Death of the Sentence

‘A sentence is a complete thought expressed in words.’—Obsolescent definition

I

To deal with the organization of thought in words is of necessity to deal with the sentence. Before the invention of movable types, before punctuation and the very ancient science of rhetoric, the sentence was. Before the first alphabet the sentence must have been. Unchanged in its basic form and components, it has survived the death of languages and attended at the birth of other languages. It has been the great continuum in each of them and among all — a very Rock of Ages of the human mind. If there is anything in longevity, the conclusion would seem to be inescapable that the sentence is a structure inherently faithful to the pattern of consciousness itself, an instrument inevitable and perfect or the expression of thought — quite the most indestructible of the things devised by man in his own image.

And to generation upon generation of English-speaking teachers and learners the old-fashioned definition at the head of these paragraphs was the First Axiom of grammar, the Cogito, ergo sum of all linguistic science. It deserved its eminence, too. For it possessed the great merit of pointing out with capital succinctness this virtual identity of orderly language with orderly thought; it had brevity, and it seemed to have the finality of natural law.

Alas for finality, our time beholds this towering landmark of accepted knowledge crumbling away with many a lesser landmark. In the part of a single generation since about the year 1915 the sentence has undergone more of change than during its entire known history up to that time, and the change has been more radical in kind. This declaration has, at first hearing, an extravagant ring: it is nevertheless strictly provable and in fact selfproving to whoever will open his eyes and scrutinize the evidence.

For a graphically suggestive approach to the proof, I invite you to cast a comparative eye on three selected specimens of English. Never mind, for the moment, where they came from or what they represent. Examine merely the inherent characteristics of these ostensible sentences, their broadly obvious contrasts and resemblances. Here are the three: —

(1) But because the name of a Christian is become too general to express our faith, there being a geography of religion as well as lands, and every clime distinguished not only by their laws and limits, but circumscribed by their doctrines and rules of faith; to be particular, I am of that reformed new-cast religion, wherein I dislike nothing but the name; of the same belief our Saviour taught, the apostles disseminated, the fathers authorized, and the martyrs confirmed, but by the sinister ends of princes, the ambition and avarice of prelates, and the fatal corruption of times, so decayed, impaired, and fallen from its native beauty, that it required the careful and charitable hands of these times to restore it to its primitive beauty.

(2) For did n’t there immensely flourish in those very days and exactly in that society the apparition the most qualified to balance with the odd character I have referred to and to supply to ‘drama,’ if ‘drama’ there was to be, the precious element of contrast and antithesis? — that most accomplished of artists and most dazzling of men of the world whose effect on the mind repeatedly invited to appraise him was to beget in it an image of representation and figuration so exclusive of any possible inner self that, so far from there being here a question of an alter ego, a double personality, there seemed scarce a question of a real and single one, scarce foothold or margin for any private and domestic ego at all.

(3) Hear America singing Jonathan off key turning over those books and in his hands and hallowed because they were his, sat in your apartment and snickered knew by then you and I and it would happen and you quite honestly you were that tall rock quite really Loring, anyone could see but never you anyone for nothing else had mattered, just to get someone between his image and a street anyone might travel or just to conquer maybe just to defeat him whoever was at hand and Gage.

Patently, the first and the second specimens are a long way apart in their basic pattern. Each implies a reflective and a consummately literate mind; but the two minds work in utterly dissimilar ways. The pattern of the first sentence, if you read it aright, is what is called ‘periodic’; that is, it achieves its grammatical and its logical completion together, and at or very near the end. It is, in fact, an obvious transference of the Latin, the Ciceronian, period into English with only the changes imposed by the much simpler grammar of the modern tongue. The second sentence, on the other hand, is ‘loose’; that is, it could be broken off at a point long before the end without logical or grammatical mutilation. The first is composed as an embroidered figure that cannot be made out until the last stitch is in place; the second is an affair of chain stitches, of which there might be either more or fewer. The contrast is rather accentuated than obscured by the circumstance that the two are identical in length.

