Paen to the Period

Posted: Jan 02, 2006 9:15 AM


That poor, pathetic, defenseless little dot is called a period. It is the abandoned child of writers who cannot bear to shut up. The New York Times has a whole stable of them.

"COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Survivors of the gigantic undersea earthquake on Sunday that swallowed coastlines from Indonesia to Africa -- which officials now describe as one of the worst national disasters in recent history -- recovered bodies on Tuesday, hurriedly arranged for mass burials and searched for tens of thousands of the missing in countries thousands of miles apart."

That was the lead paragraph in a Timesman's dispatch from Southeast Asia a year ago: one sentence, 53 words, 13 prepositional phrases, one unpronounceable adverb. Readers of the Times were as swamped as the victims in Colombo.

First, a disclaimer: Nothing is intrinsically wrong with a long sentence. Every professional writer has written thousands of lucid ones. What prompts today's cranky column is the portmanteau sentence in which a writer tries to pack everything. Clauses, phrases and unnecessary modifiers hang out like so many socks. Must everything be said at once?

Last March a Times critic reviewed a biography of John Adams. He wrote:

"In this urbane, gracefully written biography, James Grant wages the kind of tough, uphill battle that his tough-minded subject would appreciate, acknowledging Adams' weaknesses and character flaws, appraising his political blunders coolly but in the end leaving the reader with a richer appreciation of the Adams that Abigail and Jefferson saw, a man of firm principles who, for most of his very long life, labored tirelessly for the country-in-the-making whose future he never doubted, even when those around him wavered and trembled."

Last year the Times' man in London wrote about a summer concert series in the Royal Albert Hall. He noted that critic Andrew Porter had called it "the world's greatest music festival." Then he plunged into syntactic goo:

"Eight years into the regime of Mr. Porter's former assistant critic at The New Yorker, Nicholas Kenyon, and with the completion of a 10-year renovation of the hall and five straight nights of what looked on paper to be quite remarkable concerts were enough to lure one visitor abroad."

The subject of that lousy sentence, I believe, was "eight years." The predicate, I guess, was probably "were enough."

In the swamps of verbosity, the Times has plenty of soppy company. The New Yorker last month let its readers stumble over 11 commas in a single paragraph about Washington's Great Leak:

"The Justice Department investigation, which began in the early fall of 2003, and which a special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, took over that December, last Friday produced the indictment on five charges, including perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements, of Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, who resigned."

Not content with a "which" coupled clumsily to "and which," the writer later in the piece coupled another "which" to a "but which." Then he tacked a "that" clause to an "and that" clause and a "who" clause to an "and who" clause. He watered his garden of insights with a slow drizzle of dashes.

Famed architect Mies van der Rohe had a great motto: "Less is more." It works for writers, too.