Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How Rare the Perfectly
Healthy Sentence Is

'A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning without their colors, or the heavens without their azure.'
--Henry David Thoreau. You can review our many earlier mentions of the whiskered bard here.

14 Comments:

At 3:48 PM, Blogger Britta said...

One of the art directors I work with was today recalling the rule for clear writing she learned in high school: The best sentence is the shortest sentence possible. Many of the people who send her e-mail, she told me, definitely didn't have the same high school English and writing teacher.

 
At 3:57 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That sounds like okay advice as long as it remains flexible (actually, the best writing, the most evocative and rhythmic, skillfully uses a mix of short and longer sentences, as fine writers such as Britta well know), but I must say that I'm more often horrified by all the horrible writing advice most people got in high school especially. The problem is most of those teachers weren't writers themselves, but only readers (that counts for plenty, let me stipulate). And too many of them latched on to idiotic rules that some committee of dumbos must have secretly convened somewhere. Thus, millions of Americans walk around each day JUST SURE of such things as you can't begin a sentence with the word "and" and far sillier things than that. I'm more bemused by all this stuff than pained, but I do wonder how others think about this subject. I can almost hear the sound of Art warming up his engine...

 
At 4:06 PM, Blogger Britta said...

I think I took her edict as inherently flexible because the implication is " the shortest sentence possible .... to convey the message and emotion needed or to achieve the writer's goals." Certainly I had the good fortune to have high-quality English instruction in high school and to be more mortified (in retrospect) by the myths and bad advice dispensed in high school sex education. But that's a matter for Good Housekeeping's blogger .... ;)

 
At 4:08 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You do have a good sense of humor, girl. That gave me a laugh. And you're right--myths is precisely the right word to use when it comes to bad writing advice. Anyway, I think the boys paid much more attention to the sex ed, and the girls more attention to the writing ed. At least that's how it worked in Catholic grade school!

 
At 8:51 PM, Anonymous nobody said...

The gasp that escaped from my heart, then lips as I read that sentence . . . the brushstrokes of a master could hardly have painted a more beautifully precise, poetic, and philosophical expression. I will write it to place above my desk. One day, I will paint it into a picture that I'm sure will hardly do it justice. Thank you.

 
At 10:25 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, you know . . . any rule of thumb when turned into an absolute dictum is going to immediately generate valid exceptions. So much for absolutisms in rhetoric—or in anything else, for that matter.

All "rules" ought to be flexible, just as John says. They should always be provisional, with acknowledged exceptions.

The other point that I'd make is that many "rules" given to younger writers (younger in craft if not in age) need to be followed eventually by the disclaimer that "this is one of those rules that once you've learned it you can abandon it." In other words, riles of thumb that work for students are often wisely disregarded after one has some experience, even if one is still a student. I am also often pleased by what I see coming forth out of "ignorance of the rules." If one absorbs rules as absolutes, especially too early in one's process, they can cripple or stifle just as often as they assist.

The bottom line is the usual problem with such dicta: People can stipulate absolute rules about the elements of craft, but none of these remotely apply to one iota of those aspects of writing that are elements other than craft. Things like, you know, creativity, inspiration, imagination. All too often the short sentence rule gets applied wrongly, as a way of forcing conformity rather than of supporting imaginative leaps.

I say this as a writer who believes that compression is almost always better than not, as a writer who prefers concision to overwriting. It's really easy to overwrite. In college, the hardest papers to write were one-page papers; ten page papers are a lot easier to write. So, I do feel that concision and compression are good things to know. But as always there are exceptions.

People always stereotype Hemingway as being a short-sentence writer. And he did write short sentences. And he also wrote very long run-on sentences with almost no punctuation, sometimes alternating them with shorter punctuated sentences. The point is as John says: Do what's appropriate for the piece of writing at hand. Make the style match the content, so they're complementary rather than in conflict.

BTW, check out The Blog of Henry David Thoreau:

http://blogthoreau.blogspot.com/

 
At 11:39 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

It is indeed good to learn all the rules of the road before breaking them. Then you're breaking them for good reasons, and with some deliberation. As for that HDT blog, I recall learning about that from you way back when. What a great idea that was.

 
At 8:18 AM, Blogger Pat Washington said...

Ugh...just spent a bunch of time posting here and the post disappeared. So sad. Will have to return later. :(

 
At 9:36 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

God, I hate when that happens. It can drive you nuts to think about the wasted time. Sorry, Pat. Please come back when it's convenient.

 
At 12:12 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, actually, I have very mixed feelings about "learning all the rules before you break them." That's another "rule" itself that I question. I think it's true a lot of the time, but I've seen some brilliant exceptions, who, out of "ignorance" broke completely new ground. I think that we can channel minds into grooves far too easily, and then block off possibilities. I also think that one has to UN-learn the rules, which can be as lengthy a process.

My recommendation has always been: Be suspicious of rules, but read what works and learn from the reading. It's an autodidact's viewpoint, I acknowledge, rather than a teacher's viewpoint.

I think learning the rules helps prevent certain stereotypical stumbles. But I think the rules should always be shown to have exceptions, even from day one. I tell people, maybe you're not ready yet to break the rules, but know that you can, and that it can work. Rules, after all, are consensus-manufactured habits-of-thoughts that are ultimately arbitrary rather than organically-grown. At least, most of the time.

"Do I contradict myself? Well, then I contradict myself." (sayeth Walt W.)

 
At 12:16 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I meant to put the word "rules" in quotes the last time, which addresses much of your point, or rather might have partially pre-empted it. And face it, Art, you're an anarchist!

 
At 1:02 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Am not! Well, okay, am. But in the same way Thoreau was.

 
At 1:08 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, that's the context in which I was using that word (not the way it's been bastardized by the right as a bomb-throwing crazy person). And hell, what's more honorable than the Thoreau tradition in this country? I've yet to meet the person who doesn't at least respect his contributions, if not admire or idolize him.

 
At 3:19 AM, Blogger merlie said...

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