Now look at the third specimen. You find, if you are at all like me, that it has the curious effect of drawing the first two a great deal closer to each other by contrast with itself. It seems almost to wipe out the fundamental difference just described and to bring out a host of unnoticed resemblances. Both members of the first pair, we suddenly perceive, have unity, though they disclose it by different methods. Both parse. Both are rooted in a mental logic of which their verbal logic is a strict counterpart. But what elements can you find in common (except, indeed, the language to which the words belong) between the third example and either of the preceding? Could the third be rationally described, for distance, as either periodic or loose? Has it unity? If, for convenience, you referred to it as a sentence, would the word retain a single one of the well-defined meanings that are in your mind when you apply the same term to the other two examples? Can you parse it? Can you follow or even detect the parallel between a mental and a verbal logic? We agree, I take it, that if one is to describe the first two sentences as being a world away from each other, one will have to describe the third as being a million light-years away from either.

Well, the first specimen is separated from the second by some two and threequarters centuries, whereas the third is separated from the second by little more than twenty-five years. The first, from early in the Age of Milton, occurs near the beginning of Religio Medici, a meditative work completed in 1635 by a young physician named Browne. (The late George Saintsbury is not the only critic who has thought him the supreme master in the entire range of English prose.) The second belongs to our own yesterday, the very threshold of this generation of rapid and radical change. In it Henry James, writing one of the celebrated Prefaces to the New York Edition of his novels and tales, comments on an unnamed literary celebrity whose social presence furnished a suggestion for James’s story ‘The Private Life.’ And the third is almost literally of to-day; it comes from an American novel of the year 1934.

The first passage and the second are separated, then, by the whole historical cycle of post-Elizabethan English, by virtually the whole history of America, by the whole range of modern science, invention, economic and social change; and yet they are on the same slope of a mental and spiritual Great Divide, possibly the greatest in human annals. The second passage and the third are separated by a trifling span, a moment scarcely perceptible in the sum of history — half the lifetime of a man in his prime. Yet they are on opposite slopes of that same Great Divide. For two hundred and seventy-five years the use of language shows only a natural, slow, perfectly organic evolution, a gradual readjustment of principles. Then, in the next twenty-five years, it shows a fearfully abrupt and violent revolution — a wholesale discarding of all principles.

From cosmos to chaos in a quarter century! — that, precisely, is the leap denoted by the second and third items of our little historical sequence.

II

Pray do not hastily object that my third example is unfairly chosen to prove an untruth by sharp practice. Do not say that I am arbitrarily comparing yesterday’s best with to-day’s worst, or normal English with a vagary. Do not, above all, declare that the last example has no reflective and literate intelligence behind it in the sense that Sir Thomas Browne’s sentence has, or Henry James’s.

If you brashly assert that such writing proves only what can be done with a bottle of ink when it gets into the hands of an idiot, you are egregiously in error. The joke is, in fact, on you.

The author quoted has been, among other things, a Lecturer in English at Harvard University. He is a literary critic, social historian, and controversialist whose work abounds in both wit and intellectual substance. A decade of his reflective writing, lately stored in a volume called Forays and Rebuttals, shows him as a redoubtable enemy of loose thinking, cheap generalization, and knowingness without knowledge. He is the author, not only of unexpectedly astringent popular stories in the Saturday Evening Post, but also of searching monthly causeries from the Easy Chair of Harper’s Magazine and of an urgently needed book, Mark Twain’s America. At present he directs that force making for literary righteousness and lucidity, the Saturday Review of Literature. If his 1934 novel We Accept with Pleasure, from which I have quoted, is not from beginning to end a carefully meditated work, if in every line it is not a result of the most unremittingly faithful adaptation of means to end, then it is a contradiction of everything Mr. Bernard DeVoto has ever done and been — a hypothesis so fantastic that it has to be rejected out of hand.

There is no way whatever of drawing up a balanced report on the present status and direction of the English sentence without accepting just such seeming perversities at a very serious valuation and allowing them full weight as a momentous sign of the times. Such passages are painstakingly worked out by thoughtful writers who are competent if anyone living is competent. They are published under distinguished imprints. They are taken seriously and neither attacked nor ridiculed by the most respected critics, most of whom merely mention in passing the kinship of such writing to the famous soliloquy in Ulysses.

The burden of self-justification is very rapidly shifting from those who write that way to those who do not.

