Saturday, January 12, 2008

Words and Wordiness

Looking at the lesson plan I have for later today (rhetoric in English), I found a section on reducing sentence length by use of punctuation and conjunctions. (ie: using periods and but/and/however/since/etc...) In it, the notes say:
"In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, good writers wrote sentences as long as sixty or seventy words. [...] To avoid lack of clarity caused by extraordinary long sentences (more than thirty or forty words), break them up into two or three shorter sentences."
Only seventy words, eh? This of course prompted me to do a search on the historically long sentences found in traditional literature, which led me to Molly's Soliloquy in Ulysses by James Joyce (an attested 4k+ words). Of course, being the semi-obsessive academia nut (cheap pun, I know) that I am, I decided to actually download the full text from Gutenberg -- a very good resource.

And upon reading the relevant section (thankfully not all of it, but enough to get a sense of style), I had two thoughts: (1) It was only "one sentence" because of the physical absence of periods, not any inherent grammatical or semantic cohesion; (2) the soliloquy was written for effect, much like Catcher in the Rye.

What do I mean by the first point? Basically, that if we were to go in and punctuate it as we would normally, we would find that the soliloquy is really a massive tangle of sentences that have been twined together into a knotted ball of polyester (none of that cashmere-literature). But I can understand his conspicuously conscious choice for omitting punctuation, which leads me to the second thought --

Style. Without giving too much of the plot away, the Soliloquy basically traces the emotionally-charged thoughts of Molly. And as we all know, both from ourselves and general experience, people never feel emotions in a logical, structured order. Thoughts come and go in strange ways and the ways that we can be reminded of a specific fact can at times be quite remote. So, what better way to reflect the unstructured, confusing and stream-like quality of thought than an unpunctuated body of text?

To that extent, I acknowledge Catcher in the Rye as an innovation to English literature, but I will never accept it as "fine literature", if only because it's too contemporary. (Well, other reasons too, some of which include the fact that even as a teenaged boy growing up in North America, I could barely relate to the issues raised in that overpriced dime novel.)

But back to the larger issue: do many words in a sentence necessarily mean wordiness? I would argue "no". When we look at better examples (and the legal system is a prime source for this), we find that with adequate thought and structure, it is possible to construct sentences of paragraph length without getting lost in ambiguity. In fact, it is precisely because it's law that it's so long -- to avoid any ambiguities. Likewise, back in the day when literacy and literature was restricted to a small class of people who deserved could afford a real education, writers could afford to write effectively with long and highly structured sentences without losing their audience, because the variation in their audience at the time was considerably smaller. But now, in our frenzied age of information and brevity, we've ironically gone the way of an aesthetic dystopia in lowering the national standard to accommodate the majority. I wonder how much longer we'll have to wait until they force leg weights on ballet dancers so that they all leap with equal clumsiness?

Fun fact of the day: The letter J evolved from the letter I, because the Germans didn't feel like including Y for their alphabet party. ("Ioshua" became "Joshua", even though "Yoshua" would have made more sense, and more accurately reflects the pronunciation across different languages.) English, on the other hand, adopted the French pronunciation, and so, a semi-vowel sound became a fricative.


Nano said...

Hahaha lol academia nut.

JCM said...

fricative. i like this word, fricative! lol
have you read conrad black's articles? he's someone who writes for the intellectuals out there, uses "witty puns" that perhaps only 5 out there can understand, and basically has sneers down at the commoners who may come across his articles...
well, at least that's the sense i got. lol
anyways, i'm glad we have a J in the english language, cuz i DISPISE being called Yun(g)!

JCM said...

hmmm...was molly's soliloquy written in joyce stream of consciousness style?