Experiencing Experience

In an earlier post entitled From Phrase to Clause, we looked at the first half of a difficult sentence and saw how changing an opening phrase to a clause can bring precision, and thereby energy, to our writing. The second half of that same sentence presented other difficulties, which I would like to look at now.

Here’s the original sentence once again: One month into my vacation after not taking any time off for almost three years, I began to experience persistent thoughts about being away from work that plagued me. As is ever our procedure, we begin with identifying the type of sentence we’re revising. We may classify all sentences into three types: simple, compound, or complex, and our example falls into the last category because it comprises both an independent clause (I began to experience) and a subordinate one (that plagued me). The first clause is saying more than it should, and the second is not saying what it thinks it’s saying.

Let’s begin our analysis of the first clause with this psycho-philosophical question: what isn’t an experience? If we define an experience as anything we are conscious of, then just about anything we have to say is an experience. And if we write that one began to experience persistent thoughts, we are going even one step further by bringing the reader’s attention to the growing awareness of something, not to that which one is aware of. Now a psychologist might very well object, saying, “Yes, that’s the very point, which is why the clause begins with the verb began, to show the incipient, inchoate awareness of the persistent thoughts.” And one is, admittedly, hard pressed to take exception with that especial psychological subtlety.

But it is often the case that we as more common writers and speakers will rely on the verb experience to set up a sentence which in the end logically displaces what is really at issue. Did the writer of our example really mean to point to the subtle psychological moment of aborning awareness, or did he just pull down a well-worn verb that is so encompassing in meaning (what, again, isn’t an experience?) that it adds nothing at all to the thought intended? What would be lost, in other words, by simply cutting to the chase and using persistent thoughts about being away from work as the subject of the clause? This would force us to bring the central idea center stage, where now we would have to give it its due verb, plagued, which we find displaced far off alone in the subordinate clause. Our revision, then, would read: persistent thoughts about being away from work began to plague me.

This objection to the uncareful use of the verb experience arises from the principle that precision lies predominantly in style. Because we cannot write about anything that is not an experience (how can we say anything about something we are not aware of?), to say that we are experiencing something is really to say that we are saying it. The psychologist’s perspicacity aside, there is no logical difference in common perception between I began to experience persistent thoughts that plagued me and persistent thoughts began to plague me. The former is a wordy version of the latter, woolly in its generality and blunting in its force.

We should note, finally, that our revision deleted the subordinate clause entirely. That was the only right and proper thing to do, in fact, because the original relative clause that plagued me could only use the noun work as its antecedent, which was not logically correct: persistent thoughts plagued the subject, not his work. Here again exactitude helped improve the style. Finding exactly what we mean to say often appears as hairsplitting, but more often than not it is not. Every word must count because every word draws some modicum of mental energy from the reader’s attention. Spend that energy on misdirection, and the reader will tire before understanding what we really wanted to say.


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