And lest anyone suppose this idiom to belong only to the literary stratosphere, the ultimate rarefactions where Ulysses and the surrealists are at home, here is one of many possible examples from an immeasurably more commonplace mental and æsthetic level. Its source, The Big Money, is Mr. John Dos Passos’s newest installment of his saga of postwar America. (The Forty-Second Parallel, Manhattan Transfer, and 1919 are earlier chapters.) The Big Money, having lately figured in the New York Herald Tribune’s weekly chart of What America Is Reading, may be presumed to lie well within the area of what a large general audience can and does accept to-day.

sirens bloom in the fog over the harbor horns of all colors everyshaped whistles reach up from the river and the churn of screws the throb of engines bells

the steady broken swish of waves cut by prows out of the unseen stirring fumblingly through the window tentacles stretch tingling

to release the spring

tonight start out ship somewhere join up sign on the dotted line enlist become one of hock the old raincoat of incertitude (in which you hunch alone from the upsidedown image on the retina painstakingly out of color shape words remembered light and dark straining

to rebuild yesterday to clip out paper figures to simulate growth warp newsprint into faces smoothing and wrinkling in the various barelyfelt velocities of time)

tonight now the room fills with the throb and hubbub of departure the explorer gets a few necessities together coaches himself on a beginning

To discuss this sort of writing in terms of complete thoughts expressed in words is self-evidently impossible and would be futile even if possible. What such uses of language represent is, in fact, the general modern war of annihilation against the complete thought. According to the regnant philosophy the orderly, controllable operations of consciousness are artificial, shallow, and of little consequence. What is all-important, what is alone fully real, is the action of unseen, unwilled swirls and eddies under the surface of the mind — in a word, the subconscious. These subsurface phenomena are what our more esteemed contemporary writers mostly try to examine and reproduce. Their concern is not the organization of thought, but the automatism of what someone has called the ‘crisp organic squirms’ of consciousness.

Their serious business is, in fine, the disorganization of thought. What is the one immensely popular and influential science, or pseudo-science? Why, psychiatry, which the layman invariably conceives as a pursuit of fascinating disorder. What is the modern notion of comprehending the universe? Why, to understand that it is incomprehensible. In human affairs we know no pattern but chaos. And the mind, long supposed to be the thread that could guide us through the labyrinth of other phenomena, is now interpreted as itself one more senseless phenomenon of behavior — a reflex, or irresponsible twitching in answer to external stimuli.

Language, naturally, becomes a faithful microcosm of the larger confusion. What is the use of sentences, we ask, when sententiae no longer express our realities? The complete thought expressed in words is replaced by the chance fragment of apperception or of raw sensation refracted through words. Upon our old First Axiom of grammar the Zeitgeist performs a neat sum in subtraction, after which there remains but a tatter of it. Thought? Besides being painful, it is a vain illusion: we only think that we think. Completeness? Really bright persons know that this is a chimera, fit for children and other simpletons. Expression? That we have seen converted into expressionism, an æsthetic formula for expressing nothing but the instinct to express. Of the timehonored definition, then, we have left just one of the original components: —

Words, words, words.

III

A suggestive historical fact, worth pointing out as we pass, is that there has always been a striking incidence, never more striking than now, between our conception of the universe and our conception of the sentence. When the world was accepted as a potentially comprehensible whole, men instinctively stated their thoughts in forms of verbal organization resembling what they imagined the world to be; for instance, the intricate periodic form, in which all the parts of the thought were woven in and all the part-to-whole relationships made manifest. As scientific specialism enlarged and complicated the universe, making it steadily more difficult for faith to accept as single or intelligible, the sentence became progressively looser — another way of saying that it relapsed upon smaller and smaller fragments of the baffling whole and dealt with these fragments as being more and more disconnected. In the end we find ourselves inhabiting a cosmos not designed, but hurled together; not wrought to order and finish in the manner of a great style, but left to the operations of chance and of factitious relationship, like the words in a dictionary. The incidental effect upon language is what we have seen and illustrated. The sense of a total existence made up of disjecta membra inevitably culminates in the disjecta membra of the sentence without syntax — the sentence not composed, but decomposed into headlines, notes, or mere verbless jottings.

This curious phenomenon, the sentence without predication, has become within two decades, on both sides of the Atlantic and at every level from the highest highbrow to the lowest lowbrow, the nearest thing there is to a generic distinguishing mark of contemporary writing in English.

