Archive for Wednesday, December 8, 1999

Pack some punch into sentences

December 8, 1999

Most of us write sentences the way I ran the half-mile in high school. I'd race as fast as I could for a quarter-mile and then wither in the last lap as competitors flew by me. Until I learned to conserve my energy for the final kick, I faded like a cheap shirt.

It's the same with writing. We know how to start our sentences, but we don't know how to end them. We sprint to an early lead with bold nouns, vigorous verbs and vivid adjectives and then slowly, painfully fizzle out with long strings of parenthetical clauses or languid modifiers. (See previous sentence.)

Our high school teachers hinted at the danger of this approach with their dictate "Never end a sentence with a preposition!" Such ragged shirttails, they explained, were unseemly and awkward, and definitely not something to end a sentence with. (See previous sentence.)

But the real problem with such constructions is strategy, not style. Writing is war. Why stick a wimpy, popgun preposition in the most commanding spot in your sentence, high ground that should be occupied by a booming cannon?

Speaking of cannons, watch how Atlantic Monthly writer Andrew Todhunter deploys sentence-ending artillery in his description of ice climbing on, appropriately enough, Cannon Cliff:

"On a late-winter morning, John Bouchard starts up the steep snow slope at the base of a 600-foot-high gully of ice and rock known to climbers as the Black Dike. The gully splits the broad granite face of New Hampshire's Cannon Cliff like a hatchet wound. It is 30 degrees and nearly windless; a fine, dry snow falls through the dense fog that conceals the summit. In its present wintry aspect the cliff which is nearly a mile wide, a thousand feet high, and an average of 10 degrees off vertical could easily be mistaken for the base of a north wall somewhere in the Alps."

Read only the last words of the sentences "Black Dike," "hatchet wound," "summit," "Alps" and you've sunk your ice ax deep into this saga.

Like Todhunter, treat each sentence as an alp. When you get to the summit, don't just collapse and gasp, as I did during the last portion of my half-mile race. Instead, sound your barbaric yawp from the rooftop.

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