Opinion

Pack-mule prose will sink a sentence

Today's rumination stems from this proposition: As writers, sometimes we try too hard.

This was the problem last month at the good gray New York Times, where an editorial writer set out to discuss foreign policy. Thus we learned:

“Until this week, when Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, offered a sensible and comprehensive blueprint for dealing with the mess that President Bush created by bungling the war of necessity against al-Qaida in Afghanistan, which could have made America safer, and starting a war of choice in Iraq, which made the world more insecure.”

Somewhere in that syntactical roadkill there must have been a subject yearning for a verb. I will award a cut-glass flyswatter to any reader who defines it.

It took two reporters for the good gray Times to scramble the eggs of the Bruce Ivins story. Ivins was the government scientist who killed himself last month as an apparent consequence of his research. We learned:

“The work became even more intense in the aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attack, as the field grew tremendously, with billions of dollars in new federal support for research on anthrax and other potential biological weapons and to buy new drugs or vaccines to handle a possible future attack.”

A solo writer for the good gray Times filed this sodden paragraph last month:

“And if you have noticed the images of Madonna that have blanketed the news, dominated by a photograph taken in May at the Cannes Film Festival showing her in a pink silk Stella McCartney dress with a big bow at the neck, so plain and unrevealing it could have been cut from the Yearning for Zion prairie-dress pattern book, you might even have thought that the ultimate provocateur had been chastened – the Mamma Madonna.”

Nothing improves many a sentence quite so much as the early ending of it. It is not necessary – truly it is not necessary! – to load a sentence down like a pack horse. A reporter for The Associated Press filed a full load last month from Cleveland about two embezzlers who committed suicide:

“St. Vincent Hospital said Mrs. Hovinen was suspended July 1, the last day that she and her husband were seen, from a public relations and marketing job that put her in regular contact with the media, and occasionally on TV, to provide needed updates on high profile patients.”

It's the problem of the portmanteau: We try to pack everything into a single bag. Thus an AP reporter filed a story last month from Granite City, Ill.: “Police and FBI agents captured an ex-convict suspected of killing eight people in two states as he smoked a cigarette outside of a southwestern Illinois bar Tuesday night, a bar employee said.”

Enough of that rant! Other rants demand attention. A recent item in The Washington Post began: “Federal prosecutors charged 11 people yesterday with the theft and sale of more than 40 million credit card numbers.” People? Eleven people? Suppose the charges are dismissed against 10 of them. What's left? One people.

The solution is to reserve “people” for lots and lots of human beings with some common bond – e.g., the dispossessed people of Darfur. The noun “person” carries a smaller load of baggage. Thus the Constitution speaks of the right of “the people” peaceably to assemble, to keep and bear arms, and to be secure in their homes.

But when it gets to crime and punishment, the Constitution says that no “person” shall be put in double jeopardy, no “person” shall be compelled to be a witness against himself, and no “person” shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

Those old boys who wrote the Bill of Rights had a lovely feel for language. I wish our present leaders were equally blessed.

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