Worst Sentence Ever Seen in Academic Prose

Fitzedward Hall

Fitzedward Hall

Linguists are often accused of ignoring the difference between good writing and bad. But I’m not one of E. B. White’s Happiness Boys: “the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow.”

Just today I was shocked by perhaps the most ill-structured sentence I’ve ever seen in academic prose (not ungrammatical, just hideously clumsy):

Our infinitive, where to precedes it, having been generally, of old, dativo-gerundial, it is pertinent, at the outset, to note, in connexion with phrases on the model of “able to thoroughly bake bread,” such a phrase as “conducive to thoroughly baking bread.”

The sentence is not of recent vintage, as you may have guessed. It’s 135 years old. It appeared in the The American Journal of Philology (vol. 3, no. 9, 17–24) in 1882, opening a paper by Fitzedward Hall (1825–1901), whose addiction to self-interrupting parentheticals shows even in his title: “On the Separation, by a Word or Words, of to and the Infinitive Mood.”

Hall’s robust polemical criticism of Dean Henry Alford, chief architect of the myth that there’s something ungrammatical about “split infinitives,” is well aimed. But his writing is atrocious. The sentence above should have been taken behind the barn and put out of its misery. Let’s try some emergency veterinary surgery on it instead.

After several readings one begins to see that it starts with a nonfinite clause functioning as what is known as an absolute adjunct (like the Second Amendment, which begins with the adjunct A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, meaning “since a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state”). The verb of the main clause is thus the is before pertinent. The main verb of the absolute-adjunct clause, which could have been introduced by since or because, is the gerund-participle having.

This structure is hard to discern because before we reach the crucial comma ending the absolute adjunct (after dativo-gerundial) we are distracted by four other commas, necessitated by two parenthetical interruptions — “where to precedes it” and “of old” — each of which needs to be flanked by commas.

The predicate beginning at “is pertinent” is interrupted by two more parentheticals: “at the outset” and “in connexion with phrases on the model of ‘able to thoroughly bake bread’” (which contains a quotation which contains an italicization).

The first six words (“Our infinitive, where to precedes it”) seem to mean “the to-infinitival construction in contemporary English” (the curious “our” indicates a presupposition that only English speakers will ever read this paper; the globalization of academia was unforeseen). But it seems odd to talk about that modern construction as “having been, of old, dativo-gerundial”: a phrase like to bake was never “dativo-gerundial” — Hall is torn between talking about modern infinitivals and considering their counterparts in the very different Old English syntax of a thousand years before.

I think the best way to make the sentence intelligible is to break it up into at least two. Here is my best shot at expressing its apparent intent:

The modern English to-infinitival construction is the descendant of an Old English construction involving the preposition to and a dative form of the gerund. It is therefore relevant for a discussion of phrases like “able to thoroughly bake bread” to begin by noting the occurrence of phrases like “conducive to thoroughly baking bread.”

That’s the best I can do right now. The sentence has given me a headache. It still isn’t great, but improving things further would involve a deeper reorganizing of the exposition. And we must move on to the second sentence:

Bake, as here used actively, originated, by detrition, from the gerund bacanne, which further contributed, along with a verbal substantive, towards the development, what between corruption and confusion, of the present participle baking.

Again there are four parenthetical interruptions — five if you follow The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language in calling parentheticals supplements and including supplementary relatives among them: the relative clause beginning with which is itself a kind of parenthetical, containing two others.

I find myself losing the will to live as I contemplate revising it. And there are pages more to come. I just can’t face it. You rewrite it.

Don’t ever tell me that back in the 19th century people knew how to write, while today English grammar is falling into disrepair. And don’t ever, ever, say that I don’t recognize the distinction between good writing and bad writing, or that I don’t have standards about grammar. I hate bad sentence construction. More than most people: I’m more sensitized to it. If I hear you repeat that stock charge of anything-goesism, you and I are going to have to step outside. Is that clear?

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