Too simple, too complex

A 2013 post, Embracing complexity, showed how complex sentences can add variety and rhythm — both highly desirable in English. “Complex sentences can make your writing smooth and sophisticated,” I wrote then. As illustrations, several recent passages from student work jumped out at me.

From a late-breaking capstone:
Jazz writer James Hale is also drawn to Coltrane’s sound. He recently published a DownBeat magazine cover story on the 1966 Temple University recording in Philadelphia.
 
The writer could have made these ideas flow more smoothly by combining the two declarative sentences into a complex one:

Jazz writer James Hale, who recently published a DownBeat magazine cover story on the 1966 Temple University recording in Philadelphia, is also drawn to Coltrane’s sound.

Or even:
Jazz writer James Hale,  who is also drawn to Coltrane’s sound, recently published a DownBeat magazine cover story on the 1966 Temple University recording in Philadelphia.
I prefer the first because the main point is that Hale is drawn to Coltrane’s sound, and therefore it should be the main clause. The subordinate clause about his DownBeat article supports that statement.

From a feature:
In the last couple of years, there has been a massive change in Bushwick. Many students, professionals and artists have moved into the neighborhood.
By connecting the two sentences, the writer could have told readers more quickly and fluidly just what that change was:
In the last couple of years, there has been a massive change in Bushwick as many students, professionals and artists have moved into the neighborhood.
Or, tighter:
In the last couple of years, Bushwick has changed as many students, professionals and artists have moved into the neighborhood.
Note that here as indicates time or simultaneity and thus takes no comma. When the conjunctions as, for and since are preceded by a comma, they mean because.

Similarly, from the same story:
Shoppers preferring low-priced items head to Myrtle and Wyckoff Avenues. Independent stores like Hot Boutique, Big Pappa Styles and Max Out have sustained the competition from well-known chains like Mandee, Rainbow and Baby Blue.
Smoother:
Shoppers preferring low-priced items head to Myrtle and Wyckoff Avenues, where independent stores like Hot Boutique, Big Pappa Styles and Max Out have sustained the competition from well-known chains like Mandee, Rainbow and Baby Blue.

The following example isn’t technically a complex sentence, but the principle is the same. In a profile, a student wrote:
Bob Stewart, the director of the journalism program at Ohio University, was Louttit’s advisor. He was heading the media reform movement in the university.
By combining the two phrases identifying Stewart in a double appositive, the writer could have eliminated one clause and made the passage move faster:
Bob Stewart, the director of the journalism program and Louttit’s advisor, was heading the media reform movement in the university.

Devices like complex sentences and appositives should be used judiciously. Especially in early drafts, writers tend to run on, and on, and on. From a Craft story last semester:
The temporary outdoor installation was part of “Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Heritage in Brooklyn,” a walking tour celebrating the 150th anniversary of Weeksville, one of the first free black communities in America, originally established a few blocks away.
That sentence contains a subtitle, two appositives in a row and a participial phrase — in other words, way too much description for one sentence. Give the reader a chance to absorb all that information little at a time. Break up the sentence:
The temporary outdoor installation was part of “Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Heritage in Brooklyn,” a walking tour celebrating the 150th anniversary of Weeksville. One of the first free black communities in America, Weeksville was originally established a few blocks away.

Sometimes even the pros go wrong. From a magazine I write for (though, thankfully, I’m not the perp this time):

In the first hour of the first day of my Princeton University undergraduate seminar, “The Musicals of Stephen Sondheim from Page to Stage,” an elective that attracts students majoring in various subjects such as music, English, engineering and politics (the university doesn’t offer a theatre major but rather a minor-like “certificate”), we analyze “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

That’s 57 words: three clauses, two appositives and at least five prepositional phrases — far more than the average brain can handle in a single sentence. When you see a sentence like that in your own writing, trim it down and break it up:

In the first hour of the first day of my Princeton University undergraduate seminar, “The Musicals of Stephen Sondheim from Page to Stage,” we analyze “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The course is an elective that attracts students majoring in various subjects such as music, English, engineering and politics. (The university doesn’t offer a theatre major but rather a minor-like “certificate.”) 

Better yet, move the second and third sentences down in the story as background, and get to the point.

 

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  1. Running on at the mouth - English for Journalists - May 1, 2015

    […] a sentence should express one complete thought. Yes, complex sentences have dependent clauses, but they contribute to the meaning of the main […]

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