Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thomas Hardy vs. the Indeterminate Sentence

I am told that in penological circles no topic is more hotly debated today than that of the indeterminate sentence. Some bad man does some bad thing, and a Judge says: “That’ll be three to seventeen years [or whatever] in the Allegheny Work House [or wherever].” The indeterminacy is supposed to be an encouragement to the felon, so that he might deport himself in such a way as to be more consistent with the smaller rather than the larger number. Of course determinacy might also be an encouragement. In the middle of the eighteenth century a naval court martial condemned Admiral John Byng to death for his supposed cowardice or incompetence at a battle in the Balearic Islands. There were extenuating circumstances, but Voltaire wryly remarked that now and again the British felt they had to hang an admiral in order to encourage the others.

But I must not digress. This post is about indeterminate sentences, and I am against them. That is, Thomas Hardy and I are against them. There is an experience that most readers surely have shared while walking through some populated place, or when crossing with pedestrians walking in the opposite direction. One catches what we call a “snatch” of conversation. Overheard cell phone conversations are also good for this purpose. Sometimes one hears things so extraordinary as to pose a challenge to the imagination. What possible context might lend them coherence?

Once on a street in Rye, Sussex, I encountered two elegant gentlemen, one of whom said to the other: “Was it ormolu? I mean, actually ormolu?” That is all I heard. Here the indeterminacy is fathered by the word “actually”. It is weird enough that anything might be ormolu, but that one would have to attest to its actually being ormolu is just too much. How many things out there are just pretending to be ormolu? Another dilly once overheard was this: “…only solution—get a divorce, or fire the Chinese cook”. I leave that one up to you.
Is it....actually?

Of course a “snatch” of conversation is by definition fragmentary. A sentence is by definition “the expression of a complete thought.” Yet more and more of the prose I encounter in my daily rounds, though ostensibly written in complete sentences, seems strangely indeterminate. Often the problem is one form or another of SDS (the Syntactic Derangement Syndrome), which is now pandemic in editorial offices on both sides of the Altantic. The copybook example of SDS is probably known to you: “Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while riding to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope”. A clever diagnostician will identify the problem here easily enough, and call in the word-surgeons. Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope….Just kidding.

More often, however, the level of incoherence is more comprehensive and hence more baffling. I am usually up and about quite early, some considerable time before the brightening of the eastern sky or the arrival of the New York Times on the carport driveway. At such hours, in my continuing quest for self-improvement, I visit websites claiming to offer news, sometimes even the “latest news”. For the past two or three days I have intentionally avoided American sites, having reached saturation point so far as congressional undergarments are concerned. So this morning I went first to the BBC page. Was I any better off? You be the judge.

The story that greeted me there was summarized in the following sentence: “On Monday, Mr MacMaster, originally from the US state of Georgia but now a student at the University of Edinburgh, said he was sorry for posing as a Syrian lesbian”. What interests me is less the story itself, engaging though it be, than the puzzle presented by the sentence. There is no way to tell what, amidst all the information seemingly contained, the author considers important. Is it Mr. MacMaster’s contrition or his Cracker origins? Would he be equally sorry for posing as a Sudanese lesbian? How about a Syrian bricklayer? Is Monday as significant as its rhetorically emphatic position might suggest?

By chance I happen just now to be reading The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) by Thomas Hardy. Further by chance its opening sentence is superficially similar in its construction to that cited from the BBC news summary. “One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in upper Wessex, on foot.” The big difference is that Thomas Hardy knew how to write a consequential sentence. A reader just knows that every clause in that sentence is stress-bearing. The reader probably also suspects, since it is Hardy, that the child will be dead in no time at all, and the woman soon enough, leaving the man to arrive at his miserable end with Victorian leisure. But Hardy’s is a sentence that makes you want to turn the page, not to send the writer off to writer’s camp for three to seventeen weeks.
 Their fates will be cruel, but ever so well written


  1. I was happy to see the old Gettysburg Address train wreck that was part of my own early syntactical education. But I'm wondering if SDS can sometimes have a salutary effect as here:

    "Whose woods these are I think I know."

    where normal syntax (subject, verb, object order) is inverted?

  2. “Was it ormolu? I mean, actually ormolu?”

    Not such a weird question, really. If the underlying material is anything other than bronze, then the gilt is not ormolu. I know this because I was embarrassed by being corrected disdainfully for an improper use of the word in a London antique shop some years ago where the gilded object was merely wood instead of bronze.