gestures, derisive laughter and an unmistakable flatulence.

I suppose over the course of centuries newspapers have saved a buck or two by omitting that comma before the “and,” but the cost has been confusion.

I went to the concert with Matt O’Grady, an exotic dancer and a tattoo artist.

Did I go to the concert with one person or three?

If you are not writing journalism (and if you are in college you are mostly not writing journalism), spend the extra comma:

Richard Face, a specialist in anger management, global security, and knob turning, is the newest member of the band.

Avoiding the Passive Voice: Objects Get Done To

Like many others, I was taught to treat the less fortunate with sympathy and respect. Politically, this developed into the conviction that all people deserve a seat at the table and the opportunity to represent themselves rather than be represented. However, the laudable effort to enable the less powerful should not extend to grammar.

Objects don’t do–they get done to.

The sentence below sucks because some writer decided Sam needed empowerment.

Sam was expelled on by the bold little kitty.

The expelling was done by the cat, but the bold fellow is reduced to an object of a lowly preposition (by). Sam is the peed on, not the peer. And now he’s peeved, which is often the beginning of empowerment.

Sam scowled at the bold kitten.

It sounds downright awful if we make the cat the subject:

The bold kitten was scowled at by Sam.

If you write a sentence with some form of the verb to be (am, is, was, were, be), a past participle (the past tense form of a verb, as in “expelled,” and “scowled” above), and the preposition by, then you have written a sentence in the passive voice.

Revise it if you want to keep the paper out of my fireplace.

Quiz: Can you find the passive construction above? (bold sentences don’t count)