messiness, unruly sentences and grammar

This is a slightly circuitous route from practice-as-research into grammar. Bear with me.

In practice-as-research we often write about abstract, complex experiences, actions or practices that are difficult to describe. Bob Whalley and Lee Miller suggest our practices are messy:

The peculiarity of an individual’s practice-as-research is not usually described as a steady process. Artistic research does not, and cannot, aim for equilibrium, being contracted and imbedded in the commitment to seek out new knowledges and/or substantial new insights. And yet, these are messy practices, and ones which have the capability to mess you up, and mess you around.[1]

We use language in different modes to attempt to do our writing work; for example analytical, poetic or descriptive.

It struck me recently[2] — while reading some PaR work — that we also often introduce complexity (or obfuscation) unnecessarily into our artistic-scholarly writing. We inadvertently create work for the reader and make simple concepts complex or impossible to parse.

One of the ways we create such obstacles is by writing long complex compound sentences that disrupt the reader’s momentum. If our writing is at all choreographic or compositional in how it generates experiences and ideas for the reader, then such disruptions are a problem.

There are three useful grammar concepts that I think could help those of you interested[3] in helping readers understand your thinking:

  1. Keep subjects and verbs close

e.g The cat (subject) sat (verb) on the mat.

Sentences where you have to wait a very long time between subject and verb, or where you’re having to fight through a thicket of modifying clauses before you even reach the subject, tax the working memory.[4]

More on this in number 3 below.

  1. Concrete nouns and vivid verbs

employ plenty of concrete nouns and vivid verbs, especially when discussing abstract concepts.[5]

  1. Right branching sentences

Right-branching sentences give you the subject and verb up front and are easier on the reader’s brain. Sam Leith writes that “Once you have subject and verb established, you know where you’re going with the sentence.” (p.74). He then describes two main ways that sentences get unruly (and I’m going to be quoting at length here from pp.125-126):[6]

a) Parataxis:

“A paratactic sentence is built like a string of sausages”:

The cat, but not the pig and the duck or the chicken, came into the room and looked around to see what would be the best place to sit, then circled it three times, kneaded the mat in the middle with its paws, and sat down on the mat.

Parataxis makes a mouthful, but it’s fairly easily dealt with: You just cut the sentence up into different sentences. In the above, for instance, the subject (“cat”) has five verbs to get through—“came,” “looked,” “circled,” “kneaded,” and only then finally “sat.”

The cat came into the room. The pig, duck, and chicken stayed outside. The cat looked for a good spot. It circled the mat three times, kneaded it with its paws, and sat down.

b) Hypotaxis:

Hypotaxis is a hierarchical construction. Your main clause becomes the kernel of a sort of Russian doll, and the central meaning gets swamped by subordinate clauses.

The cat, which is to say an individual of the species—originally descended from Felis silvestris—Felis catus, in this case a blue-furred Persian four years of age whose eyes gleamed red gold in the light from the lamp in the corner, sat, being by this stage tired of standing up, on the mat which was in the middle of the floor of the room.

These can be trickier to unpack. You need to decide, when you split the sentence up, what comes first. So you could do it like this:

The cat sat on the mat in the middle of the room. Cats are of the species Felis catus. They are descended from Felis silvestris. This one was a four-year-old Persian with blue fur. Its eyes gleamed red gold in the light from the lamp in the corner.

My guess is that hypotaxis in particular is rife in academia. I see it all the time, and in PaR it makes the description or analysis of abstract and complex experiences nigh impossible to understand. Sometimes sentences are so messy that I start to imagine that the person who has written them is not clear about what has been going on (and does not feel comfortable owning that lack of clarity).

And just in case you’ve got to this point and you are wondering why this matters, here’s Helen Sword:

We want writing to be taken seriously, as powerful and evocative performance, able to change people’s experiences of the world, rather than as a shriven, cowed and cowering path towards routinized, professionalized “publication”.[7]

[1]: Whalley, Bob. and Lee Miller, 2019. Moving Thoughts on Intersubjectivity.

[2]: Although PhD students who have worked with me will know all too painfully (I expect) that this concern is not really a new thing of mine.

[3]: I say “those of you” because I also recognise that some of us in the Academy are interested in creating work (often playfully) for our readers. What I’m suggesting are not hard and fast rules, more like principles that might come in handy.

[4]: Leith, Sam. 2018. Write to the Point: A Master Class on the Fundamentals of Writing for Any Purpose, p.74

[5]: Sword, Helen. 2012. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press, p.49.

[6]: Sam Leith, pp.125-126.

[7]: Helen Sword, p.160.

6 Replies to “messiness, unruly sentences and grammar”

  1. In others words always ask:
    What is the purpose of my point?
    What is the point of my purpose?
    How did I get here?
    What is the here I got to?
    What matters about the why?
    Why does what matter?
    What is between of the one thing that leads to another?
    When did another come from one thing?
    How can quality be quantified?
    How quantifiable is evidence for it to become evidential?
    What qualifies as qualified?
    How novle is new?
    What is the application of the applied?
    What is the historicity of the historic?
    Whose historicity is historiographical?
    Where is the pragmatic in the practical?
    What happens to searching for it to become researched?



    If worst comes to the worse, console yourself with Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann which has more than 1,000 pages and is a single sentence that is 426,100 words long.


  2. We can all suggest many things ….my mar RIP. bless her was an English and calligraphy teacher and was hot on grammar…… didn’t rub off! She knew there were always exceptions to the rules ….hence the unruly! But ask…. would Ellmann have been nominated for a booker if she had followed the rules!?


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