Saturday, February 4, 2012
While preparing for a field trip, I packed duplicates of all key pieces of equipment.
In this post, I'll talk about a subordinating sentence structure that does not immediately jump to the pay-off as the sentence above does, but instead builds through several beats before arriving at the key point. Taking the sentence above, I'll try to delay the reader a bit by adding an intervening phrase:
While preparing for a field trip and remembering previous disastrous excursions in which a critical instrument was smashed by a careless student, I packed duplicates of all key pieces of equipment.
What this construction has done is to provide more context to the sentence–a personal history, which explains the narrator's current behavior when preparing for field trips. As well as being more informative, it's a far more interesting sentence. Can we extend this exercise further and add more to this sentence?
While preparing for a field trip and remembering previous disastrous excursions in which a critical instrument was smashed by a careless student and Murphy's Law that "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong", I packed duplicates of all key pieces of equipment.
Now as the reader progresses through the sentence, she is taken on a short trip into the past (previous disastrous excursions) and then reminded of an aphorism (Murphy's Law), which is well known to field biologists. The reader pauses at that point, reflecting on this apropos saying and perhaps her own experiences along these lines. Next, the reader arrives at the subject of the sentence (I) and finally the narrator's solution to the problem.
My example is not precisely like the examples Fish uses; he interposes the delaying phrases between the subject and verb. Here is an example of mine that does just that:
As she reached the top of the rise and looked at the vista–high desert surrounded by distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun–her horse, having steadfastly borne her across raging rivers and down steep embankments, stumbled.
What this sentence style accomplishes is to provide a much richer and more complex reading experience for the reader. Imagine if this sentence were instead written as a series of simpler statements:
She reached the top of the rise and looked at the vista.
She saw high desert surrounded by distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun.
Her horse had borne her across raging rivers and down steep embankments.
Or one that describes only the basic action:
As she reached the top of the rise, her horse stumbled.
Not at all the same reading experience. The more complex sentence first lulls the reader into a sense of complacency by describing a majestic scene (the high desert and distant peaks), then curiously introduces another subject (her horse). Then there is a phrase describing the horse's past performance (taking the reader back in time). And finally we get to the key action (stumbled), which suddenly changes everything–the rider is now in danger. Once you understand the structure and how it's accomplished, starting with a basic, simple phrase or short sentence, it's relatively easy to duplicate. I found this exercise to be one of the more useful bits of insight I gleaned from Fish's book.
Such sentences, however, violate the advice of technical writing experts, which is to avoid interrupting the subject-verb or verb-object relationship with intervening words or phrases. The technical writer is aiming for clarity and succinctness, and by putting words and phrases between these sentence elements, the writer muddies the water, so to speak. The reader of a technical paper is wanting information to be provided in a clear and unambiguous manner–not to be entertained.
As I write about this exercise, however, I realize that scientists and students of science are masters at writing such sentences:
"A broad treatment of optical bistability, including all the steady-state and transient characteristics of nonlinear optical systems which exhibit bistability under some operating conditions, is presented."
That's not the worst example, but illustrates my point. Such sentences are common in scientific papers; it took me all of 3 seconds to find this one on Google Scholar. I've written previously about how to improve the comprehension of scientific writing. In those posts, I provide exercises to take such convoluted sentences and rewrite them in a more understandable fashion.
To summarize, using the subordinating phrase to delay the reader from getting to the sentence's payoff can greatly enrich one's writing style. Although this style may not work well in the purely technical paper, it might be useful in nature writing or other semi-technical writing where the author is trying to both inform and entertain.