kitchen table math, the sequel: a jumbled sentence

Saturday, March 31, 2012

a jumbled sentence

Here is a jumbled student sentence cited by Carol Jago in her book Cohesive Writing: Why Concept Is Not Enough:
To just stop and look at things, ideas and even if you don't like them, or they scare you, stop and explore them you will be a knowledgeable person and make good decisions because you will know all the bad and all the good about the situation.
I've got to get Katharine to come tell us what's going on here. This may be what she calls a left-handed sentence, although I'm not sure.

From Legal Writing Tips:
Sentences that place an excessive amount of qualifying (or descriptive) information before the main subject and its verb are called “left-handed” sentences by LeClercq.


LeClercq says that left-handed sentences are the hardest sentences to read because readers have difficulty processing introductory dependent material before they have a context for it. Readers are forced to read through the introductory material, hold it in abeyance, and then place those introductory words in context.

Consider the following sentence that LeClercq provides as an example:
Based on a review of the material regarding the Worker’s Compensation Joint Insurance Fund that resulted in the Agency’s granting of an exemption for a similar fund in 1984 and the material submitted by the expert at our meeting, in my opinion the above-captioned funds meet the requirements for exemption as a government entity organization.
To reach the point of this sentence, readers have to absorb 39 words before the beginning of the main clause - and the main subject is still hidden behind the superfluous phrase “in my opinion.”
That is one whopper of an impossible sentence to read, I must say.

But it's not jumbled!


Catherine Johnson said...

Assuming I understand what a left-handed sentence is (and I may not), I don't think this student is trying to write one. I think she's trying to write one or more introductory clauses.

Anonymous said...

I've read the sentence over several times, and still can't make heads or tails of it.

palisadesk said...

Catherine's first example is not a sentence, it is a sentence fragment.

Jen said...

12:16 -- you're not a teacher, are you? ;-) This sort of decoding is a major skill of grading (and aiming toward improved) writing!

The sentence is trying to say that looking at the pros and cons of an idea will lead to better decisions.

See? You have to stop and look at the ideas that you don't like or find scary and consider them. You want to be able to say you know the good and bad points related to the situation. Then you will have educated yourself enough to make a good decision.

It's as though someone just wrote down two or three different ways to say the same thing and never bothered to consolidate or clarify or put in a comprehensible order.

Crimson Wife said...

I would rewrite it this way:

"You will be a knowledgeable person if you just stop and look at things, regardless of whether you dislike them, or they scare you. Stop and explore them. Doing this will allow you to make good decisions, because you will know all the bad and all the good about the situation."

There may be a way to get the author's point across in a single sentence, but I think it is much easier to read when broken up into multiple sentences.

Auntie Ann said...

CW has the key word. An "if" is definitely needed. Keeping it almost as it is, but adding in an "if" or two, I'd rewrite it:

If you just stop and look at things or ideas, and even if you don't like them--or if they scare you--if you stop and explore them, you will be a knowledgeable person and make good decisions, because you will know all the bad and all the good about the situation.

Runs on a bit with that "because" clause at the end.

Glen said...

Natural language is primarily a tool for interactive, spoken communication. When we converse, we mix facial expressions, pauses, vocal emphasis, gestures, etc., with chunks of words and sounds that together work to exchange information and influence one another.

These word chunks are not sequenced to produce proper sentences; they're sequenced to steer the thinking of the listener to follow the speaker's train of thought in the context of the situation, the parallel non-verbal communication, and the stream of feedback.

This system works great in its normal context, but if you strip away everything but the words, the sequence of word chunks can seem like gibberish. Learning to write requires learning to produce sequences of words that can stand alone.

Your first quote and your second have different problems. The first writer doesn't know how to write and is just trying to speak on paper. The slowness of writing makes things worse, as his thoughts evolve more quickly than he can write them down. The resulting sentence is just a concatenation of snapshots of his train of thought. The key to understanding his quote is to read it quickly without worrying about the details.

The second writer follows the formal rules of writing but violates the natural principles of cognition. The key to understanding his quote is to read it slowly and pay close attention to the details.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

The jumbled sentence looks like the sort of thing that a lot of kids write on the SAT essay. If someone hasn't totally mastered what a sentence is, they'll just crash in a timed situation. While plenty of kids learn to intuit basic grammatical rules even without studying them formally, a lot of them do not. Someone who writes like that needs be drilled repeatedly on the components of a sentence. They literally just have no concept of what is and is not allowed.

Anonymous said...

@ Jen -

Actually, I am a teacher: in math, where I rarely have to deal with such tortured syntax, thankfully.

But I also do ESL tutoring, which has given me a fair amount of experience in decoding doozies. Most of the time I am able to intuit what my students had intended to say and thus am able to give them insight into how better to express themselves in English. Even so, there are sometimes where I just have to come back at them and admit, "I'm sorry, I have absolutely no idea what you're trying to say here" ;)

Katharine Beals said...

The writer starts out with a sentential subject ("To just stop and look at things even if you don't like them or they scare you") which contains a dependent "even if"-clause at the end. By the time the sentential subject ends, however, the writer appears to have forgotten that that's how he or she started the sentence. Instead, he or she seems to be think that now (with the words "stop and explore them") s/he is within the scope of a broad-scope "if-clause" ("if you... stop and explore them").

So I'd say what's going on is a combination of (1) forgetting where you are in the course of composing a complex sentence, and (2) failing to revise that sentence. The former happens a fair amount in speech (which is much more garbled than we realize); the latter is only an issue (for some of the reasons Glen notes) for writing!

Glen said...

The sentence isn't jumbled per se, it's incoherent. The parts don't fit together, not because they are out of sequence, but because they are inconsistent with one another.

Speech is a real-time process, like chasing a housefly. You don't usually organize a large-scale campaign; you just do what seems best at each moment. Maintaining a larger-scale consistency is not necessary.

But writing requires learning to create word structures that are coherent (and effective) at larger scales than anything conversation prepares us for.

I suspect that this writer was not raised on linguistically challenging reading material---the kind that would force him to pay close, explicit attention to complex sentence structures.

But then, how many kids are these days? What a coincidence that, as reading difficult prose has fallen out of favor, the ability of freshmen college students to write has plummeted.