Some thoughts on diction and sentence structure

Somebody recently passed along a piece from a 1970 issue of Mad magazine called “Guaranteed Effective All-Occasion Non-Slanderous Political Smear Speech.” Here are the first three paragraphs:

My fellow citizens, it is an honor and a pleasure to be here today. My opponent has openly admitted he feels an affinity toward your city, but I happen to like this area. It might be a salubrious place to him, but to me it is one of the nation’s most delightful garden spots.

When I embarked upon this political campaign I hoped that it could be conducted on a high level and that my opponent would be willing to stick to the issues. Unfortunately, he has decided to be tractable instead — to indulge in unequivocal language, to eschew the use of outright lies in his speeches, and even to make repeated veracious statements about me.

At first, I tried to ignore these scrupulous, unvarnished fidelities. Now I do so no longer. If my opponent wants a fight, he’s going to get one!

It goes on in that vein for another page or so. The speaker describes his opponent and his positions using latinate words that sound like they ought to have negative connotations even though their dictionary definitions are perfectly innocuous.

I have written more than once about latinate and Anglo-Saxon diction as well as the idea that some words sound like what they mean and some (mostly latinate) words don’t. I won’t revisit those ideas here. Instead I would like to draw your attention to the amount of work that is accomplished by sentence structure, little connector words, transition words, and rhetorical markers.

Consider this sentence structure:

  • My opponent says      x     , but I say      y     .

You already understand quite a bit about that sentence even before you know what goes in the x blank and the y blank. You know that x and y, whatever the specifics, will contradict one another. That’s what “but” means.

If it turns out that x and y are just two ways of saying the same thing (x = “he has an affinity for this city,” y=”I like this city”), you will be confused–not because you don’t know what “affinity” means, but because you DO know what “but” means.

I bet “affinity” appeared on one of your Friday vocabulary tests. I bet “but” didn’t. But you can see which word carries more freight in this sentence:

  • My opponent has openly admitted he feels an affinity toward your city, but I happen to like this area.

By the way, that rhetorical marker “I happen to like this city” also confuses matters by seemingly heightening a contrast that isn’t there. Similar rhetorical confusion derives from that phrase, “My opponent has openly admitted…”

Or look at this sentence structure:

  • Unfortunately, he has decided      z     .

That transition word “unfortunately” sends you down a mental track before you find out what z is. Whatever it is, you know it’s going to be bad. So even though you know what “tractable” means (thanks, 8th-Grade Language Arts teacher!), you experience a moment of self-doubt when you see it behind that finger-wagging “unfortunately.”

So what at first appears to be a joke about diction turns out to be a joke about sentence structure. I’m not trying to downplay the importance of diction. Rather, I’m trying to emphasize the truth that sentence structures and those unglamorous connectors and transitions carry more meaning than we usually give them credit for.

Congratulations Ensued: On Nominalization

Here’s a quick tip that can improve your writing almost immediately: for every sentence you write, make sure you can say where the real action is. What are the actions and who are the actors. Who is doing what? Then, make it your default to express the actions as verbs and the actors as the subjects of those verbs.

If this advice seems self-evident, it’s not. True, we all learn that verbs are action words, but the subject-verb nexus is only one of many ways that the English language allows us to communicate action. (Consider the fact that the word action is not a verb but a noun). I am not insisting that you always express actions as verbs and actors and subjects, only that you make it your habit to compose your sentences that way unless you have a reason not to.

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“I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all.”

When I was in high school, Bon Jovi had song called “Wanted Dead or Alive.” I’m sure you know it: “I’m a cowboy. On a steel horse I ride…”

Even when I was seventeen years old and spang in the middle of the target demographic, that claim always struck me as odd: Jon Bon Jovi, this Jersey boy with enormous, teased hair, announces that he’s a cowboy. It seems to me a person should have to choose: you can either be the front man for New Jersey’s greatest glam rock band, or you can be a cowboy, but you can’t be both. 

But that’s not even the most remarkable claim in this remarkable song. In the last verse, Jon Bon Jovi sings,

I’ve seen a million faces,
And I’ve rocked them all.

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Connecting in Real Time: Some Thoughts on Sentence Structure

One of my favorite paintings is Landscape with Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Breughel. In the foreground is a farmer’s field on a seaside cliff, and a farmer plowing the field behind a horse. In the middle ground, on the right, a big merchant ship is sailing on a beautiful blue-green sea in the direction of a crowded port city. In the background, other tall ships sail across the sea.

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