Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
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…
And here is the true story of my one moment of high school glory!