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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

June 28, 2015

Pride and Prejudice 2

It’s difficult to make the case that Jane Austen wrote bad sentences in her novels, especially in Pride and Prejudice.  Jane Austen was known for many qualities: her wit, her sarcasm, movie adaptations that put guys like me to sleep (but that’s not her fault).  One thing that Jane Austen is NOT known for is writing bad sentences.

Since writing is so subjective, it’s tough to define what makes a bad sentence.  The lazy approach would be to treat a bad sentence like pornography; you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.  Unlike a certain former United States Supreme Court judge whose name I can’t remember, I can define pornography (if certain body parts are involved and mix in with other body parts, it’s pornography).

The same applies to bad writing (having the standard, not the body parts).  Once you have a set standard, it’s simple to determine if a classic sentence is bad or not.   Here’s my standard for a bad sentence in classic literature:

If my writing instructors would have red-marked me for writing the same sentence, then it’s a bad sentence.

Using this standard, Jane Austen’ popular novel Pride and Prejudice is full of bad sentences.

DISCLAIMER:  I am not saying Jane Austen wrote bad sentences.  I have learned from experience not to criticize Jane Austen books.  I am saying that my writing instructors would have considered Jane Austen sentences to be bad if I had written them.  I like Jane Austen.  She was a great author.  Even so…

BAD SENTENCE #1-from Pride and Prejudice Volume I, Chapter Three, at the end of the fifth paragraph:

The gentlemen pronounced him (Mr. Darcy) to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding countenance, and being unworthy to be compared to his friend.

WHY IS THIS A BAD SENTENCE?

1.  Massive Run-on- Six independent clauses with two dependent clauses.  A decent writer could get at least three sentences out of that (my writing instructors would say).

2.  “…his manners gave a disgust…” –What did Mr. Darcy do?  Fart loudly?  Chew with his mouth open?  I want to know what Mr. Darcy did to offend everybody, especially if it involved farting loudly.

3.   “…he was discovered to be proud…”  How was his pride discovered?  What did Mr. Darcy do to show he was proud?  Did he boast?  What did he boast about?

4.  “…a most forbidding countenance…” Who felt this most forbidding countenance?  What made his countenance forbidding?

In that single sentence, Jane Austen did a lot of telling and no showing.  If I had written something like that, my writing instructors would have filled the page with red question marks.  Therefore, it’s a bad sentence.

*****

Sometimes a bad sentence needs context from another sentence (which also might be a bad sentence)

CONTEXT FOR BAD SENTENCE #2- from Pride and Prejudice Volume I, Chapter Twenty:

Mr. Collins was not left long to the silent contemplation of his successful love; for Mrs. Bennet, having dawdled about in the vestibule to watch for the end of the conference, no sooner saw Elizabeth open the door and with quick step pass her towards the staircase, than she entered the breakfast-room and congratulated both him and herself in warm terms on the happy prospect of their nearer connection.

Remember, that was merely the context.

BAD SENTENCE #2- from Pride and Prejudice Volume I, Chapter Twenty

Mr. Collins received and returned these felicitations with equal pleasure, and then proceeded to relate the particulars of their interview with the result of which he trusted he had every reason to be satisfied, since the refusal which his cousin had steadfastly given him would naturally flow from her bashful modesty and the genuine delicacy of her character.

WHY IS THIS A BAD SENTENCE?

1.  Wordiness- “proceeded to relate” should just be “related”

2. Wordiness- “with the result of which” is clumsy.  The sentence could end with “interview,” and the next sentence could start with “He had every reason to be satisfied…”

3. Wordiness- “since the refusal which his cousin had steadfastly given him” should be “since his cousin’s steadfast refusal.”

4.  Wordiness- “Bashful modesty” should just be “modesty.”

5. Wordiness- “genuine delicacy” should just be “delicacy.”

In other words, my writing instructors would have accused Jane Austen of wordiness.

*****

A sentence doesn’t have to be long to be a bad sentence.  Below is proof that even a short Jane Austen sentence could be a bad sentence (according to my writing instructors)

Example #3- the third paragraph of Pride and Prejudice Volume II, Chapter Eight third paragraph:

Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed really glad to see them; anything was a welcome relief to him at Rosings; and Mrs. Collins’s pretty friend had moreover caught his fancy very much.

WHY IS THIS A BAD SENTENCE?

