Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — The Perfectly Bad Sentence |
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The Perfectly Bad Sentence

In writing, to reach the depths of badness, it isn’t enough to be banal. One must strive for lower things. Almost five years have gone by since I cut out from a British newspaper the article containing the following passage, and I think I am finally ready to examine the subtleties of its perfection. But first, let the reader judge its initial impact.

"Now, the onus is on Henman to come out firing at Ivanisevic, the wild card who has torn through this event on a wave of emotion..."
— Neil Harman, Sunday Telegraph sports section, front page, July 8th, 2001

Time has elapsed, Tim Henman has dropped out of big-time tennis altogether after never sticking long in the top five, the original clipping has gone a mellow colour at the edges, and the featured sentence is at last ready to be analysed, as a fine wine slowly makes itself ready to be tasted. Ivanisevic aside, there are two men involved here: Henman and Harman. One is a tennis player, and one writes about tennis. It is Mr Harman, I think, who is better equipped for his career. Tim Henman was always a bit too lightly built in the chest and shoulders. Mr Harman has what it takes to go on serving his clichés and solecisms with undiminished strength for ever. But let’s take a look at how he does it — or how he did it, on the day that no spectator of bad writing will ever forget. At this point the reader should scan the sentence once again, slowly, as with an action replay.

An “onus” is a weight, but the word has been so long in the language that its derivation can safely be left for dead: Shakespeare himself would have no quarrel there. For Henman “to come out firing”, however, is borderline at best. We can leave it neutral, but would prefer to know why the metaphor is military. Baudelaire, in Mon cœur mis à nu, warned us that journalists with a fondness for military metaphors were proving their un-warlike nature. For all we know, Baudelaire’s stricture fails to fit Mr Harman, who might have been in the SAS before he turned journalist. We can’t help suspecting, though, that Mr Harman has no accurate picture in his mind of what sort of weapons Tim Henman might be firing at Ivanisevic. The writer simply means that the British tennis player is behaving aggressively. But then we find that the British tennis player is behaving aggressively towards a wild card. The wild card, again, is a metaphor that can be left for dead: it was brought in from gambling for use in tennis, but we court pedantry if we ask for it to be brought alive. All we can ask for is that it be not too grotesquely transfigured in its death: the corpse should not be mutilated. If a wild card tears through something, it should not be on a wave of emotion. Suddenly the British tennis player weighed down with his unnamed weapons is attacking a wild card that has become a surfer. And the sentence isn’t even over.

But neither is its impact, which has only just begun. Speaking as one whose flabber is hard to gast, I’m bound to say I was floored. Not bound in the sense of being tied up with ropes by a burglar, or floored in the sense of having tipped my chair over while trying to reach the telephone with my teeth: I mean floored in the sense of having my wings clipped. One of my convictions about the art of composing a prose sentence in English is that for some of its potential metaphorical content to be realised, the rest must be left dormant. You can’t cash in on the possibilities of every word. In poetry you do more of that than in prose, but even in poetry, pace Baudelaire, you must concentrate your forces to fight your battles, and there is no concentrating your forces in one place without weakening them in another — a fact that Field Marshal von Manstein vainly tried to point out to Hitler.

To achieve conscious strength in one area, we must will a degree of inattention in other areas: such has been my conclusion from long experience. But here, from out of the blue, is a sentence that demonstrates how the whole construction can be inattentive, and achieve an explosive integrity through its having not been pondered at all. Imagine the power of being that free! Imagine being able to use a well-worn epithet like “out of the blue” without checking up on whether its implied clear sky comes into conflict with a storm later in the sentence, or whether it chimes too well, but in the wrong way, with a revelation in the previous sentence that the person being talked about once rowed for Oxford or Cambridge! Imagine not having to worry about “explosive integrity”! Imagine, just imagine, what it would be like to get on with the writing and leave all the reading to the reader!

