Walk away from this sentence

A colleague called my attention to the following sentence in the article “Trudeau gives his definition of ‘national interest’: Chris Hall”:

Why is Justin Trudeau investing so much in a single pipeline that his officials met on Friday in Toronto with Kinder Morgan executives, who issued the threat to abandon the project while the prime minister was travelling to a vigil in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, for the hockey players and others killed in that tragic bus accident, and who can still walk away from it on May 31 if they aren’t satisfied?

If you’re left reeling and trying to figure out if it’s saying the hockey players killed in the bus accident can still walk away from it, you’re not alone. And yet the sentence is perfectly grammatical and makes sense – once you take it apart and set the pieces on the table. Which is not to say it should have been published as it was.

Let’s start by making it a fun exercise in field-stripping a sentence.

The main clause is easy to grab hold of, because the whole sentence starts with Why is, which means there has to be a question mark at the end (there is). The subject is Justin Trudeau and the main verb (not the inflected verb, that’s the auxiliary is, which has been raised because it’s a question) is the present participle investing. The object is so much, and the verb is also modified by in a single pipeline. The rest of the huge sentence is inside a subordinate clause introduced by that and modifying the is investing verb phrase.

So the main thing, unmodified, in its underlying form, is Justin Trudeau is investing so much {in a single pipeline} why, and then the why and is are raised.

After the that comes the subordinate clause, which is a declarative sentence. Find the main verb.

It’s met.

Subject: his officials. Modified by two prepositional phrases, on Friday and in Toronto. And taking as a complement (indirect object) with Kinder Morgan executives. So it’s that his officials met [on Friday] [in Toronto] {with Kinder Morgan executives}.

And then everything after that modifies Kinder Morgan executives. We get the relative pronoun who as the inception of a subordinate clause to the subordinate clause. The who is also the subject of that subordinate clause. The verb is next: issued. Object: the threat. Which threat? Modifying phrase to abandon the project (infinitive plus object). And when did they issue it? …while the Prime Minister was travelling.

Guess what: that’s yet another level of subordination, because while is a relative conjunction and the Prime Minister was travelling is a declarative sentence. It’s modified by two prepositional phrases: to a vigil in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, and for the hockey players and others killed in that tragic bus accident; each of those has internal structure: to [a vigil [in Humboldt, [Saskatchewan]]] and for [the hockey players and others {killed [in that tragic bus accident]}].

Oh! And then there’s the and who, which is a parallel to the first who. So it’s who issued … and who can still walk away. So that last subordinate clause has as its subject who and its verb can walk away (adverb still), and modifying prepositional phrases from it and on May 31 and one more level of embedded subordinate clause, if they aren’t satisfied.

Look at how many levels that is (subjects in italics, main and inflected verbs in bold, complements in square or curly brackets depending on kind):

    • Why is Justin Trudeau investing {so much} {in a single pipeline}
      • that his officials met [on Friday] [in Toronto] {with Kinder Morgan executives,}
        • who issued {the threat [to abandon the project]}
          • while the prime minister was travelling [to a vigil [in Humboldt, Saskatchewan,] [for the hockey players and others {killed [in that tragic bus accident]}],
        • and who can still walk away [from it] [on May 31]
          • if they aren’t satisfied
    • ?

See? It actually makes sense if you field-strip it.

Readers should not have to field-strip sentences to make sense of them.

The problem is not just the adjacency of killed in that tragic bus accident and can still walk away. If the sentence weren’t such a Hollywood mess, no one would be at risk of losing place. The reason it needs all those levels is that it’s trying to introduce too many facts all at once. Since I’ve bolded the main verbs of the clauses (all 6 clauses on 4 levels), it makes it easy to pick out the important points. They’re the following:

  • Trudeau met with Kinder Morgan executives.
  • They issued their threat while Trudeau was travelling to the vigil.
  • They can still walk away from it on May 31.
  • The author wants to know why Trudeau is investing so much in the pipeline that he met with them.

These are four separate important things, and if you’re not trying to hurt your reader, they should be in separate sentences. If you feel that the paragraph is too chunky with them in four separate sentences, well, it’s sure as heck too chunky with them all in the same damn sentence! Just about the only things that are better if you put four of them in the same box rather than in separate boxes are kittens.

So if you feel your flow doesn’t work with those points introduced separately in that paragraph, you have to introduce one or two of them elsewhere – in previous paragraphs or right after the paragraph in question. Somewhere not too far above, perhaps, you can put something like this:

On [what day?] the prime minister attended a vigil in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, for the hockey players and others killed in that tragic bus accident. While he was travelling to it, Kinder Morgan executives issued a threat to abandon the pipeline project.

Then you can make the paragraph in question something more like this:

Why is Justin Trudeau investing so much in a single pipeline that his officials met on Friday in Toronto with Kinder Morgan executives? Especially when they can still walk away from any deal on May 31 if they aren’t satisfied?

Or even like this:

Justin Trudeau’s officials met on Friday with Kinder Morgan executives. Why is he investing so much in a single pipeline? Especially when they can still walk away from any deal on May 31 if they aren’t satisfied?

Don’t bother pointing out that it was probably written on deadline and they didn’t have the time to unpack it. That’s likely, and it would be an explanation, but it would not be a justification. No extenuating circumstance makes an underbaked cake perfect, even if sometimes you just eat the thing anyway. Get into better writing habits and you’re less likely to have dogpiles like this.

And don’t bother bemoaning the death of literacy or the simple-mindedness of shorter sentences or blah blah blah. There are places for long sentences and there are places for short ones, just as there are times to take your guests on hikes and times to take them to a bar. If you want to press a point, you’ll do it better with short, punchy sentences. Grammatical is not enough. We are not selling jigsaw puzzles here. Nor are we delivering kittens.

5 responses to “Walk away from this sentence

  1. Daniel E. Trujillo Medina.

    James, I am applauding. This was a delight to read and a pleasure to enjoy. Short and punchy beats long and stretchy, any day.

    Daniel E. Trujillo M.

    ________________________________

  2. Philippa Paterson

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. David Milne-Ives

    Hi, thanks for a fun and welcome post. (There are typographic errors – ‘Mofidied’ and ‘infelcted’ about 2/3 along that you’ll want to fix.) I will use this to encourage my first period class of TOK students to write their essays better. Many believe that the best way to demonstrate deep sophistication and complexity of thought is by making tortuously convoluted ‘snake balls’ of words. I try to convince them that clarity is the goal; there will (or should be) sufficient complexity in the conceptual interrelationships they are exploring that they needn’t bolster it with literary ornamentation.

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