1.  The word “really” is used.  “Really” is worse than “very,” and “very” is bad enough.  Jane Austen used “really”?  Really, Jane Austen?  Really?

2.  The adjective “pretty” is also lazy.  Get a thesaurus (my writing instructors would have said).

3.  The word “very” is used.  Again, it’s lazy writing (my writing instructors would say).  For decades, authors like Stephen King and Mark Twain have warned writers not to use the word “very.”  True, Jane Austen was writing before Stephen King and Mark Twain were born, but she still should have known better.  Or maybe Stephen King and Mark Twain are wrong about “very.”

In one sentence,  Jane Austen uses “really, “pretty,” and “very.”  My writing instructors would have been disappointed in me if I had done that.  They might have even been really very disappointed.

*****

What do you think?  Are the above sentences bad sentences?  What standard do you have for bad sentences?  Should great authors use words like “really” and “very”?  What other great classic author wrote bad sentences? Which is worse, using “very” or using “really”?

*****

When I was a kid, I was punished for saying the word crap.  Looking back, it kind of ticks me off because now I know…

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50 Comments
  1. Hi there. This is a very interesting post. I think the ‘show, not tell’ concept is a fairly recent one. When Jane Austen was writing, I don’t think writing instructors were around to warn her. Plus, the standard of writing in those days were different from today’s.

    I have heard so much about ‘show, not tell’ that sometimes I think it is over-rated. As long as I am enjoying reading something… it really doesn’t matter if there is a bad sentence. In fact, for once I’d love the beeping in my head to stop when I see a bad sentence, and read plainly for pleasure.

    But that’s my opinion! 🙂 I am glad you shared this. Only, I’d agreed more to it if you titled it as Bad sentences in Classis Literature in Today’s Context 😀

    • I agree with you on just about everything, especially the part about “show, don’t tell” being overrated. Then again, I think everything is overrated. Maybe I should rephrase it as “everything that is rated is overrated.”

      • Haha! That’s one way of putting it. 🙂

      • “Show, don’t tell” is a rule of thumb for a particular kind of writing: expository writing. The root of the word, “expose,” is a clue to that kind of writing’s intended purpose. Austen was not composing an essay, so the rules of expository writing would not govern her sentences anyway. Much of what makes a sentence “good” or “bad” has to do with its appropriateness for the context. In the context of an argumentative essay in the 21st century, that sentence would be “bad” because of the mismatch between its style and the conventions of expository prose in 2016. And THAT is why a similarly styled sentence (and many other examples of literary prose) would receive red marks from a professor, not because there is something intrinsically “bad” about it.

  2. After reading example #2 I had to slap myself to force my eyes open. There are many old works that are insufferably dull. But, we remember them for the story told, not for how pretty the writing was. 😉 Get it? “Pretty”.

    With that said, I think the ‘very, pretty, really’ rule belongs with the ‘avoid all adjectives’, the ‘no opening a book with a dream’, and many other rules foolish to follow with any kind of stringency. Read the sentence. Does the ‘pretty, very, really’ add something that would be missing in its absence? If so, keep it. If not, don’t.

    Same with run-on sentences. In storytelling, you are allowed to deviate from standard writing rules. A run-on sentence may be ‘bad’ in English class, but might be an important device for storytelling. Jane Austen was a storyteller first and foremost. While her prose, in my opinion, can only be read with the enthusiasm one might have counting grains of sand, she did manage to make a name for herself. I think the question is ‘does the abnormal structure and wordage of these sentences take away from the story?’ Personally, I think it does.

    That’s my sole guideline. There’s almost nothing you can do that is always wrong, despite what editors and other word-oriented types might say. The story comes first when a story is what is being told.

    • “After reading example #2 I had to slap myself to force my eyes open.”- Does that help? I’ve tried it a couple times, but it doesn’t seem to work for me.

      I agree with everything you said about storytelling. Sometimes those long sentences get in the way (for me), but I also know that a lot of readers like them.

  3. This really is a very interesting post making some pretty concrete points. If I had written that long a sentence, my teacher would’ve marked the page red.

    • Maybe we had the same writing instructors. But we probably didn’t have the same writing instructors as Jane Austen.

      I wonder if Jane Austen’s school essays got red-marked (or whatever color instructors used back then to read mark assignments).

      • I think her writing instructors were keen on encouraging her to write, so much, that they chose to overlook her mistakes. Or maybe, her instructors were male and she chose to rebel against them. She must have found it pointless to oblige to patriarchal norms in language.
        And now I believe I am going overboard with the conspiracy theories.

