The Sentence With Care

What catches me about language—whether as ad copy, a short story, or a blog post—what I glance for at first scan, is some kind of care. And while the signs of this care may shift depending on the reader’s tastes (I lean toward sentence-level experiments and uncanny twists in diction—pretty much anything Barry Hannah has put his name to), the broader, more platonic idea of care stays: a state of serious attention and thought. I want a writer I can trust.

Someone who takes the measure of both the message and the audience, who then relays said message with clear precision, is fantastic. But someone who pulls off a hat trick of substance, clarity, and style is an ingenious, glittering mutant. That’s the person I want in my corner, complete with hopes for last-minute right-on revisions and general laser beam retribution.

Of course, style is subjective. But here’s a starter pack of givens. Don’t write stilted phrases. Don’t pass off jargon* or try to dress up the refugee remnants of a slapdash content farm. And do keep in mind your sentence’s subject and its agency—avoid the passive voice. Much maligned outside lab reports, the passive voice confuses and distances the actor from his or her action. However, such evasive agency is helpful when you want to elude blame, as we see in this spectacular instance of a former president trying to free his buddy after a hunting accident:

He heard a bird flush, and he turned and pulled the trigger and saw his friend get wounded.
—George W. Bush, from Lera Boroditsky’s “How Language Shapes Thought”. (She gives a great rundown on progressive steps of agency.)

The he in question is then-Vice President Dick Cheney and the unfortunate friend is Harry Whittington, the same man Cheney shot during a quail hunt. Though the sentence is technically active voice (he heard, he turned, he pulled, he saw), its meaning is anything but. The comment suits more as a passive cousin; the rhythm of the subject-verb, subject-verb pattern functions almost discretely, slicing the sentence into three events: Cheney hears the bird, Cheney pulls a trigger, Cheney sees his friend bloodied. The sore lack of any explicit connection between the trigger and the wound is transformative—Cheney isn’t an actor but a witness.

I haven’t been able to get this line out of my head since I first read it. It’s misleading, it’s unethical, but it’s also brilliantly, sickeningly effective. This sentence is crammed with care. The handler who wrote it probably shouldn’t get in a sound sleep at night, but the phrasing works, and it’s important we recognize the mechanics underneath.

In future posts, I’ll address various aspects of style. If you have a specific question, shoot.

*Yet another danger of jargon, besides its sometime function as lazy industry shibboleth, is its fleeting relevance. Yesterday’s Web 2.0 is today’s cloud, and you’re left posturing against the linguistic equivalent of a bygone fad.

3 comments so far

  1. Luis Oliveira

    Blog added to RSS. Keep them coming and keep them at the same level as this one, please.

  2. You just might be my new favorite blogger after writing the phrase “lazy industry shibboleth”.

  3. Pogs are still popular, dude.

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