It is occasionally suggested in print that the clipped, grammarless, postimpressionist modern manner stems from that immensely popular character, now a centenarian, Dickens’s Jingle, whose conversational style jerks along in this vein: ’Oh! I see. Negus too strong here — liberal landlord — very foolish — very — lemonade much better — hot rooms — elderly gentlemen — suffer for it in the morning — cruel — cruel.’ The notion is sometimes credited to Mr. Wyndham Lewis; whether he originated it I do not know. In any event it is obviously too mechanical and too pat to amount to much more than an amusingly suggestive analogy. The real culprit is not Alfred Jingle, but the aforesaid Zeitgeist. It is, however, easy to identify some isolated mechanical factors of which the Zeitgeist made ample and timely use. Four of them are singled out in the jottings that follow: —

(1) A young man who in the early 1890’s was fast becoming the most popular writer alive had made a mannerism, almost a personal trademark, of pseudosentences on this laconic model: ‘Which was unfortunate for all concerned,’ ‘Which is as it may be,’ ‘ Which is another story.’ Kipling’s trick spread like an epidemic. By the time it was everybody’s trick it had pretty well (a) established the relative clause as a viable sentence, (b) released the relative pronoun from all servitude to a definite antecedent, and (c) undermined a century of school grammarians’ efforts to outlaw the same construction as an ignorant error. Typical of a practice now long unchallenged is this snippet from Aldous Huxley (Eyeless in Gaza): ‘. . . Her words, being hers, would carry weight, would have to be considered. Which [the whole preceding fact] was why he did his best not to place himself in the position of having to listen to them.’ This innocuous ‘which’ has the historical importance of the opening wedge.

(2) About 1910 the Anglo-American printed page broke out into a rash of suspension points (. . .), or what the wayfaring reader calls ‘a row of dots.’ Hitherto their chief use in English — they were already common in French books — had been as an unobtrusive substitute for asterisks (***); I have used them so above, to show the omission of matter from a quoted passage. Now, suddenly, they were adopted to stand for anything thought but left unspoken (or felt but left unthought), or to indicate the breaking-off of a reflection, or to suggest a wool-gathering mood, a blank interval, an inexpressible something, or the presence of the ineffable. For a decade and a half this expedient raged ad nauseam. In the end the fashion declined rather rapidly, done to death by the absurdity of its own excesses. (There are signs that it will shortly cease to flourish even in advertising, which habitually exploits the more fashionable mannerisms of serious writing about ten years after the fact.) But meanwhile it had helped do portentous things to the sentence; and its gradual disappearance did not undo them. Writers stopped making punctuation do duty for meanings, but they did not restore the mutilated meanings. They merely ceased to label the mutilations, which had been tacitly accepted as normal.

(3) Almost at the beginning of the World War, Miss Dorothy Richardson published in England, in a volume called Pointed Roofs, the first section of her quasi-autobiographical novel Pilgrimage, a work momentous out of all proportion to any sale its successive volumes ever attained. For one thing, it was the first thoroughgoing stream-of-consciousness novel to appear in English; its text consisted chiefly of phrasal notations peppered with suspension points — images and sensations seen floating in a memory and resembling a motion-picture film reflected in ruffled water. For another thing, Pilgrimage promptly became a novelists’ novel, producing thereby an immediate and specific effect on writers with access to a public many times greater than Miss Richardson’s. Her influence, diffused and diluted, is traceable to-day in the work of writers who doubtless never heard of her, and traceable most of all in the flow of their sentences, or non-sentences.

(4) The period 1910-1930 was marked by a disconcerting relaxation of the control exercised by most of the great publishing houses over the textual details of their books. Publishers had been trying to maintain an exacting standard of printers’ usage and had applied it as consistently as possible to whatever printed matter they issued. For a complex of reasons, some of them economic, these same houses now adopted the quite different policy of various newer competitors: roughly, the policy of printing whatever an acceptable author supplied, letting the textual blunders (and any incidental odium) be the author’s lookout.