  4. You’ll notice the same wordiness in any sentences relating to Mr Collins. I’ve always seen it as a nod to his character, as it reinforces the way in which he uses a lot of words to say very little.
    I would agree with the other commenter who noted that ‘show don’t tell’ is a modern preoccupation – I spend a lot of my time reading 19th Century novels, and most of them do this.

    • “You’ll notice the same wordiness in any sentences relating to Mr Collins.”- Ugh, I hadn’t noticed that, but I’m also not the most observant guy out there.

      “I spend a lot of my time reading 19th Century novels, and most of them do this.”- Yes! That means there is lots more material for… Bad Sentences in Classic Literature!

  5. Reblogged this on cdow1997.

  6. I love run on sentences and I’m guilty as hell for always producing them in my writing but that’s me. I also believe in whatever floats the boat. If bad writing (according to some) makes one a good writer, why not? This example also shows that all the rules can be broken with great results if you know how to do them properly.

    • And you used “guilty as hell for producing them (run-ons)” instead of saying “very guilty” or “really guilty,” which is kind of funny because I’ve never noticed run-ons in your writing. If you DO use run-ons, yours are easier to follow than Jane Austen’s.

  7. May I object to the “pretty”? – As I guess from crontext, the really very pretty rule is meant to be applied (^^ applies) to adverbs, and in the “pretty friend” it is really pretty surely a very adjective. Maybe a vague one, but hence it is about the Collonel’s feelings, that may do (and besides I reckon it not the worst of descriptional features to leave some gaps that can be filled by the readers themselves – e.g. whatever they imagine a pretty (cute, beautyfull – according to the grade of affection) woman looks like). A similar thought comes to me about Mr. Darcy’s disgustsome manners – Austen might as well call him outright arrogant, but instead she left that conclusion to the reader to be drawn from the subsequent descriptions, and so the reader ist ledt with greater freedom of judgement.

    What does not mean that I disapprove of the article (as a matter of fact, I apprectiate the series strongly). It is nice to see that others observe the same inconstistencies in education (we are not supposed to write like the classics did). It’s just that I’m rather on the classics’ side against modern standards (at least as long as I can figure any sense in their writings, they’re just more fun to have).

    And after all: A bad sentence for me is a sentence that I need my Latin-skills to figure out.

    • I agree with you on the “pretty” and Darcy comments. I also don’t mind it when authors tell because “showing” too much can take its toll on both the reader and the writer. I just remember being told constantly (or frequently) to “show, don’t tell” from instructors and writers group peers.

      “A bad sentence for me is a sentence that I need my Latin-skills to figure out.”- Ha ha! I like that, but I don’t know Latin, so for me, it used to be if the sentence was too complicated to be diagrammed, it was a bad sentence.

  8. I do like a bit of Austen and always wonder – this round about way of writing, of describing, of coming at a subject in a twisting way… Do you think they spoke like this, or was it merely a convention of the written word?
    I mean, in real life, if Jane had had a meeting with an unpromising suitor would she she cosy up next to her BFF, all girlish giggles, exclaiming ‘I received and returned these felicitations with equal pleasure, and then proceeded to relate the particulars of our interview… ‘ I mean, would she?
    I don’t believe Elizabethans spoke in the idioms that Shakespeare and Marlow used (certainly not in rhyming couplets!) and we know that modern novels don’t exactly copy our own speech patterns (unless you’re reading something edgy and experimental.) So how did Regency people really speak? Even reading letters and diaries, I suppose we’ll never truly know.
    I remember a writer of historical fiction (can’t recall who, sorry) saying that the way we imagine our ancestors speaking (very formal, every word pronounced perfectly) is surely unrealistic. Human beings are lazy – wouldn’t they have run words together too? Wouldn’t they have said ‘wouldn’t’ instead of ‘would not’?
    A side point, I know, but interesting.
    I remember reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame years ago and my mind wandering, because Hugo insists on describing Paris in great detail – for pages and pages – when a modern reader really wants him to crack on with the story.
    As we say, times have changed.

  9. Desiree B. Silvage permalink

    Reblogged this on Literary Truce.

  10. I found this both interesting and embarrassing. I was reading and flicking back through my grammar book to remind myself of all the phrases I’d long forgotten, like “independent clauses”.

