Let’s Deconstruct a Very Bad Sentence

A Very Bad SentenceToday, we are going to consider a very bad sentence. And it was written by a really smart guy.

When people tell me I’m smart or knowledgeable, I tend to scoff at them. It isn’t false humility. I do know that in an absolute sense, I’m quite smart and knowledgeable. But I’ve spent most of my adult life in a social group where I am accepted because of creativity rather than my pure intellectual fire power. I can normally keep up with others, but I’d have to put myself in the bottom half of the group. One person who is really smart and knowledgeable, by my way of looking at it, is Corey Robin.

A couple of weeks ago, Robin wrote, When Advertising Is Action: Clarence Thomas Channels Hannah Arendt and Friedrich Von Hayek. It’s often the case that he writes things that tax my intellect. This is one of the reasons I hold him in such high regard. If I can just stick with him, I learn things. And, of course, he isn’t just smart; he’s a creative thinker; he doesn’t bore me.

The Very Bad Sentence

But he ended this article with such a bad sentence that I had to say something. I don’t present it to make him look bad, of course. He’s writing on a blog. I would hate for anyone to judge my writing (much less my editing) on the basis of my blog. But the sentence presents a great pedagogical opportunity that I just can’t pass up. Plus, it is something I run into all the time while editing:

Whether and how he thinks it relates to these other political arts — Is it meant to be a substitution for those political arts, such that the First Amendment, in protecting commercial speech, finds or identifies a new realm of political action in the sphere of the economy? — remains to be seen.

There are lots of little things that make this a bad sentence. For example, there is needless repetition. Why would one write “finds or identifies”? Either that’s some kind of legal distinction or a verbal tick. But what most makes it a bad sentence is its structure.

What’s Wrong

It’s a long sentence: 51 words, if I counted correctly. That in itself is not a problem. One can write very long sentences that are clear. But in this case, there are two sentences put together in the most confusing manner possible. The base sentence is perfectly understandable, “Whether and how he thinks it relates to these other political arts remains to be seen.” And that would be a fine way to end his article.

Fixing the Sentence

But in the middle of the sentence, he asks a question that muddles up the whole thing. It would be different if it were a simple question. But it is quite a complex sentence that can’t be interjected this way. If he wishes to retain the overall structure, he needs to break it up into a number of sentences. The way I look at this kind of writing is that at the end of every sentence, there is an unstated question, “Got that?” The reader should be able to answer yes every time.

So he can start in roughly the same way: how does he think it relates to these other political arts. And he can end the same: it remains to be seen. But he can’t expect the reader to remember what it is that remains to be seen (at least without rereading the sentence). So that’s the first change that needs to be made — if he wants to maintain the overall structure (which I think is a mistake).

The middle section needs to be cleaned up. It is the part of the sentence that makes me uncertain of the sentence’s meaning. Is he saying one or two things? I think it is one. I think he means this, “Is it meant to be a substitution for those political arts, such that the First Amendment, in protecting commercial speech — finds or identifies a new realm of political action in the sphere of the economy?” But I still think that deserves two sentences.

A Better “Sentence”

I propose the following sentence:

We don’t know how he thinks it relates these other political arts — or even if it does relate. Is it meant to be a substitution for those political arts — such that the First Amendment — in protecting commercial speech? Will he find a new realm of political action in the sphere of the economy? How he thinks it relates to these political arts remains to be seen.

Yes, this paragraph is now 15 words longer than the original one-sentence paragraph. But it is far more clear. It only requires one read-through. None of it is great, but it doesn’t include one bad sentence. And you can see how the unstated “Got that?” works after every sentence. And if we put a “Got that?” at the end of the paragraph, I think we can truthfully answer yes. That wasn’t true with Robin’s original sentence/paragraph.

I may have changed the meaning of what Corey Robin originally wrote. But that simply makes the case that his sentence was not well constructed to start with. This is about more than a bad sentence. When you are a great thinker like Corey Robin, what you most want is clarity. And that may be why I noticed why this was such a bad sentence. I want to know what he has to say. I wouldn’t have cared if I were reading a lesser mind.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Deconstruct a Very Bad Sentence

  1. Greenwald sometimes gets bogged down in sentences, too. And Dr. Noam, hero to me he is, is often borderline unreadable. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard when one’s mind is that laser-focused (yours is impressive, but a bit in-between-channels signal-wonky, which is what I enjoy about your writing. Naomi Klein ain’t gonna write 2000 words on Tiny Tim anytime soon.)

    • It all comes down to the need for editors. Everyone needs an editor. Even if you can stand to edit yourself, you can’t do it properly. I’ve never noticed anything bad from Chomsky, but he is a boring writer. Greenwald, on the other hand, can be quite colorful. Check out this article on plagiarism for one nice example.

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