Tina K. Russell

January 2, 2009

Serving your sentence

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tina Russell @ 1:46 pm

You may have noticed that I’m something of a grammar nut. It’s true; if you’re going to break a rule, have a reason, and it’d better be good. Here’s a good example of how to break a rule:

Bobby Fischer – b. 1943 – The Wonder Match – Chess – The Lives They Lived – Obituaries – NYTimes.com
Before he was secretly buried on a dark winter morning in a lonely Icelandic churchyard at the age of 64 (there were only four people in attendance at the hastily arranged funeral) . . . before his last ailing days of bad kidneys and rotting teeth (he had all of his fillings removed, convinced that U.S. and Russian agents would otherwise send radio signals to his brain) . . . before the long hours whiled away at a Reykjavik bookstore, a place that vaguely reminded him of one from his Brooklyn youth (in both, he read comic books and studied chess) . . . and before his decades of ghostly peregrinations through the world, like a profane monk or an idiot savant searching for perfect exile (from Pasadena to Hungary to the Philippines, where he supposedly had a child, and on to Japan, where he supposedly married and was arrested and imprisoned for a passport violation) . . . before his bizarre eruptions (he applauded the events of 9/11 as “wonderful news” and believed, among other defamations, that the Jews wanted to eradicate the African elephant because its trunk was a reminder of an uncircumcised penis) . . . and before the spectacle of meeting his one-time nemesis, the former world-champion chess player Boris Spassky, for an anticlimactic 1992 rematch in war-torn Yugoslavia despite U.N. sanctions against it (in front of whirring cameras, he spat on the U.S. order forbidding him to play) . . . even way back before their original 1972 meeting, called the Match of the Century, when the eyes of the world were riveted on him as a shining emblem of American will, innovation and brilliance (the match in which he took on the Soviet chess machine and single-handedly crushed it, but not before the fabled call from Henry Kissinger, urging him to put aside his jumbled demands and just play) . . . even before his brazen, almost obnoxious deconstruction of a cavalcade of grandmasters who stood in his path to Spassky (he won 20 games in a row, the longest winning streak in modern chess) . . . before he traded the rags of his youth for his new wardrobe of expensive suits . . . before his mind slowly unhinged and he became a walking paradox (the anti-Semitic Jew; the anti-American national hero, the wastrel-wizard of his craft) . . . yes, before the whole circus of his life unfolded, he was a 13-year-old kid in the first flush of the thing he most loved in the world: chess.

Usually, I cut off a sentence after it has included maybe two or three big concepts (rather, I’ll rewrite the sentence as two or more sentences). Run-on sentences are a pain, because they take a while to read and confuse you with several nesting levels of subject matter. (They also break the natural flow of a paragraph.) In time, I’ve tamed my run-on sentences, the void filled by my other bad habits (for instance, my overuse of segues and parentheses). (I think those are my worst habits. Opinions?)

Here, however, is an example of a sentence that fills a whole paragraph, contains hundreds of words, summarizes an entire life story, jumps from place to place throughout, and uses so many ellipses you’d think the writer were jockeying to write the next Star Wars opening crawl. It’s not a run-on sentence, it’s a marathon sentence. Yet, the writer justifies it—as I always heard in my (good) writing classes, “it works”—because the structure is sensible and consistent, the language easy to follow, and the punctuation is used to set you up for something weird and different. New concepts are traded for old, ensuring that you won’t have to hold a million different ideas in your head before the sentence’s end. Ellipses, rather than commas or semicolons, clue you in that this is a different kind of sentence containing a world of its own little stories, while parentheses are used for routine and expected elaboration. And, the structure is consistent, ensuring that you never forget that what you’re reading is essentially a human life presented as a parenthetical phrase.

Remember the old saw: to break the rules successfully, you need to have learned them perfectly. Also, your natural tendency as a human being is to be a daredevil with your words, so rein yourself in as much as you can so that your words don’t distract from your content. This person seems to have learned how to do it, though; if you’re going to use any tricks (and first, consider: don’t), make sure they embellish your content, not take away from it.

You get a gold star!

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