Awkward Construction Versus Narrative Flow

Awkward Construction Versus Narrative Flow

Awkward sentence construction interferes with narrative flow in every kind of prose, from news reporting to fiction. Sometimes it’s unintentional on the part of harried or wooden-eared writers, and sometimes it’s a conscious attempt to adhere to a publication’s “house style.”

Consider this sentence that appeared in a September 8, 2020 CNN opinion piece by Joe Lockhart: “Democrats who support Joe Biden will revel in the portrait Cohen, who was Trump’s personal attorney, paints of his former client, but they’ve already made up their mind on voting for Biden.”

This sentence requires re-reading to determine what exactly Lockhart is trying to say, mainly because of his awkward word-and-phrase order. It would flow more smoothly this way: “Democrats who support Joe Biden have already made up their minds on voting for him. They will still revel in the unflattering portrait painted of Trump by Cohen, the president’s former personal attorney.” Two clear unambiguous sentences convey Lockhart’s opinion better than a clumsy one.

Another CNN news story from the same day does something similar, this one a bit about a rental truck dumping US Postal Service mail in a parking lot: US Postal Service employees weren’t involved in the dumping of bags, Omar Gonzalez, the Western Regional Coordinator for the American Postal Workers Union, told CNN.”

Why is “told CNN” dangling at the end of this sentence? 

This bit of info might have been better stated this way: US Postal Service employees weren’t involved in the dumping of bags, according to Omar Gonzalez, Western Regional Coordinator for the American Postal Workers Union,” or Western Regional Coordinator for the American Postal Workers Union Omar Gonzalez told CNN that US Postal Service employees weren’t involved in the dumping of bags.” Compared to the original, there are two or three more elegant ways to construct this sentence.

Most egregious in the awkward construction department is The New Yorker, queen bee of old-school American literary publications. You won’t see awkward construction in any of its superb capsule reviews of plays, movies, restaurants, or art exhibits, because such reviews are written to convey the maximum amount of information in the shortest possible length—and with maximum entertainment value. Nor will you see it in any of the magazine’s one- or two-page humor or opinion pieces, for the same reason. 

But awkward construction rears its ugly head in almost every long-form New Yorker feature story. A fictitious example: “‘Such a soggy day,’ Melanie, who was standing at the corner of 51st and Broadway, wearing a yellow slicker and expensive sunglasses, said.” 

Why are “Melanie,” the subject of the sentence, and “said,” the subject’s verb, widely separated by so much intervening prose? Furthermore, the way this is written, it implies that the corner of 51st and Broadway is wearing the yellow slicker and expensive sunglasses. This ungainly arrhythmic approach stops readers in their tracks, but it appears in almost every New Yorker feature, to such an extent that we can only assume that the magazine’s copy editors alter submitted pieces to make them conform to house style.

The description of Melanie might be better expressed thus: “In a yellow slicker and expensive sunglasses, Melanie stood at the corner of 51st and Broadway. ‘Such a soggy day,’ she said.”

Simple, clean, logical, and easy to read. 

Just because you see a convoluted style repeated in a publication as esteemed as The New Yorker doesn’t mean that it’s right. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you should imitate it. Language is an auditory phenomenon. Should you ever doubt the narrative flow of one of your pieces, read it aloud. Previously unseen stylistic road bumps and potholes will leap out at you.