Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"Syntactic atrocity"

That headline in the local paper yesterday caught my eye, of course. (Here's one version of the story. It was about the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, what some people called the "Dark and Stormy Night" contest. The winning entry, which happens to be by a Madisonian, Jim Gleeson. The atrocity is this:
Gerald began -- but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash -- to pee.
OK, this isn't a well-formed sentence of English to me: "until buried" is impossible; I'd have to say "until they were buried". The shtick he's going with here is not just having a monstrously long clause buried within a short sentence, and interrupting before we know what's being interrupted. I actually find that clever.

Of course the organizers always comment on the winning entry:
Scott Rice, an English professor at San Jose State, called Gleeson's entry a "syntactic atrocity" that displays "a peculiar set of standards or values."

"If you think about it, unless it's a flashback, there's not very far you could get with that story."
Really? I could see a great story built around this. You could write a whole novel about a ten-minute span, or you could shift perspective when Gerald gets covered by lava.

4 comments:

The Ridger, FCD said...

Also, the "for them" indicates that Gerald will somehow escape the being buried.

It's kind of a clever hook, really.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, you're absolutely right ... I had automatically read it as inclusive, like 'all of them including him', but your reading is the more natural.

I hope this guy writes a novel around the set-up!

Ollock said...

To be honest, I don't like the big interrupting clause, particularly with such a short sentence. It could be an attempt to be clever, but it comes off to me as a bit of an amateurish gimmick that confuses the reader.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, are you familiar with this contest? It's for "bad writing". It's all really tongue-in-cheek and they ham it up like mad, of course. So, the big interrupting clause is probably the point.