Too late. I missed the wave, perhaps because I was carrying too many weapons. A kind of wild card myself, I might have ridden my potato-chip surf-board more easily if I had not been burdened with all my onerous ordnance. The mine detector, especially, was the straw that broke the camel’s back — or, as Mr Harman might have put it, was the bridge too far. At high school in Sydney I was taught not just to parse a sentence but to make sure than any pictures it evoked matched up. Our teacher, Mr Aked, was not a professional philologist, but like all people with an ear for language he was a philologist at heart. He taught us enough Latin roots to make us realise that etymology was a force in the language, and the more likely to be a confusing force the less it was recognized. He didn’t make it all fun. Some of it was hard work. But he made the hard work satisfactory, which is the beginning of good teaching, and I suppose that period was my one and only beginning of good learning: that I began to become the student I would be in later years, long after I had proved that formal study was not my gift.

It was also, alas, the beginning of my suffering. My antennae for linguistic anomaly were extended and I could never afterwards draw them in. Even today, half a century later, I can’t use a word like “antennae” without first picturing in my mind what kind of antennae I mean. Are they metal antennae, like the basket-work arrays of a radar station, or are they fleshly antennae, as on a bug? Having decided, I try to make something else in the sentence match up, so as not to leave the word lying inert, because it is too fancy a word to be left alone, while not fancy enough to claim its own space. Having finished the piece, I comb through it (what kind of comb?) to look for what I overlooked: almost always it will be a stretch of too-particular writing, where the urge to make everything vivid gets out of hand. But I will still question what kind of urge gets out of hand, and I might even have to look up the origin of “out of hand”, to make sure it has nothing to do with wild cards.

Purple patches call attention to themselves and are easily dealt with by the knife. The freckle-sized blotches of lifeless epithet, unintended repetition and clueless tautology are what do the damage. In the first rough draft of this piece, in the first paragraph after the quotation from Mr Harman, I had a clause, which I later struck out, that ran thus: “with the bonus of its proud owner’s barely suppressed grief.” But “barely suppressed” is the kind of grief that any journalist thinks a subtle stroke; and, even less defensibly, “bonus” echoes “onus”, one of the key words of the fragment under discussion. All that could be said for my use of “bonus” was that I used it without tautology. In journalism, the expression “added bonus” is by now almost as common as it is in common speech. (My repetition of “common” is intentional, and the reason you know is that you know I must know, because the repeated word comes so soon.)

Too many times, on the way to Australia by air, the helpless passenger will be informed over the public address system that his Qantas flight is “co-shared” with British Airways. The tautology is a mere hint of how the Australian version of English is rapidly accumulating new tautologies as if they were coinages: as an Australian police officer might say, it is a prior warning. If the language goes on decaying at this rate, an essay consisting entirely of errors is on the cards. In the television studio it is already on autocue. (In America I could have said “cue-cards” for “autocue” and got a nice intentional echo to make “on the cards” sound less uninspired, but it would have been unfair: American English is the version of the language least prone to error at present — or, as the Americans would say, at this time.) But when all the nits are picked, and the piece is in shape and ready to be printed, one can’t help feeling that to be virtuous is a hard fate. Most of the new errors I couldn’t make if I tried. In the Melbourne Age for August 27th, 2001, an article that it took two women to write included the sentence “The size of the financial discrepancies were discovered.” I couldn’t match the joyous freedom of that just by relaxing.

What I would like to do, however, is relax my habitual attention to the sub-current of metaphorical content. Most of the really hard work is done down there, deep under the surface, where the river runs in secret. (Watch out for the sub-current and the river! Do they match?) No doubt it would be a sin just to let things go, but what a sweet sin it would be. It is sometimes true of poetry, and often true of prose, that there are intensities of effect which can be produced only by bad writing. Good writing has to lay out an argument for the collapse of a culture. Bad writing can demonstrate it: the scintillating clangour of confusion, the iridescent splendour of decay. A box of hoarded fireworks set off at random will sacrifice its planned sequential order, but gain through its fizzing, snaking, interweaving unpredictability.

