Obfuscation, thy name is Lebezyatnikov.

Yesterday I was reading quite a good article about Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment on a perfectly respectable website with an actual editorial board, and I ran across the following astonishing sentence: 

Having asked a man who lives in his building, a young intellectual committed to the “latest ideas” named Lebezyatnikov, for a loan, our clerk is coldly refused with the explanation from his neighbor that “in our era compassion has even been prohibited by science and that this is already being done in England, where they’ve developed political economy.”

In this week's episode of The Habit, I will talk about how not to write sentences like that. It is my policy, in case you are wondering, never to hold up a bad writer to ridicule. This is a bad sentence perpetrated by a good writer whose editor was asleep at the wheel. It can happen to any of us--so remain vigilant!

Enough preliminaries and caveats. Why is the block-quoted sentence above such a disaster? 

When I'm trying to diagnose a bad sentence, I always start with the main subject and main verb (or, in the case of a compound sentence, the main subjects and main verbs). So what are the main subject and verb of this 58-word monstrosity?

Having asked a man who lives in his building, a young intellectual committed to the “latest ideas” named Lebezyatnikov, for a loan, our clerk is coldly refused with the explanation from his neighbor that “in our era compassion has even been prohibited by science and that this is already being done in England, where they’ve developed political economy.”

If you were to diagram this sentence, the main line would consist of those three words in bold--clerk is refused. The other fifty-five words would dangle off that main line in various modifying phrases and clauses.

Now that you have identified the main subject and verb, notice that the subject clerk is the twenty-fourth word of the sentence. That should be a huge red flag. Readers always wants to know who did what: their brains are wired to look for subjects, verbs, and objects. In the sentence above, the writer is asking the reader to process a participial phrase (Having asked...) in which is embedded an adjectival clause (who lives...) and an appositive (a young intellectual) and two more participles (committed and named) BEFORE the reader finds out the subject and main verb of the sentence. And then the main verb is a passive construction!

Subject. Verb. Object. Think in terms of who did what, and unless you have good reason to do otherwise, express actions as verbs (this isn't as self-evident as it seems), and make the actors the grammatical subjects of those verbs. And make sure that your reader doesn't have to work too hard to follow the path from subject through verb to object. 

The block-quoted sentence above goes off the rails early because the writer denies us a traceable path from subject to verb to object in that long opening participial phrase. Who does what in that opening phrase?

     [The clerk] asked a man for a loan.

The clerk is the subject (though we don't know he's the subject until later), asked is the verb, and a man is the object. Technically speaking, for a loan is a prepositional phrase, not an object, but it is integral to the meaning here, so I will treat it as if it were a main-line object rather than a modifier. The sentence, The clerk asked a man for a loan is perfectly clear and understandable. For that matter, Having asked a man for a loan, the clerk is coldly refused is equally clear and understandable, even though the main subject is nine words deep and the verb is passive.

But in the sentence above, look what happens between Having asked a man and the completion of the thought, for a loan:

Having asked a man who lives in his building, a young intellectual committed to the “latest ideas” named Lebezyatnikov, for a loan...

After "having asked a man," the writer asks the reader to hold that thought for fifteen words before telling us what the clerk asked the man for. That's too much to ask. Meanwhile, in the middle of that red fifteen-word stretch, we have a misplaced modifier; for a second there I thought the latest ideas were named Lebezyatnikov. This writer is trying to get so many ideas into one sentence (actually, in this case, into one participial phrase) that modifiers can hardly help but end up misplaced.

Perhaps the most obvious lesson to be learned from this Lebezyatnikov of a sentence is that you don't get extra points for saying everything in one sentence. If an editor had simply told the writer to break this monster into two or three sentences, it would have been an easy fix.

I haven't even gotten to the incoherent quotation that makes up the last 24 words of the sentence. I suspect it's missing some words, but I just can't make myself care. I'm so antagonized by now that I'm in danger of launching a Trumpian tweet-storm if I think too much more about it. This sentence was dead in the water already; that cinder block of a quotation drags it all the way to the muddy bottom of the river.

So here are a few rules of thumb that will help keep you from writing Lebezyatnikovian sentences. These rules aren't comprehensive, and they aren't precise. They are, as I said, rules of thumb:

  1. Get to the main subject and verb sooner rather than later.
  2. Keep the verb close to its subject and the object close to its verb--or, rather, make it easy for your reader to get from subject to verb to object. This goes for all subjects, verbs, and objects, not just those in main clauses.
  3. Keep modifiers close to the words they modify (this is especially true with regard to nouns and their adjectives or adjectival phrases and clauses).
  4. HOWEVER, bear in mind that adverbs and adverbial phrases and clauses enjoy great freedom of movement; moving adverbials around can relieve some of the congestion caused by Rule 3 above. (I realize I didn't touch on this important guideline--maybe in a future issue?)
  5. You can always break a longer sentence into two or more shorter sentences if you need to. There's no tax on periods.

The problem with the Lebezyatnikov sentence is not that it's too long. The problem is that it breaks all of these rules of thumb.

Here is a 46-word sentence that has nine adverbial clauses, a couple of participles, and a couple of prepositional phrases, but it follows Rules 1-4 above (and therefore it doesn't have to bother with Rule 5):
 

This is the man all tattered and torn who kissed the maiden all forlorn who milked the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

Maybe that's not the clearest sentence ever written, but it's a heck of a lot clearer than Lebezyatnikov. If you keep the verbs close to the subjects, the objects close to the verbs, and the modifiers close to the words they modify, length and complexity aren't necessarily a problem.