GWAS: Lessons in The Elements of Style #4

GWAS: Lessons in The Elements of Style #4 (Sentence Structure)

Have you ever read a really beautiful piece of prose and wept? While there are definite exceptions, and the medium dictates the message, words hastily bashed out online often lack lyricism, poetry and depth of humanity (there are exceptions, of course). As such, today's lesson from The Elements of Style spoke to my sensitive side. E. M. Forster's economic lyricism is something to be treasured and emulated.

Lesson: Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

This rule refers especially to loose sentences of a particular type: those consisting of two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative. A writer may err by making sentences too compact and periodic. An occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a certain relief. Consequently, loose sentences are common in easy, unstudied writing. The danger is that there may be too many of them.

An unskilled writer will sometimes construct a whole paragraph of sentences of this kind, using as connectives and, but, and, less frequently, who, which, when, where, and while, these last in nonrestrictive sentences.

The third concert of the subscription series was given last evening, and a large audience was in attendance. Mr. Edward Appleton was the soloist, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra furnished the instrumental music. The former showed himself to be an artist of the first rank, while the latter proved itself fully deserving of its high reputation. The interest aroused by the series has been very gratifying to the Committee, and it is planned to give a similar series annually hereafter. The fourth concert will be given on Tuesday, May 10, when an equally attractive program will be presented.

Apart from its triteness and emptiness, the paragraph above is bad because of the structure of its sentences, with their mechanical symmetry and singsong. Compares these sentences from the chapter "What I Believe" in E. M. Forster's Two Cheers for Democracy:

I believe in aristocracy, though – if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.*

A writer who has written a series of loose sentences should recast enough of them to remove the monotony, replacing them with simple sentences, sentences of two clauses joined by a semicolon, by periodic sentences of two clauses, or sentences (loose or periodic) of three clauses – whichever best represent the real relations of the thought.

*Excerpt from "What I Believe" in Two Cheers for Democracy, copyright 1939 and renewed 1967 by E. M. Forster, reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc. Also, by permission of The Provost and Scholars of King's College, Cambridge, and The Society of Authors as the literary representatives of the E. M. Forster Estate.

Edited extract from The Elements of Style (Illustrated), Strunk, White, Kalman, $19.95, Penguin. If the copy ain't pretty, I simply don't like it. So the kindly folk at Penguin have allowed me to extract some very important lessons on matters of mastering the English language, as much for my own amusement as a collective refresher course. Yippee!

See also:
Lessons in The Elements of Style #1 (Omit needless words)
Lessons in The Elements of Style #2 (Quotations)
Lessons in The Elements of Style #3 (Like, OMG, you guys!)

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel