“The ordinary British sentence – which is a noble thing”

I have encountered a rather strange thing in some work I am reviewing. It is deeply displeasing and demotivating to me to see it. But more of that particular strange thing in a moment.

If one is involved in a car crash, then one’s car will be damaged. It will be taken to the garage, and they will effect repairs. They will send the bill either to you or possibly to the insurance company. But if the car is very badly damaged, then the garage or the insurance company may deem that the cost of repairs actually exceeds the value of the car itself. In such cases it is common to say that the car has been “written off”. We use the term “written off”, therefore, to describe something that is damaged beyond economic repair.

An important part of my job is reviewing and revising the writing of others.  In this task, I may encounter sentences that are damaged, or more likely, badly constructed from the start. I may come across concepts that are difficult to understand, and I sometimes read phrases that are simply incomprehensible. Just as garage mechanics repair cars, I repair sentences. But just occasionally, I come across sentences that are so convoluted, so twisted and arcane, that repair is just not possible. We might fairly say of such sentences that like badly damaged cars, they are “written off”; they are beyond economic repair.

The problem is that in revising such sentences you have to understand completely the mind of the author; you need a thorough comprehension of what he or she was trying to say – so that you can then construct an easy-to-understand and comprehensible sentence for the reader.

That is the heart and soul of my job. It is not easy and it is fair to say that it has brought me to my knees, at least metaphorically, on a number of occasions.

The strange thing that I encountered? It is a number of sentences of Pauline intensity and length. (The Apostle Paul is known amongst students of the Bible for having using long and complicated sentences; it is something the student of St Paul’s letters must ever be on the lookout for.)

As writers, what is the longest sentence that we might deliver? I have looked through this short piece and shortened a number of sentences to less than 30 words. I am not wanting to see sentences of 71 words. I am most dismayed at having to read a sentence of 87 words. That saps my strength – for I believe strongly that it is the writer, and not the reader, who should be doing the hard work.

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