Unfortunately, no more than a vanishing minority of those who write for the public are professionally qualified to edit copy for print or proofread their work; moreover, fewer and fewer of the qualified minority will take the necessary pains. The publisher has, then, renounced his supervision at a point of history where it is needed as it never was while he still exercised it. Even outside the university presses there are still a few illustrious exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic. But all the literate and conscientious publishers, authors, editors, and proofreaders put together are pitifully insufficient to man the levees against the rising flood of corruption, and certainly they are powerless against the tide of chaos that swamps the sentence. In the body of practices once common to the great Anglo-American printing and publishing establishments we had our working equivalent of the French Academy, our authority behind all authorities. But to-day the usages of print define no intelligible standard-by-consensus. They register, rather, the clashing habits, notions, prejudices, vagaries, and delusions of private individuals, all further deranged by the uncensored whims and lapses of compositors.

Suppose we put these four specific factors together in our minds. Add to them the incalculable effect of the newspaper headline, with its ingenious nihilism about the parts of speech. Add the fact that everybody has taken to writing for publication. Add the other fact that everybody is in a hurry, a victim of the strange delusion that time is worth more to us than it ever was to anybody in the ages before us. Add the seemingly incompatible philosophy of millions who try to convince themselves that nothing really matters very much — a posture betrayed in the awful meaninglessness of most reading and in the awful impermanence of virtually all writing. Add the eminently successful attempts of all the pedagogical softies to transform the use of language from a branch of self-discipline and workmanship into an affair of the æsthetic intuitions.

The total effect upon (among other things) the sentence is exactly what we might expect: that is, licensed libertinage, chaos, wholesale devastation, annihilation.

IV

The visible form and typographic clues of the sentence are abandoned to this chaos even when the sentence itself demonstrably survives. For the modern sentence, whatever else it may or may not be, is no longer a graphic device for marking the successive units of thought, and if we are still so antediluvian as to think in sentences, we must disguise the compromising fact as best we can, whether by parading one sentence as several or several as one.

Here is a passage exactly reproduced from an official 1936 publication of Harvard University, the first issue of the Tercentenary Gazette:

A pageant of early beginnings, great growth and future promise. . . . An inch of a moving film that records the progress of American civilization during three hundred years. . . . A greeting to a fourth century, about to begin, in the performance of great tasks: maintaining and acquiring knowledge, passing it on to the future and advancing its bounds, to the common good of mankind.

Harvard’s Tercentenary, as celebrated this September, will be all those things.

That, you perceive, is one sentence modishly masquerading as four, and further split into paragraphs.

Turn once more to Mr. Huxley’s latest novel: —

All the things I thought I should never do again! Such as eating a square meal; but I was doing it after three days.

This is an instructive and quite typical example of the entire freedom of division claimed by the modern writer; compare the degree of logical separation marked by the semicolon with that marked by the ostensible new sentence.

The final cadence of Eyeless in Gaza is a long lyrical paragraph of twenty-two apparent sentences on the beauty of peace. The first of the twenty-two reads: ‘Frenzy of evil and separation.’ Of the remaining twenty-one, four are sentences by the orthodox canon; seventeen are appositive phrases or clauses logically and grammatically attached to the four, every one of them innocent of an independent verb. Four sentences divided as twenty-one! — an authentic sign of the times. When you have read the paragraph you know that peace means a good deal to Mr. Huxley; also that we Americans have no special preëminence when it comes to driving deceptive wedges between the printed form and the underlying construction of our thoughts. The author of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, also British, writes in his recent Lancer at Large: ‘There are many people and things I ought to see, but I am bored with people and things. Glutted.’ There, perhaps, are two bona fide sentences, but ‘Glutted’ is not one of them.

If the British can sometimes excel us in the driving of these gratuitous wedges, we more than hold our own in the corollary matter of knocking out desirable and helpful wedges. In Day of Immense Sun, a recent and much praised novel of sixteenth-century Peru by Mrs. Blair Niles, I read: ‘And there was of course the Mad Queen, whose malady, poor lady, had taken the form of fits, when in the grip of such a convulsion, she would bite whoever came near her.’ And Mr. Dos Passos, when he turns from surrealism to straight narrative, habitually writes sentences strung thus: —

The first paper he read . . . was anything but a success, they said he was crazy.

Margie was miserable hanging round the house all day, the steamheat would n’t turn off altogether and it was too hot even with the window open.

In the taxi she took his hand, it was icy cold.

