Author Topic: A Review—Ed Simon’s “In Praise of the Long, Complicated Sentence”  (Read 7104 times)

Joe Carillo

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In a mesmerizingly long article (3,453-plus words) in the April 10, 2023 issue of LitHub.com online magazine, “Baroque, Purple, and Beautiful: In Praise of the Long, Complicated Sentence,” book author-magazine editor Ed Simon surveys with great elan the evolution of sentences and punctuation marks in exposition. He begins with an analysis of the 1600-year-old, one-meter-tall stone slab known as the Mesha Stele, which was excavated in 1868 from the red sand of Dhiban, Jordan. It has a long inscription that concludes with this 10-word authorship credit: “I am Mesha, son of Kemoshya the king of Moab.” Each word in the inscription ends with the same characteristic end-stop—in short, a period after every word.

                          IMAGE CREDIT: LITHUB.COM ILLUSTRATION FOR ED SIMON ARTICLE

Ed Simon’s point about this expository and stylistic detail is this: “Though the anonymous scribe who chiseled this message nine centuries before the Common Era used the period in a way that we’d find idiosyncratic—the marks separating every individual word rather than ending individual syntactical units—it’s still clearly and obviously the same punctuation mark with which you’ll see at the end of that authorship credit. The Mesha Stele is, as such, the oldest example of writing to contain punctuation...”

Simon then extolled that period as a simple bit of punctuation: “[It] had much the same purpose as the whole bevy of descendants who’ve since emerged—commas, semicolons, my beloved em-dashes—namely, to make the sense of reading easier, there were also a host of ancillary effects. With punctuation, a sense of the rhythm of language could be imparted, an artfulness, a lyricism, a poetry.”

He argues that “by definition every sentence in the Mesha Stele was but a single word, and if you’re to adhere to contemporary style mavens who are nothing but partisans of parsimony, perhaps the mono-worded sentences of the Moabite stone are to be preferred. But I don’t think so.”

Simon then proceeds to censure the present-day “tyranny of the ‘short sentences only’ set that can be traced back to any number of style guides that have long proliferated in composition classrooms and editors’ offices”—from George Orwell’s command injunction that “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”; journalist William Zinsser’s firm advice that the “secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components...”; and on to E.B. White and William Strunk’s demand in their book The Elements of Style that a “sentence should contain no unnecessary words.”

He sums up and dismisses these style guides in this wise: “I’d suggest that Orwell, Zinsser, Strunk, and White—great authors all—are not just enraptured to an arbitrary definition of good style which consists in saying the most with the least, but that they’re very much creatures of their time, chained to the material conditions of paper margin inches and allergic to anything which seems too affected, too rococo, too aesthetic, too unmasculine.”

Read Ed Simon's “Baroque, Purple, and Beautiful: In Praise of the Long, Complicated Sentence” in full in the online LitHub.com magazine now!     

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« Last Edit: April 21, 2023, 02:38:08 PM by Joe Carillo »