Writing plainly or writing plain English may be easier said than done. And plain words are easier to master than plain sentences. There is a fine line between plainness and sophistication, and a finer one between sophistication and incomprehensibility.

Among those shortlisted for TLS’s first Mario Ortiz Robles Prize for Incomprehensibility (2011) is this sentence (yes, one sentence) from the essay ‘Reading Skin Signs’ by JeremyRedlich (in Performative Body Spaces, ed. Markus Hallensleben):

Working with selected texts by the Japanese-born author Yoko Tawada, who writes in both Japanese and German, I examine how the contours or boundaries of the body cannot be taken for granted as biological givens, but rather how these boundaries are continuously in a process of materialization, subject to the cultural, social and linguistic impressions that mark the bodily boundary, namely skin, as a surface that is coded and decoded like any other text.

A perfectly grammatical and syntactically well-balanced sentence, its qualification for the year’s top honour in English writing, courtesy of the twisted humour of TLS, is due to three things: prolixity, embeddedness and academic jargons. As only a small number of writers of English belong to the elitist club of the academicians, a better understanding of the first two things will make us a lot more comfortable with our medium.

An English sentence is inherently capable of going on forever and attaching to itself various forms of add-on that give it an onion-like structure. Let’s look at the following sentence from Kingsley Amis (in The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage):

The most serious objection to the use of hopefully in a dangling position, often signaled by a following comma, is not that it is not good English, though it is not, nor that it is a trendy usage, though it is, nor even that the thing remains obstinately afloat after many well-aimed salvoes of malediction, but that it is dishonest.

The 60-word sentence is not particularly prolix by the standard of English. But because of its abstract subject and the many enfolded negatives its meaning may appear obscure at first sight. Coming to such labyrinthine constructions, one must go back firmly to the basics—identify the main sentence, ascertain what the pronouns refer to, know which parts are subordinate clauses or phrases (each of which may have its own subordinate clauses or phrases, potentially ad infinitum).

Reduced to a bare subject-predicate structure, Amis’s sentence looks like:

The most serious objection to the use of hopefully in a dangling position is not A nor B nor C but D.

At least the comprehension of this no-frill sentence is humanly possible.

Next, the pronoun ‘it’, which occurs five times throughout the sentence, refers to one thing, namely:

The use of hopefully in a dangling position (with the adjectival phrase ‘often signaled by a following comma’)

What A, B, C and D stand for are:

A = it is not good English (with the adverbial clause ‘though it is not’)

B = it is a trendy usage (with the adverbial clause ‘though it is’)

C = the thing remains obstinately afloat (with the adverbial phrase ‘after many well-aimed salvoes of malediction’)

D = it is dishonest

Note the functions of ‘that’ and the double commas. The former cues the objection (to the use of hopefully in a dangling position) to be called up for consideration. The latter delineates the clause or phrase that modifies what precedes immediately. In Amis’s exegetical sentence of the word hopefully, not one bit is superfluous and not one bit is dispensable.

This article was originally published in No. 484, Newsletter in Oct 2016.

sentence writing