Wednesday 20 October 2010

Long Sentences and the Sahelian Swahili

Knowledge corrupts prose. You write upon subjects you know. Thus you can write a sentence that seems clear to you. You understand because you understood the ideas as you wrote it. Yet to the uninformed reader for whom you meant it, it is a belligerent mob of subordinated clauses, cavilling caveats and curious connectors.

Take this sentence from an article I was just reading:

As the longtime editor of the Socialist Register, Leys would probably not endorse this view, but a strong case can be made that just as it had been a mistake for supporters of communism who nonetheless opposed the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba to keep saying that not one of these actual communist regimes had lived up to the doctrine's emancipatory potential, so it is time to admit that there is only "actually existing" development, and that it has not worked.

I can make neither head nor tail of that. I could try taking the sentence apart, but I'm not even sure how to. On my fifth reading of it, I decided that he had missed out a not. On my sixth I wasn't so sure. Now, I'm quite sure that the author knows what he means. He seems like a clever chap. But that is the problem. His expertise has got the better of his prose. Because he can understand the sentence he assumes that others will. Because he has a subtle and complex understanding, his prose is subtle and complex and cannot be understood at all.

The simple solution would have been to break the sentence up. Eighty-one words is just too long, unless you're Milton. A full stop after view would be a start. I'm not sure how to continue because I still don't get the gist of the remaining sixty-six words.

The understanding must be subtle, the prose simple: such is the paradox of informative writing.

The article did, though, give me a word that I'd never heard before: sahelian. The Sahel is the strip of Africa immediately to the south of the Sahara. It comes from the Arabic sahil, meaning edge as it is the edge of the desert. The word is therefore terribly useful metaphorically. If I'm feeling pessimistic I could be feeling sahelian, with deserts of misery sweeping away before me. A chap who had just lost his job could receive a sahelian P45. An ambitious and verbose journalist could call today's Comprehensive Spending Review a sahelian moment.

The plural of sahil is, for some reason best known to the Arabs, sawahil. That is why the inhabitants of the edges, or coasts, of East African are called the Swahili, or the coastal people. That does not mean that the Swahili (coastal) live in the Sahel (edge of the desert), only that their names come from the same source. After all, mad Welshmen aren't walnuts.

Whereas the Swahili are opposite Madagascar


  1. The problem with the sentence, besides that it is awful, is that a step is left out in the analogy. He says that it was a mistake for supporters of communism to claim that the failures of actual communist regimes have not been of theory but of practice. Fine. But then he goes on to say that, in the same way ("just as ... so"), "it is time to admit that there is only "actually existing" development, and that it has not worked." Opposed to "actually existing" development must be an idea of "theoretical development." Thus: As it was bad to go on supporting communism despite its practical failures, so it is bad to support "theoretical development" in the face of failures of "actually existing" development. There is, in fact, only "actually existing" development, and it has not worked.

    Now, I have no idea what's being developed, nor does the sentence inspire me to click the link to find out. Moreover, having left the sweaty rainforest of my afternoon workout for the dry desert of formal dinner, I had better enter the Sahelian shower, or risk offending my table mates.

  2. Hurrah for the full stop, that's all I can say.

  3. This post reminded me of every single email that I have ever received from a specific coworker. Obviously full of knowledge, but it requires that I dissect each sentence just to understand it.

  4. That is a humdinger of an awkward sentence. The main problem, I think, is that readers have to hold in their head so many incomplete phrases (and ideas) . We have to record the fact that Leys probably wouldn’t endorse something labelled ‘this view’ (because of blah blah) and that ‘this view’ is that ‘a strong case can be made that…’. But before we can find out what this strong case IS we have to find out what this strong case IS LIKE. Apparently, it’s like the mistake made by ‘supporters of communism…’ . But before we find out what this mistake is we have to process a relative clause: ‘who nonetheless opposed…’.

    And if any reader has the perseverance to sort out this mess of embedded recursive phrases they are left with a core statement that is nothing more than tautology: ‘there is only “actually existing” development’. It’s true, but trivially true. You can figure out what the writer’s trying to say, but it’s hardly worth the effort.

  5. I enjoyed this, as always. I wouldn't normally comment with the sole purpose of pointing out a typo (and yes I have read the excellent post on proofreading), but 'uniformed reader' is so delicious that I can't resist. I would love to know what the uniform is and where I can buy it.

  6. You mean you've been reading Inky Fool out of uniform? Disgraceful! All my readers are required to wear plus-fours, an Astrakhan coat and a Kaiser Wilhelm helmet.

    It also goes to show that you can't proof your own writing.

  7. You people are awesome ;)