When a Sentence Is Cruel and Unusually Long

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An article on the Iranian nuclear program in the online paper the Washington Free Beacon tells of a reporter who asked a “senior administration official” about last November’s “Joint Plan of Action” agreement in Geneva. Did it, he inquired, prohibit the Iranians from designing new models of centrifuges? The answer received was:

“We, designing is not, all I would say is the, what you would do with a piece of paper and designing, that’s not the sort of thing that the Joint Plan of Action — the Joint Plan of Action talks about research and development, R&D, and it mainly talks about what was going practices at the Natanz power facility, which is the facility that the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] had access to and where we have reporting on.”

This quotation’s point, I assume, was that it reflects the incoherence of the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran. I, however, found myself reflecting about something else: namely, about how incoherent nearly all of us are when we speak in long sentences — and about how unaware we are of being so, since we rarely see our own words in print. Indeed, even seeing them there doesn’t usually help, because almost always, between what we say and what appears on the printed page, there stand one or more editors whose job it is to clean up the verbal mess we have made. Only infrequently are public remarks reproduced verbatim as they were in this case, usually for satirical purposes.

Consider these remarks for a moment. They begin with “We,” which would appear to be the intended subject of what follows — yet this pronoun lacks a verbal predicate and disappears immediately, to be replaced by “designing,” which becomes the sentence’s new subject. “Designing,” however, is replaced at once by a third subject, the “all” of “all I would say is,” a phrase that breaks off in the middle while yielding to a fourth subject, the predicateless “what” of “what you would do with a piece of paper.” This fourth subject, too, is then dropped, and makes way for a predicateless fifth subject, “the sort of thing,” only to be replaced by a sixth subject, “the Joint Plan of Action,” which has the predicate “talks.” From this point on, the statement proceeds more or less clearly to its end, even though it suffers from noun-verb disagreement (“was going practices” rather than “were going practices”) and illogically doubles its relative pronouns (there is no need for the “where” of “where we have reporting on,” since the “which” of “which is the facility” is sufficient).

This is not what we were taught in school. There we learned that verbs and nouns should agree, that two pronouns shouldn’t be used instead of one, that every sentence has to have a subject followed by a predicate and that although a sentence can have more than one such pair (it is perfectly acceptable to say, “I saw the girl, and she was eating an ice-cream cone while watching the boy as he chased the ball”), these must be logically linked either by a conjunction or an independent/dependent clause construction. A sentence that fulfils these requirements, we were told, is grammatical. One that doesn’t is not.

What our teachers failed to tell us is that grammar is a system of rules for written language that often doesn’t apply to the language we speak. This is something known to anyone who has ever had the unsettling experience of reading an unedited transcript of his or her words. Such a thing first happened to me many years ago, after I took part in a panel discussion that was taped, transcribed and sent to the participants for comments. Reading it, I couldn’t believe my remarks were mine. How could I possibly have started so many thoughts that were never finished, or joined them one to another with no syntactical linkage? I had always prided myself on my articulateness — and yet there was hardly a grammatical sentence in anything I had said!

You don’t really have to read transcripts of yourself to be conscious of this; just pay close attention to the next conversation you have with someone. I can promise you that you’ll hear many things like, “So I was, I mean she, like I didn’t, but who, well, anyway.” There’s nothing particularly aberrant about this. It’s the way we all speak much of the time. The curious thing is that not only don’t we feel there is anything wrong with this as long as we don’t see it on paper or a computer screen, but we generally understand one another fairly well. The same brains that produce seemingly incoherent utterances are able to extract from them, by bringing to bear on them what is known of their speakers and their context, a large measure of coherence. We all, without even noticing we are doing it, constantly correct one another’s speech.

Grammar is an idealized form of speech, not an actual analysis of it. When we write, we try, with one degree or another of success, to live up to these ideals. When we speak, we can’t do that. Luckily for our self-esteem, we’re not often confronted with the results.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com

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When a Sentence Is Cruel and Unusually Long

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