November 8, 2011


More than once I have written blog posts in praise of complex sentences. By combining several ideas between a capital and a period, a writer creates relationships among thoughts that wouldn’t be as successful if each was confined to its own subject and verb. Compare the following two examples. A) Susan sat eating ice cream. She listened to the band play. She felt happy. B) While Susan sat eating ice cream and listening to the band playing, she felt happy. In sentence B we understand the conditions that make Susan happy. In sentence A no relationship is implied.  

Sometimes, however, a writer creates complex sentences not so much to communicate as to impress an audience. At such times, thoughts are cobbled together in a free style that is more apt to blind the reader than illuminate with substance.  

In an essay on Normal Mailer in the November edition of “Vanity Fair” James Wolcott seems unable to resist an overflow of sparklers. I have only the space to quote one example but the story contains many:

         “One of the Voice’s original pilgrims, John Wilcock—whose column ‘The Village Square’ was one of the paper’s most popular features, along with Jules Feiffer’s cartoon strip, abounding with neurotic mama’s boys as tense as rolled-up umbrellas and an ardent bohemian dancer in a black leotard—recalls in his Manhattan Memories trying to put the issue to bed only to have Mailer roll in, fully armored.”(Vanity Fair, 11/11)

Not only is the sentence overly long, like the train of a debutante’s bridal gown, but I fail to see how jamming so many unrelated ideas together creates a new meaning.

I might have sighed and turned to another article by another writer but I was stopped when Wolcott (same article) again tripped over his own verbiage, this time with unintended irony.

         “There’s something about being paid several dollars per word for one’s writing that doesn’t encourage brevity and so, good writer though he was [Mailer], he could have been infinitely better.” 

Amen to that!