The handcart of culture has to go a long way downhill before the hubs wobbling on its worn axles can produce a shriek like Mr Harman’s prose. You will have noticed how, in my previous paragraph, I have switched my area of metaphor from chaos to decay, and then from pyrotechnics back to chaos. I would like to think that this process was deliberate, although there is always a chance that I undertook it in response to a reflex: the irrepressible urge to turn an elementary point into a play of fancy. If it is a reflex, however, I hope it lurks in a deeper chamber than my compositional centre, and so leaves room for conscious reflection.

Mr Harman’s reflex occupies his whole mind. But he should worry: look at what he can do without pausing for thought. In his classic sentence, Mr Harman does not commit a single technical error. It is on a sound grammatical structure that he builds his writhing, art nouveau edifice of tangled imagery, as if Gaudi, in Barcelona, had coated his magic church of the Sagrada Familia with scrambled eggs, and made them stick. Mr Harman has made a masterpiece in miniature. There is an exuberant magnificence to it. As Luciano Pavarotti once said, I salute him from the heart of my bottom.

(The Monthly, January 2008)


After the turn of the millennium, when I finally began the actual writing, so long put off, of the book that was eventually called Cultural Amnesia, I spent about a year collecting examples of misused language in the newspapers and the periodicals. A year was more than enough and I had to abandon the practice, lest I give way to that weird cocktail of depression and self-loathing that comes from irritability too often driven to its limit. I also abandoned my plans of incorporating into the book a long section that would demonstrate how our beloved tongue had gone to the dogs. For one thing, a few pages would be enough to prove it, and for another, the theme looked petty beside the twentieth-century political tragedies which provided the book’s fulcrum — if a fulcrum can be something spread out over almost a thousand pages. Outside the world of my book, however, in the real world which persisted in maintaining its separate course, the written language continued to fall to bits, so that the once glitteringly busy traffic of the up-market British newspapers on the weekends began to look like a demolition derby. It therefore seemed only like duty, over the course of the next few years, to take some of my annotated examples out of their low-tech cardboard file and work them up into separate essays, in the hope that I might deploy them as weapons in a counter-campaign against (and here I employ the kind of mixed metaphor that was becoming increasingly prevalent) the tsunami of decay.

For anyone who volunteers to fight in this doomed battle it is important, I think, to distinguish between mere bad grammar and more elevated bad writing. The question of bad grammar I tried to cover, or at any rate make a start on, in the first of the two preceding essays. But bad writing often doesn’t need bad grammar to make it awful. It can be awful even while keeping all the formal rules. A perfectly bad sentence, indeed, can be an intricate miracle of ostensibly correct construction. Often, indeed, it’s the mandarin elevation of the approach that leads to the disaster, as a new ambassador bowing himself elaborately backwards out of the monarch’s presence might end up in a broom cupboard. There are reasons to think that the urge to accident-prone highfalutin’ is an aspect of personality.

As I know from my own time in broadcasting, it takes a degree of egocentricity to feel that one has a natural affinity with a microphone. People eager to get on air are often bent on impressing you with their superiority, and the rule applies all the way down to those whose only access to broadcasting is a public address system associated with some means of transport. Many an announcer on a British train is as stilted in his diction as a minor Victorian novelist, and there must be something about the atmosphere of an airport that drives would-be broadcasters to the heights of rhetorical bravura. At Stansted one afternoon I heard a strident female voice warn all of us under the terminal’s elegant metal roof that any car left incorrectly parked outside would be ‘subject to a towing procedure’. You couldn’t say that the announcement was grammatically incorrect. Semantically, however, you yourself would never have thought of saying it at all. It’s a whole new language, closely based on ours yet infinitely foreign, like a penthouse hotel suite in Dubai.