Order in an English Sentence

The structure of sentences in English is simple: Subject-verb-object. “John kicked the ball.” That’s it. Everything else hangs on that structure. Sometimes you won’t even need an object: “Jesus wept.” Of course, the rules allow you to elaborate that structure endlessly. In the hands of an expert craftsman, that produces a lovely structure with a dramatic arc, which is easy to follow, as in the opening of Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron:

Riding down to Port Warwick from Richmond, the train begins to pick up speed on the outskirts of the city, past the tobacco factories with their ever-present haze of acrid, sweetish dust and past the rows of uniformly brown clapboard houses, which stretch down the hilly streets for miles, it seems, the hundreds of rooftops all reflecting the pale light of dawn; past the suburban roads still sluggish and sleepy with early morning traffic, and rattling swiftly now over the bridge which separates the last two hills where in the valley below you can see the James River winding beneath its acid-green crust of scum out beside the chemical plants and more rows of clapboard houses and into the woods beyond.


But without putting in years of practice, those who attempt such complexity are asking for trouble. As they add more and more words and phrases to that simple structure, they run the risk of separating the subject from the verb or the verb from the object in such a way that working memory can’t keep track of what’s being said. Here is a sentence from the New Yorker magazine, published January 25, 2010:

Two and a half centuries later, in a reaction to the revelation that Benjamin Wilkomirski’s “Fragments,” the 1995 account of the author’s experiences as a Latvian Jewish child experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust, was a fiction (the author was a Swiss Gentile whose real name was Bruno Grosjean), a Holocaust survivor named Ruth Kl├╝ger suggested that a fraudulent memoir–particularly a fraudulent account of extreme trauma–could, precisely because it lacks truth value, never amount to much more than a kind of perverse aesthetic experience, a trashy entertainment (in the more familiar sense of that word)…


Believe it or not, that’s not the end of that sentence. The effect is one of acute distress. The eye wants to move forward but has to backtrack, not because the reader is engaged and wants to enrich the associations and deepen the meaning, but because he has lost the thread and is confused. The result is what Orwell refers to as, “slovenliness and vagueness,” and such writing shows just how much havoc you can cause by splitting open the natural structure of a sentence and stuffing in whatever nonsense pops into your head. That’s to say nothing of the other crimes committed in that sentence. Of which more later.