Style and Content

Let’s tackle an interesting sentence that appeared recently in an opinion piece in the New York Times. Its design is grammatically sophisticated, and understanding how and why it’s put together that way can make us more aware of other choices we have in stylizing our own sentences. The author is Ruth Goldway and the piece is entitled “I Was a Postal Service Regulator for 18 Years. Don’t Panic.” Goldway is arguing that there is no question the Postal Service can handle a high volume of election mail. Instead, she says, we should put our attention to improving the speed of delivery:

Given that there is enough money and perhaps more if the president agrees to additional bailout funds; that there is plenty of capacity in the system; and that voting by mail can alleviate a health threat to the nation, the Postal Service should be made to handle all election mail as if it were first-class mail. (New York Times, August 18, 2020, online edition)

The first thing to notice is that the main clause, the Postal Service should be made to handle, stands at the end of the sentence, and that it is preceded by three segments, each beginning with the conjunction that and each separated from the other by semicolons. Sentences like this that postpone the main clause until the reader has read through a number of subordinate elements (usually three) are called periodic or suspensive sentences. Periodic sentences take one down a path, building suspense until the main idea is suddenly revealed at the end of the journey. They are lofty in their design, and one expects to meet them more often in serious public remarks or in legal documents where clarification is paramount.

And it is no doubt just because the author here wants to be serious and clear that she employs this sophisticated sentence structure in an opinion piece. The subject of delivering election results is certainly serious enough to warrant the style, and the three introductory elements first isolate the ideas we don’t have to worry about: money, capacity, and what to do about alleviating a health threat. The structure of those three leading elements is complex in its own right, and a little more than we can deal with here. Notice, though, that the author employs semicolons, not commas, to separate them. This is the right choice for a number of reasons: the second and third segments (that there is plenty of capacity and that voting by mail can alleviate) presume, but don’t explicitly state, the word given, the first word of the sentence, and the semicolon brings us to pause for a moment at the conclusion of each segment, so that we have a chance to really hear its meaning. These are actually three adverbial prepositional phrases that point to the conditions supplying the reasons why the main assertion is cogent.

So what is another stylistic choice the author could have made? Maybe something lesser like this:

There is enough money and capacity in the system, and voting by mail can alleviate a health threat to the nation, so the Postal Service should be made to handle all election mail as if it were first-class mail.

Straightforward but flat, clear but uninspiring. Matters of style are superficial, not in the pejorative sense of being shallow, but in the primary sense of being seen on the surface. What we are saying and how we say it cannot ultimately be separated, but our readers see the how first. A compelling style has the effect of drawing us in, curious now about the meaning and implication of what is being said so interestingly. And if we are open to the world of the language and all the unexpected things that can burgeon forth from it, new ideas abound, and we find ourselves looking at the old real world in a new way. To hold our readers’ attention with a fitting style long enough to give them thoughts worth giving is at the heart of the art of writing. Grammar serves structure, and structure yields style: that’s an effective protocol.


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1 Comment

  1. It may be grammatically sophisticated but I find it to be my least favorite kind of sentence in that the semicolons act as hurdles or obstacles to the main clause. By the time I reach the main clause I’ve forgotten what has come before and have also built up a measure of resentment for making me work so hard!

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