Resisting the Felicitous and the Deft: Sentences, Punctuation, and Meaning

There’s an entertaining and intelligent article in a recent New Yorker about the uses and abuses of punctuation, among other things. The piece, written by a veteran copyeditor at the magazine, will be as dull as dishwater to many, and fascinating to those like me, who work on how to make sentences say what we mean.

Really say what we really mean. Not seem to say what we more or less mean.

As the New Yorker piece suggests, that task poses endless difficulties. But the piece also exposes what I see as important failures in the tactics we use to make sentences say what writers mean.

* * * *

The author, Mary Norris, defends what she calls “close” editing for punctuation and other aspects of sentence construction. Here’s one of her examples:

“Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.”

Norris and The New Yorker favor placing those commas after “died” and “cancer” over this cleaner and more common approach: “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret.”

The example comes up because the writer Ben Yagoda called The New Yorker‘s reasons for putting commas after “died” and “cancer” nutty, and at first glance Yagoda seems sound. He ascribes the magazine’s insistence on the extra commas to a hysterical concern that otherwise “the sentence would suggest that Atwater died multiple times and of multiple causes.”

But that’s not quite the rationale. It would be nutty indeed to fear that without those commas, a reader couldn’t gather that Atwater didn’t also die before or after 1991, and didn’t die of causes other than brain cancer.

We read sentences like it all the time, but the sad fact is that, regardless of how you punctuate it, “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret” is a foolish thing to write, and not noticing the foolishness causes problems that run deeper than incorrectness in grammar and usage.

* * * *

The sentence implodes from trying to do too many contradictory things at once. Of course we quickly gather the most important thing the sentence is trying to do: tell us that Atwater ended up expressing regret, no doubt for an irresponsible position he’d taken or something venal he’d done. Atwater came to realize he’d been a jerk. That’s clear enough.

But we’re also informed, as if in the same breath, that the expression of regret occurred before Atwater died. We knew that. He couldn’t very well express regret after he died. And everything else that happened in Atwater’s life also happened before he died, so we’re led to wonder, subliminally, what point the writer wants to make by noting that Atwater wasn’t dead when this particular thing happened.

Thus discomfited, the reader resorts to a feeling — never confirmed by the sentence — that Atwater must have expressed his regret not long before he died. And since we’re also told — again in the same overcrowded breath, and we can only hope for some reason — that he died of brain cancer, are we meant to suspect that it was in the face of his terminal illness that Atwater came to express regret? Should we contemplate, in blurry sketch, a man lying in a bed of pain coming manfully to terms with former wrongheadedness? (And do I descry a fuzzy calendar on the wall of that sickroom? Does it read “1991”?)

Despite those suppositions, we really have no idea whether the prospect of dying of cancer — and in 1991! — helped Atwater see the error of his ways. If that’s what happened, I hope the writer would simply tell us so; if not, I hope he or she wouldn’t suggest it; either way, we readers remain in the dark. We’re supplying the meaning, because we’re the kind of animal that projects meaning on the meaningless. We have no choice but to try to free ourselves from gibberish.

Breaking the sentence down, instead of throwing some half-realized meaning on it, reveals the gibberish’s source. Crammed into a single statement are four discrete facts: 1) Atwater expressed regret; 2) Atwater died; 3) It was 1991 when Atwater died; 4) Atwater died of brain cancer. Because nothing expressed by the sentence can tie those facts together, the writer invokes a falsely modifying construction to bundle it all up: the subordinating conjunction “before,” a ploy to suggest that logical relations must somehow prevail here. But because “before” tells us only that Atwater was alive at the time of his regret, the ploy degrades the sentence to final absurdity.

R.I.P., Atwater. And this sentence.

On examination, the “nutty” thing is the sentence “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret.” One wouldn’t have thought so, at first. But writing, on examination, is hard.

* * * *

Writers make these goofball moves all the time. Nothing I’m saying is meant to suggest that I think I don’t. But when I do, I see a failure, not a coup.

Many editors, by contrast, encourage such moves and make them too. The impulse seems to be to “package” ideas neatly and efficiently in sentences. Somewhere the damned piece will have to note Atwater’s date and cause of death — ha!, here’s just the place, and high fives all around for the sheer felicitousness and deftness of the professional writing in which we’ve become so admirably expert.

Enter the copyeditor. This is The New Yorker, so she hears the lameness of that sentence right away.

It’s her job to fix it. But fixing it only makes it worse.

I agree that the commas do a job here: “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.” They fight the current of the original sentence, a flow existentially false, really a kind of lie. The commas point up rather than smooth over the two sore points, “brain cancer” and “1991,” and I give the commas credit for that. Refusing to let the writer get away with a ploy, they lay bare the nasty fact that the cause and year of death have no business here, and are here anyway.

But that’s all the commas can do. Making the sentence more honest, they not only leave intact but actually call attention to the vacancy of the false modifier “before Atwater died.”

Well, if this is the kind of stuff that writers hand in — or the stuff their editors work up from what they’ve handed in — what’s a copyeditor to do? It kills me that a gigantic apparatus involving house style and Henry Fowler and God knows what else may be applied by smart, diligent people to fixing something that can’t be fixed. It’s the line of thought, not the punctuation, that needs correction.