    I’m a writer and I forget all of these things – clauses, subject, predicate and a million more. Which, considering my vocation, is really very embarrassing. I have to admit I have two rules for bad sentences – confusion and more tongue tripping.

    1.If it doesn’t do what I set out for the sentence to do, i.e get over the info I wanted it to, then it’s bad.
    2.if I can’t say it without tripping over myself then it’s a bad sentence.

    Both of these bred confusion and probably eventual dismissal of the sentence.

    While I was glancing between your post and my grammar book I realised I was heavily guilty of splitting infinities of all over the place so maybe I should re-read this book, or go back to school, who knows?

    But I do think that a lot of classical literature fails my rules, maybe not in the time they were written but since language has evolved (or devolved as some may argue) it’s getting harder and harder for me to find a classic that doesn’t fail my own rules.

    • “I was reading and flicking back through my grammar book to remind myself of all the phrases I’d long forgotten, like “independent clauses”.”

      I had a junior high English teacher who was very strict with grammar. I know grammar doesn’t stick with a lot of students, but I retained a lot of the diagramming and sentence structure from her class.

      Split infinitives? I think I read somewhere it’s okay to do that now, but maybe my memory is bad or the guide that I was reading was wrong.

      • I just have a terrible memory for everything, I still have to open the book to decide if I need a semi colon or a colon or anything else! Oh, I’m glad it’s okay to do that because I do it all the time!

  11. I recently read Pride and Prejudice and had difficulty with her sentence structure as well. Austen had a tendency to change POV mid-scene.

  12. Hi, let me first say I enjoy your columns and like the way they provoke thinking in a reader like me. Having said that, let me say you are brave, taking on Jane Austen, especially her sentences. I expected floods of angry tears from the many Jane Austen fan clubs around the world. I do think people write for their times, of their times. The best writers today may sound “wrong” in fifty years’ time. The sentences would look dated and trite. You don’t have to look far. Just take up a novel from the psychedelic generation and see how those quaint words sound today. I believe there is a certain writing style for each period. Whether they write as they speak or not is probably not the point. They write in a generally expected style. Also, I left grammer behind when left college because I do believe great writing cannot really taker off if it is tied to grammar. Try talking to James Joyce about it. I am not an especial fan of Jane Austen any more than I am of Raymond Chandler. Just stating my opinion. Thanks for your enjoyable articles. They just provoke me to have my say sometimes.

    • James Joyce? Maybe we can try “Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Finnegans Wake by James Joyce,” but I wouldn’t know where to start. Or is it… we wouldn’t know where to stop?

  13. If I ever get marked down for any of these examples I guess I won’t feel so bad. I’ll just tell myself that I write like Jane Austen. Hahaha 🙂

    • In high school, I told an English teacher that I was using a writing technique that Stephen King used (I think it was starting a sentence with the word “and” or “but”). He told me that I can use that writing technique as soon as I sold as many books as Stephen King. This was in the early 1980s, back when that goal was attainable.

      We can tell ourselves that we write like famous authors (I do that every once in a while), but I guess we can’t tell our writing instructors that.

  14. What a fun idea for a post! I think this just goes to show that the “rules” of good writing are a lot more flexible than our writing instructors (at least mine) lead us to believe. I teach first-year composition at a university, and I definitely would have had a conversation with the author of that second sentence about wordiness. 😛

    • If you have a student that writes sentences like that, talk to the student about it; don’t write a note to the student about it because you don’t know how long the response to your note about wordiness would be.

  15. Reblogged this on OPTIMISM.

  16. johnberk permalink

    Your article gave a good laugh. First of all, I don’t really enjoy Jane Austen. And I feel you are not her fan either. But let’s be honest – she is so popular because she fits into our perception of her times. I don’t blame her for that. Who knows what will be popular when we become a history. Maybe food bloggers, because they are extremely skilled with their language and show us with perfection how easy is to make someone hungry by reading?

    • I don’t know. I’m not NOT a Jane Austen fan. I just don’t think I was her target audience.

      I’d love to see which books (if any) from our time period (however it’s measured) are still being read 100+ years from now.

  17. Jess permalink

    Do you plan to do something similar with other older works that are considered popular? This was a wonderful idea for a post.

    • Thank you. There are a few other Bad Sentences in Classic Literature, for Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities, and a couple others. I think The Great Gatsby was the most controversial of the bunch.