When he wants to get away from this construction he resorts to a sort of verbal ragbag stuffed hit-or-miss with clauses:

She had enough to think of, what with being alone in the apartment now, because Agnes had finally got Frank away to the country with the help of a practitioner and a great deal of reading of Science and Health, and all the bills to pay and daily letters from Tony who ’d found out her address saying he was sick and begging for money and to be allowed to come around to see her.

Either mode of composition seems to me to be the writer’s equivalent of mending the sock by tying a string around the hole. If anyone doubts that these practices are extremely and increasingly common or imagines that there is any particular obstacle to getting them into print, he is either no very catholic reader of current books or else a curiously unobservant one.

For generations all the teachers of English in the United States labored to impress upon their pupils the criminal enormity of writing such pseudo-sentences as these: (1) ‘This town has a large sash-factory, which keeps from thirty to forty men busy. Also a flourmill, which is kept in operation throughout the year.’ (2) ‘The speed of the automobile seemed to be greater than it really was, this was due no doubt to the absence of all noise.’ A good many teachers still labor valiantly to the same end, insisting that such errors may, in the words of a pre-war rhetoric, ‘be taken as a sure sign that the writer does not really know what a sentence is.’ But the pupils arc presently to emerge into a world that is rapidly forgetting en masse what a sentence is; a world that, when it remembers, seems to be embarrassed by the outmoded knowledge and commonly tries to conceal it. To what end, one wonders, all the careful prohibitory teaching? Are the same habits vicious when pursued in ignorance and meritorious when adopted with deliberation? Are precisely identical uses of language to be at once the badge of illiteracy in a generation of schoolboys and standard practices in a generation of writers? Is the sentence, perhaps, one of those disciplines to which we must submit ourselves as children in order to get the good of our release from them as adults? Is it a sort of pedagogical spinach?

V

The confusions so far described have been brought about largely by conscious theorists, libertarian writers who think of themselves as democratizing language, re-creating it in a shape more faithful to the instinctive idioms of the modern intelligence; in a word, as emancipating it. Their way of emancipating the sentence may, to be sure, strike some of us as a little like emancipating a ship on the high seas by burning its charts, wrecking its compass and its rudder, staving holes in the plates, and tearing down the bulkheads. (This is not altogether a wild comparison: sentence and ship have in common the sole obvious utility of cargo carriers, and neither is easily emancipated without destruction.) But let it pass: grant the successful revolutionists their own vocabulary for their own innovations, and come back to the simple fact that revolution has indeed triumphed. Examine a few of the conspicuous ways in which its triumph has spread outward and downward to levels innocent as yet of the slightest revolutionary impulse. Behold, specifically, how emancipation has affected the sentence as it is often written by those whose intentions are strictly orthodox, canonical, conservative; in fact, by an impressive majority of us who still tacitly define the sentence as a complete thought expressed in words, and who would continue to write it lucidly if only we could escape being infected by the prevailing anarchy and muddlement.

Here, in a handful of appropriate specimens, is some evidence of how plenty of us do write it: —

(1) Like so many events in this life which have been anticipated with zest, there is frequently a sense of disappointment in the final actuality. (J. P. Marquand in The Late George Apley)

(2) Roused by the yammering of Sancho, and the thuds of the marquis’ stick on the door of the largest house the reluctant portal finally opened after considerable parley. (Hervey Allen in Anthony Adverse)

(3) But being myself nothing can keep me awake. (Francis Yeats-Brown in Lancer at Large)

(4) I feel that the President of the United States occupies too high an office that a discussion of his policies should be greeted with boos. (Statement by former Governor Landon, as quoted by the North American Newspaper Alliance)

(5) From his early manhood he was one of those who was ‘walking up and down in the world and going to and fro in it.’ (Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., reviewing An American Doctor’s Odyssey in the Saturday Review of Literature)

(6) The reason that Harvard . . . has produced no objective type, is due to the fundamental quality of independence inherent in the Harvard tradition. . . . Moreover, the New Englander . . . has, also, a certain shy self-consciousness, akin to modesty, which taken with the conviction latent in his bones that gaiety and sin are somehow related, make him advance slowly in friendship and embarrassed about his emotions even when they are entirely respectable. . . . Hence tradition as well as cultural environment lend a maturity to undergraduate values. (Arthur Train in a commemorative article written for the Harvard Tercentenary, 1936)

(7) Another important factor was that American ships are operated at a greater cost than foreign vessels, while still another reason was to put the United States on a comparable basis, with regard to tonnage, as other nations. (Politico-economic special dispatch from Washington, printed in a Sunday editorial section)

(8) I feel that while the District Attorney frequently does the work of the Police Department, if he omits to do something of it he should not be held responsible for not so doing. (District Attorney Geoghan of Brooklyn, at one of the late hearings before Governor Lehman)

(9) In time, I think she had a certain affection for me, due to the number of times she saved me from disaster, — gave her a proprietary interest.

