Strung Together

A compound sentence can take on the qualities of a three-dollar word when it becomes predominant in an author’s style. Sentence length by itself doesn’t matter all that much (I used 21 words in the first sentence). As an editor, I object only when the piling on of phrase after phrase confuses the reader. Plus, the type of author given to such sentence structure tends to eschew the use of commas. The ideal, I suppose, is use long, unfettered strands to achieve a rolling sweep of words.

A pertinent question for any writer is how hard she wants to make the reader work. If her attitude is that she writes for herself and the reader had better admire the brilliance, she needs to be a brilliant writer, not only with words but arresting insights as well. That is, the challenge to the reader is rewarded by the hard work of the author.

Most writing, however, operates at a more pedestrian level. The excessive length in that case seems designed to lend an air of grandeur to common vocabulary words describing ordinary thoughts. The challenge to connect all of the clauses is the same for the reader, but the payoff for such effort is harder to discern. The lack of commas, which often provide a reader a break, can make the procession resemble a long march. So it is not surprising that readers can fall in exhaustion to the wayside.

Modern prose style emphasizes originality of approach. The Victorian era of layered, dense prose worked wonderfully in an era before film. In the 21st century, the authors I admire employ fairly short sentences, but the words are charged by the point of view, or the acuity of description, or the penetration beyond conventional ideas. The reader’s enjoyment derives from riding along on the book’s journey with a remarkable commentator. Life is shown to be strange and exhilarating, after all.

The next time you are tempted to compose a complicated sentence, stop and take a look at the core thought that governs it. Is it charged with value, whether of emotion, insight, or originality? If not, maybe a better approach is to step off that lofty authorial plane and dig down into what you’d really like to tell the reader.

Exercise: Knowing the grammatical rules of comma usage can help an author  tremendously. If the two full sentences you are joining with a conjunction express quite different ideas, you are muddying their distinction by lumping them together in a single flow. Maybe they should be broken into two sentences. If you want a smooth segue with opposing ideas, maybe the second half should start a new paragraph entirely.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”
—E. B. White

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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