Tree branches

A recent One Great Sentence post, about a line from Dan Zak’s essay for the Washington Post about the political culture of Iowa, inspired me to add a few thoughts. The sentence in question is the second in Zak’s piece — a long, rhythmic meditation that comes just after this opening line: “Iowa is a fairy tale.”

(Before I attempt an X-ray reading of this remarkable sentence, I cannot resist spending a little time on the author’s name. It may be the best byline in America. Not only is it short, but it is parallel: each name is three letters with the structure consonant-vowel-consonant, with four different consonants embracing the same vowel. There, that was fun.)

In my new book “Murder Your Darlings,” I highlight the wisdom, ancient and modern, of about 50 authors writing about writing, writers, rhetoric, language, stories, and audience. I am struck by a pattern of explication on how different kinds of sentences are best used for certain purposes and certain audiences.

In an old way of describing these, there were “loose” sentences and “periodic” sentences. A so-called loose sentence has subject and verb near the beginning, with subordinate elements trailing off.

A so-called “periodic” sentence holds its fire (main subject and verb) until near the end.

Here is an example of a “loose” sentence from a recent news report, the lead to a breaking story by AP sports writer Jenna Fryer:

DAYTONA BEACH — Ryan Newman flipped across the finish line, his Ford planted upside down and engulfed in flames, a grim reminder of a sport steeped in danger that has stretched nearly two decades without a fatality.

I love this lead. Despite its length (34 words), it holds together because meaning is made in the first three words: subject (Ryan Newman) and verb (flipped).

The branches of a sentence

Using more contemporary language, I think of this as a right-branching sentence. I imagine all 34 words on one long horizontal line. The main action is communicated on the left and all other elements spin off to the RIGHT.

Now let’s look at a famous periodic sentence, written in 2005 by my former student and dear friend Kelley Benham French for the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times):

Before the prayer warriors massed outside her window, before gavels pounded in six courts, before the Vatican issued a statement, before the president signed a midnight law and the Supreme Court turned its head, Terri Schiavo was just an ordinary girl, with two overweight cats, an unglamorous job and a typical American life.

The differences with the car crash story are obvious. While subject and verb came first in the loose sentence, here, in a periodic sentence, they appear not at the end, but near the end. It will take five subordinate clauses (32 words) summarizing recent news developments before we get to the jackpot: Terry Schiavo was …

Again, updating the language, we can say here that if we were to string that sentence out on a single line, the main clause would be to the right with all the subordinate elements branching to the LEFT.

Placing subordinate elements with intention

Styles change, but not as much as you might think. In describing these two types of sentences in 1776, Scottish cleric and rhetorician George Campbell points out that each type of sentence has its uses.

I am paraphrasing a bit, but he argues that because the loose sentence gives the meaning early — up front — it is better for informational uses, such as reports. The periodic sentence, he argues, is better for more literary and highly rhetorical purposes, like powerful sermons.

I would put it this way: a loose or right-branching sentence places more attention on what is being described; a periodic or left-branching sentence calls more attention to the description, and to the craft of the writer.

Which brings us to Dan Zak’s political profile of Iowa:

Iowa is a fairy tale. Somewhere between the crumbling bridges, the meth clinics, the jackknifed tractor trailers, the zombie combines steered by satellite, the putrid purgatories for dinner-bound hogs — somewhere among the wannabe novelists and suicidal farmers and drooling cage fighters sponsored by bargain hotel chains, down rutted byways to giant wind turbines, alongside ditches oozing with nitrates and Busch Light — is a loose menagerie of utopia, where Americans are pleasant, responsible and cooperative, where they pass down their civic duty like a trust fund, where they still have one hand in the fallowing topsoil, the other locked in fellowship with their neighbor, and their eyes on the future of the republic.

I will leave it to others to appreciate the richly textured language and imagery. I am focusing on sentence structure. What do we have here? A loose sentence or periodic? A right or left branch?

It feels more periodic, doesn’t it, with its rich inventory of bizarre Iowa cultural artifacts. It also feels more periodic because it’s a bit fancier or grittier than we expect in a typical newspaper story. It shows off the creative work of a writer.

But it turns out to be more complicated than that.

Let’s take the sentence and stretch it into a single, long line. Now let’s find the subject and verb of the main clause. I count 57 words without a subject and verb. Then I see it, the main clause: “…is a loose menagerie of utopia…”

If this were a pure periodic sentence, it would end with the word “utopia.” But wait, there’s more! I count an afterglow of three subordinate clauses, each beginning with the word “where.”

So, like the Hokey Pokey (or maybe a high school football cheer) it swings to the left, then swings to the right, creating that rarest of journalistic artifacts — the MID-BRANCHING sentence. Which makes it, in addition to its other virtues, worth our attention.

The fact that this sentence of 107 words comes just after the opening sentence of just five words has, as its precedent, a much longer epic: The one that begins “Call me Ishmael.”

Further Reading

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