'Trippingly on the Tongue'

Posted: Mar 10, 2007 11:22 AM

"Speak the speech, I pray you," said Hamlet to his Players, "as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue ..."

The melancholy Dane thus provided a text for today's reflections on the writing art. The best writing subtly responds to the natural rhythms all around us. Often the addition or deletion of a single syllable will lift a sentence from the pedestrian to the pleasing. The tricks of cadence can be irkingly overdone, but they also can be remarkably effective.

All this came to mind the other day. I was cleaning out some files and came across a book review torn from The New York Times in 2003. The book dealt with famous courtesans of the 19th century. I had marked a long sentence that began:

"Ladies of the night, as they were once quaintly called, may have come out of the shadows of the archways under which they skulked ..."

Suppose, to be supposing, that we were editing that copy. Our job is to preserve the reviewer's meaning intact. Our concern is not for her opinion but for her syntax. The sentence had a bump in it. Suppose we reverse the order of only two words, so that the sentence will begin, "Ladies of the night, as they once were quaintly called ..."

The meaning has not been altered in the slightest, but the irksome bump is gone. We read trippingly about the ladies who ONCE were QUAINT-ly CALLED.

It is a sound rule of prose composition to avoid a traffic jam of modifiers. A columnist for The Washington Post bruised the rule last May in a piece about the return of Mel Krupin, a colorful figure on the local restaurant scene: "He sold his old place in 1999, leaving a void in the wisecracking restaurateur world."

There was nothing seriously wrong with that sentence. The meaning was instantly evident. But suppose we tinker with it -- just a little -- so that now it reads, "leaving a void in the world of the wisecracking restaurateur." We have added two words, "of" and "the," and we have rescued an honest noun, "restaurateur," from a horrid fate. It was being dragooned into service as an adjective! And the revised sentence now falls trippingly from the tongue.

One more, this time from Legal Affairs magazine two years ago. The author was looking back to the time of Justinian in the sixth century. The great emperor's rule restored some of the Roman empire's fading glory: "A mark of his triumph, the stunning Hagia Sofia cathedral that he constructed, still soars in the Istanbul skyline."

It was a good sentence, but it founders in the final few words: "... that he constructed, still soars in the Istanbul skyline." The syllables pile up, lose their footing, stumble over one another. There are lumps in this porridge! Once again, a noun -- this time, a proper noun -- has been dragooned into service as an adjective.

Let us fiddle: "... cathedral that he built, still soars above the roofs of Istanbul." Or perhaps, "above the red-tiled roofs of Istanbul." (The second alternative would work, of course, only if those roofs of Istanbul are in fact red-tiled. I last saw them 30 years ago. Such details can't be faked. Some attentive reader of Legal Affairs magazine would have just returned from the Bosporus a week ago. Let us not get carried away by the lyric charms of cadenced prose.)

One more: A columnist for The Washington Post last year reviewed the 121st annual dinner of the city's Gridiron Club. To those who don't live in the capital, he said, the white-tie affair "must seem as alien as a Masai initiation rite." Again, we have a pile-up of nouns and adjectives. Would the sentence have been improved by editing it to read, "the initiation rites of a Masai tribe"? I leave it to your ears.