  18. Hm. What if I made the case that writing instructors today (and having been a peer writing tutor I’m very well aware of this), are interested in producing effective writing for everyday purposes and not necessarily for art? Not that clear and concise writing make a bad novel, they do NOT, but it is also to say that categorizing something as bad or good without having a frame of reference as to why they are so is not a very effective way of understanding anything. I liked your post, it asks a very good question that for has a very simple answer: it is only bad writing when it fails to produce an effect that helps the overall project. A few examples:

    There’s actually an excellent academic article written about the use of the word “very” in Emma, and the academic concerned suggests that the use was 1) deliberate and 2) helped perform just how insulated the Highbury society was. Free indirect discourse helps us understand this a bit better, for there are certainly moments when the narrator slips into the speech patterns and mannerisms of the character, and instead of looking at those as mistakes, we need to look to see what these slips do. In Emma, they add to the fact that the society being talked about is very, very small and isolated, which is why almost all the characters (and this is personal opinion now) drive me up the wall. But yes, the repetition of the word ‘very’ helps exaggerate that fact, which adds to the literary project of the novel, and hence is good writing in my book.

    Similarly, the all the words you’ve highlighted in the novel speak to the heroines in P&P. Of course pretty is a lazy adjective, but also one of the few ones available to women who have access to little or no education. The Bennet sisters are smart, witty, clever…but they don’t have access to formal education that that is a HUGE problem throughout the novel. Austen makes a lot of social commentary through her writing, and it isn’t always through plot.

    As a peer tutor, I often had to help tutees mediate between the performativity of a piece and convention…even when it’s about showing and not telling, using incredibly long and convoluted sentences like this one help demonstrate why its difficult to keep a reader’s attention by using many superfluous words and excessively flowery language better than shorter sentences that simply tell you that long sentences are not that great, or grammatically correct.

    Concise sentences keep a reader’s attention while long sentences don’t.

    See? The former is just as effective as the latter to explain the same concept. And this could be flipped very easily, which is what people more conventionally mean when they say “show and not tell” as well. So…no, I DON’T think Austen is using bad sentences, and I’m not an Austen fan either. I think it’s good storytelling, for the people who care to skim beneath the surface.

  19. This is a very interesting perspective. I have taken various linguistic courses (my most recent one being History of the English Language) and I find it so fascinating that our idea of good vs bad language has changed so much over the years. It’s even more interesting to look at the people who originally decided what was good and what was bad. Language authorities unite!

  20. Bad sentences are bad writing. Don’t kid yourself, despite how many times and the big named stars appear in scripts based upon that novel.
    Indeed, it is ofttimes a bad novel gets made into a movie. Everyone in production reads it and says this novel is real crap. Let’s buy it. They praise but eliminate the author from the screenplay process and most of that money in the writing. That way a decent story can be told.
    Mark Twain wrote about Jane Austen, “It is a shame they let her die a natural death.”

    • I don’t know how I feel about the Mark Twain quote. I like Mark Twain a lot, but I don’t think Jane Austen was around to defend herself.

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  22. This was interesting and well written. The only thing I would say is that authors often break the rules to produce certain reactions in their readers. I’m not sure if Jane Austen did this or not, but a perfect example of writers breaking the rules for effect is clear when Daniel Handler writes under his pen name Lemony Snicket. He uses the pen name to write children’s books (I would think a childrens author would be grammatical and technically precise as possible as to help kids learn) but Handler pulls it off very well and it adds a touch of incredible flare to his writing. James Joyce also like to bend the rules/reality with his incredibly, almost frustratingly, odd and modern narratives. Its important to learn the rules so they can be broken.

  23. It is excellent to see ‘the greats’ brought down to pedestrian ways. Certainly a writer like Dostoevsky and his verbosity wouldn’t see today’s publishing light of day. I think today’s writers are diction and grammar slaves. Rule breakers can be quite popular.

  24. As a non-native writer of non-fiction art-related stories, I try to avoid “really”, “very”, “pretty” or “beautiful”. Often though, the urge to pass on knowledge gets in the way of writing good sentences…

  25. May I reblog this?

  26. Reblogged this on The Write Project and commented:
    Bad sentences from Jane Austen? In Pride and Prejudice?!
    A reread is in order. (I want to see if there are more.)

  27. schillingklaus permalink

    The sentences are nowhere near bad; and writing instructors of this epoch are abominable, along with the equally corrupt and decadent publishers.

    Show, not tell is the broad way tohell; tell, not show is my one true path to go.

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