While I waited for my Wi-Fi to return, I was thinking about a comment that Anonymous recently posted on my latest blog post about the Jane Austen sentence I’ve been showcasing. S/he proposes that we engage with sentences that are similarly complex:
struggling through a user’s manuals written by risk managers; hoping to get to the end of a Help function for a software we’re using; trying to understand the fine print in a jury summons notice.I agree with Anonymous that the 21st Century presents us with plenty of difficult prose. But I'm guessing that most of that prose is difficult not because of Austenian levels of syntactic complexity, but because it's poorly written. Poorly defined terms and jargon; excess verbiage and repetitions; ambiguous references: that’s what I typically see in the modern prose I struggle with the most.
The big culprits? Academic writing, legalese, and bureaucratese.
Consider the winner of the fourth annual Bad Writing Contest, sponsored by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature: Judith Butler, a Guggenheim Fellowship-winning professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Her first-prize sentence, from “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” (Diacritics, 1997):
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.Syntactically speaking, this sentence is not particularly complex. Consider a syntactically homologous counterpart with the jargon removed:
The move from a country house in which draftiness was felt to undermine bodily comfort in relatively subtle ways to a house in the city in which climate control is easy to achieve, maintain, and readjust brought the family in question into a situation of ease, and caused them to adjust from a type of lifestyle that involved occasional sacrifices of physical well-being to one in which the enjoyment of the regular possibility of comfort aroused a perception of life as independent of the occasional whims and impulses of the vicissitudes of nature.Also not particularly complex syntactically, for all its long-winded repetitions and anal-retentive hair splittings, is this example of legalese:
In case any building or structure is erected, constructed, reconstructed, altered, converted or maintained, or any building, structure or land is used, or any land is divided into lots, blocks or sites in violation of this article or of any local law, ordinance or other regulation made under authority conferred thereby, the proper local authorities of the town, in addition to other remedies, may institute any appropriate action or proceedings to prevent such unlawful erection, construction, reconstruction, alteration, conversion, maintenance, use or division of land, to restrain, correct or abate such violation, to prevent the occupancy of said building, structure or land or to prevent any illegal act, conduct, business or use in or about such premises.Here’s a bracketed version that marks off the embedded phrases-- of which there is much less than we see in the Jane Austen sentence:
In case [any building or structure is [erected, constructed, reconstructed, altered, converted or maintained]], or [any building, structure or land is used,] or [any land is divided into [lots, blocks or sites]] in violation [of [this article] or of [any local law, ordinance or other regulation [made under authority conferred thereby]]], [the proper local authorities of the town], in addition to [other remedies], may institute any appropriate action or proceedings [[to prevent [such unlawful [erection, construction, reconstruction, alteration, conversion, maintenance, use or division of land]], [to [restrain, correct or abate] such violation], [to prevent [the occupancy of [said building, structure or land]]] or [to prevent any [[illegal act, conduct, business or use] [in or about such premises]]].Of course, one needn’t look to academic papers and legal documents to find modern prose that’s hard to make sense of, especially if one is a teacher or professor--and/or interacts with modern curricula and curricular goals. Reform Math word problems are a gold mine. Consider:
Draw several groups of an item that comes in groups of some number between 2 and 12. Describe the picture in words. Then, on the back of the student sheet, use that information to make a riddle.
In your description, remember to identify the three key pieces of information: the number of groups, the number of items in a group, and the total number of items. In your riddle, remember to use only two pieces of information from your description. Your riddle is the question you ask about the missing third piece of information!
(TERC Investigations)Then there are politicians. Here's some verbiage from a bit further back in time (the Cold War):
A land-based missile is the missile sitting there in its silo in which there could be the possibility of miscalculation. That is the one that people know that once that button is pushed, there is no defense; there is no recall . . . Those that are carried in bombers, those that are carried in ships of one kind or another, or submersibles, you are dealing there with a conventional type of weapon or instrument, and those instruments can be intercepted. They can be recalled if there has been a miscalculation.These pieces are difficult (and, in some cases, alarming) not because syntactic complexity makes them difficult to parse, but because their ambiguities and jargon confuse us, and/or because their jargon, excess verbiage, and repetitions make our eyes glaze over.