* * * *

“Before he died” is the tip of a big iceberg. False modification has come to define New Yorker style, New York Times Magazine style, and upscale magazine writing in general. The mode is so pervasive that we don’t notice it. Our numbness to false modification robs our reading and thinking of meaning.

Often this crime against authenticity takes the form of a relative clause, often with the personal pronoun. Here’s one of thousands of examples from The New Yorker:

“Joseph Jackson, whose rhythm-and-blues band, the Falcons, disbanded in the early years of his marriage, is not the first father to have channelled his thwarted creative aspirations into his children, but he had more success than most.”

(Ignore the Brit-style doubling in “channeled.” That’s a house quirk.)

In the clause “whose rhythm-and-blues band, the Falcons, disbanded in the early years of his marriage,” we find professional felicitousness taken to an extreme that many readers won’t notice at all, so prevalent is the bogus construction — the bogus thinking — that enables it. Indeed many editors would outright admire the way the sentence uses “whose” to package a set of ideas. Some editors revise their authors’ work in just that way, and pat themselves on the back for it at day’s end.

Possibly it was an editor, working from the writer’s choppier copy, who came up with this Jackson sentence. But given the encouragement high-end publishing gives false modification, writers readily engage in it on their own, so we don’t know.

However this sentence got written, we encounter here something more problematic than the self-immolation of the doofy Atwater sentence. If the writer or editor of the Jackson sentence hadn’t been so busy getting all deft and authoritative, something good might have occurred. Liberating the good stuff would mean ripping things apart, not stringing them together.

We may gather from the sentence that because Jackson married, and because of what marriage can entail, he couldn’t keep his band going, and frustrations caused by having to break up the band affected his relationships with his children. That’s a complicated problem to have. It’s nothing like a modification of “Joseph Jackson,” not legitimately a means of identifying him, of ensuring we don’t confuse him with somebody else (“Ah, the Joseph Jackson whose rhythm-and-blues band …”). Slipping a big idea into a “whose” clause that pretends to identify Jackson, the sentence does something worse than rush past a powerful thought. It refuses to own — to tell — the tale. Disguised as a modifier, the back story of Joseph Jackson becomes implication, not assertion.

Further modification within that clause makes related pretenses. “In the early years of his marriage” poses as a way of placing the band’s breakup in time, for the sake of specificity, even as it encourages us to think of the marriage and its ramifications as the cause of the breakup.

Something happened. The sentence lets us know that the writer has some savvy ideas about what it is. You didn’t hear it from him, though. He didn’t say anything.

The whole construction, in all of its component parts, isn’t merely grammatically silly. It’s unfair — to Jackson and to us. A host of implications get tucked inside one another and then snuck into a sweeping main clause to give us description by innuendo. Painful insights are reduced to a nudge and a wink.

And I’m sure that’s not what the writer intended.

Compounding the phoniness is an obsession with covering off, as the sentence unfolds, on blandly encyclopedic points. Inappropriate modification and apposition play a role here too. This was a “rhythm-and-blues” band, we’re told for reasons maybe apparent to those who enforce Billboard categories. And the band’s name was “the Falcons.” Yes, we need commas here, but the more important question is why these factoids come up at all. Throughout this long, slow trainwreck of a thought, a pseudo-documentary attitude keeps popping sniffily in, some officious research assistant on hand to lend those unexamined implications about Jackson’s motivations a creepy air of certified factualness. In this context, the term “rhythm and blues,” a legit subject in other contexts, devolves into meaninglessness. So much for it, and for the bygone Falcons, and for Jackson’s former life in music. R.I.P.

I pick on this Jackson piece because I think it had things to say, and thanks to the reflexive use of false modification that defines upscale magazine writing, it failed to say them. Another sentence from the same piece: “Berry Gordy, a onetime boxer and auto worker, who founded the label in 1959, understood what black performers needed to leave behind in order to get ahead in mid-century America.” Again, interesting to know that Gordy was an auto worker and a boxer, and maybe sort of interesting that he founded Motown in ’59 (what’s with randomly documenting the year everything happened? why not the month, too, or the day?), but unless it’s because of or in spite of those things that Berry understood what he understood — in which case, please, for the love of all that’s sacred, just say so, and explain — this construction offers nothing but another glib and meaningless description — really a false description — of the man.

* * * *

I used to write like that. Going cold turkey late in the day, I’m clumsier than I used to be (I was so much older then). It’s when you’re at the top of your game that you look most like an amateur. That’s what I aspire to. That’s what I tell myself.

One thing I know: I’ll never go back. Reading sentences with fake “who” clauses physically upsets me. I invite writers and editors to join the resistance. Signal your turns. Expose your intentions. Give it to me straight or keep it to yourself.

4 thoughts on “Resisting the Felicitous and the Deft: Sentences, Punctuation, and Meaning

    • Funny — I’m using em dashes all over that post. I really think you could more legitimately say “Shortly before he died — of brain cancer, in 1991 — Atwater expressed regret.” The dashes *admit* that the content between them is not essential or even logically connected to the main thought. (UPDATE: I would make my em dashes properly here, closing the spaces between them and the words, if I could, but WordPress doesn’t render them properly when I do.)

  1. This post, which I found in my e-mail after work before I died at some still-unknown date and after I ate some crackers, was very thought-provoking!

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