Miraculously the table was cleared of rags, and pots and pans, the room of progeny, relations and neighbors, water boiling, the patient prepared and, in most cases, concluded with astonishing rapidity and efficiency.

Great ropes of pearls swung to and fro across her enormous breasts and stomach, the value of which I had no idea.

...In English I was n’t so bad, and better in Latin.

. . . Plus musical activities she also took boarders.

(In For Dear Life, a pseudo-autobiography signed with the pen-name Belinda Jelliffe and published in 1936 by Messrs. Charles Scribner’s Sons)

(10) I am grateful that there is one paper . . . which, if it has editorial views not wholly in sympathy with administration policies and practices, those views are so intelligently expressed as to enlighten the reader on the basis of fact rather than fancy and not in keeping with subsidized points of view reflecting special privilege ownership. (From a letter printed on the editorial page of the New York Times)

Now, I do not wish to make overmuch of the fact that simple illiteracy and simple carelessness, which are no new things in the world, are still with us. Mere sniping at individual errors and inadvertencies is a pretty cheap and unprofitable business, anyway, and moreover it is doubtful if any individual author’s work is entirely proof against just such sniping. But, as it happens, two very powerful considerations lift these specimens quite out of the class of individual erros and inadvertencies and into the class of highly representative social phenomena.

The first consideration is that such things, having been heedlessly written, are as heedlessly printed. They come to us under the sanction of the best imprints. Publishers’ editorial departments have let them through; copy desks have consented by silence. Printers’ proofrooms have passed them without a query. Hardly anyone now calls them to an author’s attention or makes a fight to protect him from his own carelessness or ignorance. No one resists; no sensibilities seem to be rasped; no currently respected professional standards are outraged. The trustees and custodians plainly no longer believe that enough readers to matter will notice the difference between clarity and muddle, sense and nonsense, or will care if they do notice.

And here we arrive at the second powerful consideration, which is that the custodians, be they right or wrong, have every apparent excuse for their skepticism. It would be foolishly bitter to insist that fuddled writing is a positive help to an author’s prestige; but it is certainly small handicap to it. Anthony Adverse, incidentally to its other riches, is a veritable thesaurus of faulty constructions and makeshift diction; and so is many another best-seller. Slovenly writing can succeed, can circulate; it can be, and is, regularly accepted with unquestioning applause. Thus, our samples point to a good deal more than petty individual accidents and vagaries.

As to whether the public acceptance of collapse is really as general or as indifferent as it seems to most publishers, I shall merely hazard one trivial personal remark and ask one suggestive question. The remark is this: I cannot explain the number of persons who send me outraged letters every time I end a sentence with a preposition, or write ‘which’ where Fowler’s Modern English Usage recommends ‘that,’or even place one hyphen according to a usage that defies logic — except on the supposition that an appreciable fraction of the reading public is more observant than the publishing gentry conceive. And my suggestive question, asked without at all prejudging the answer, is this:—

The ten examples cited above are arranged in rough approximation to an ascending scale of frightfulness. At what point in the little series, if anywhere, should you guess that the pressure of chaos might become intolerable to such general readers as you happen to be acquainted with? To put it more narrowly, at what point are you yourself provoked to spontaneous disgust and recoil? To what stage of vagueness, confusion, or sheer lunacy must the English sentence be pushed to evoke any noticeable volume of outcry? Just how little syntactical muddle will the generality of readers notice, and just how much will they stand with complaisance?

It is a serious practical question, asked in good faith and from a conviction that much more hinges on the answer than meets the casual eye. Therefore, let no one content himself with the cynical and glib snap-judgment that there is no limit whatsoever to the blind apathy of the public.