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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

October 11, 2015
Even award-winning, record-breaking debut novels can have bad sentences.

Even award-winning, record-breaking debut novels can have bad sentences.

Maybe Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t a classic novel yet, but it probably will be.  It’s been over 15 years since it was published, and people are still reading it.  Most books are forgotten months after they were published.  I’m betting the Harry Potter books will continue to be read for several generations, so I’ll go ahead and call it a classic now.  If I’m wrong, 50 years from now people can come back and mock me for it.

Whether it’s a classic or not, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has some bad sentences in it.  It’s easy for for me to spot bad sentences because I’ve written a lot of them in my time.  If my English teachers would have red-marked my paper for writing something similar, then it’s a bad sentence.  If my writing group peers would have criticized me for writing something similar, then it’s a bad sentence.

The bad sentences in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone aren’t the long, confusing run-ons that can plague much of classic literature.  JK Rowling’s bad sentences are more subtle.  Readers who are into the books for pure enjoyment might not spot the bad sentences, but for somebody like me, who hasn’t truly enjoyed a book in years, bad sentences stick out. 

Bad Sentence #1

He bent his great, shaggy head over Harry and gave him what must have been a very scratchy, whiskery kiss.  (p. 15) 

If I had written this sentence, my English teacher would have hammered me for the phrase “what must have been.”

“What do you mean ‘what must have been’?” my English teacher might have said.  “Either the kiss was scratchy and whiskery, or it wasn’t.  And don’t use ‘very.’  ‘Very’ is lazy.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but I don’t think readers ever found out whether or not the kiss was very scratchy and whiskery.  Or maybe the kiss was “somewhat scratchy and whiskery.”  I’ll never know for sure.

Bad Sentence #2

And the fleet of little boats moved off all at once, gliding across the lake, which was as smooth as glass.  ( p. 112 )

My English teacher would have told me that “smooth as glass” was one of the laziest similes an author can write.  It’s right up there with “as fast as a cheetah.”  Maybe the baby’s bottom wasn’t good enough.  If I had written “smooth as glass” in school, I would have gotten a giant red “CLICHÉ!!!!!!!” on my paper.  Plus, the sentence started with the word “And,”but I do that too, so I won’t count it.

Which is smoother anyway, glass or a baby’s bottom?  That’s one of those things you have to be really careful about if you’re determined to find out.

Bad Sentence #3

The entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursley’s house in it.  (p. 113 )

2nd-person point-of-view?  I was taught to NEVER use 2nd-person in fiction (except in dialogue).  Even if it were acceptable in writing, this example of “you” came out of nowhere.  It would have been an easy fix for an editor with something like:  “The entrance hall was so big the whole of the Dursley’s house would have fit inside.”

Making the sentence even worse was the use of “big.”  “Big” is a lazy adjective.  Students all over the United States are taught not to use the word “big.”  An author doesn’t need a thesaurus to find a more vivid adjective than “big.”  I can’t believe publishers let a first-time author get away with the word “big.”

Bad Sentence #4

“It’s an invisibility cloak,” said Ron, a look of awe on his face.  ( p. 201 )

“Of course the look of awe is on his face,” my English teacher would have said, had I written this sentence.  “Where else would a look of awe be?  On his hands?  On his feet?  On his stomach?”

Even though my English teacher would have been engaging in a bit of overkill, I would still get his point.  This redundancy could have been easily fixed with the following:

“It’s an invisibility cloak,” said Ron in awe.

Or…

“It’s an invisibility cloak,” said Ron, his jaw dropping in awe

Maybe I’m being just a little nit-prickety.  Then again, maybe not.  Maybe published authors should be held to higher standards than public school students or struggling authors in writing groups.  I don’t know.  Either way, I know that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a wildly successful book, but I also know that even wildly successful books can have bad sentences in them.

+++++

What do you think?  Are these sentences bad, or were my teachers and writing group peers overreacting?  Should an aspiring author use the word “big”?  Which is smoother, glass or a baby’s bottom?  Is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone a classic?  If not, (when) will it become one?

*****

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45 Comments
  1. I love the Harry Potter series but it does have some bad sentences and phrases. Also uses wayyyyy too many adverbs instead of stronger verbs. It can get distracting. Still, it’s such a fun and well developed series (in terms of characters and world building) that I can’t fault the author too much for some faux pas

  2. Bad sentences or not, I cannot warm up to the Harry Potter’s s series. Even the films I cannot bear watching. I tried though. Many times. But after thirty minutes I could not force myself anymore.

    Another hype I can’t understand is Fifty Shades of Gray. No need to explain.

    • I hear you!! I feel the same way.

      • Anonymous permalink

        MY THOUGHTS : It gets kids/ loads of adults reading and it challenges their imagination when they watch the film. not necessarily a bad combination

    • wiplash15 permalink

      Or better yet:

      “It’s an invisibility cloak!” Ron gasped.

      Good points. I agree wholeheartedly – especially since I was taught to avoid using “said” in any kind of writing.

      • It all comes down to personal preferences I guess. A lot of people love Harry series. And the Fifty Shades… My mother in law is still bugging me to watch the movie version.

  3. I love Harry Potter, but I have to agree with you even the most loved/ successful books can have their share of flaws.

  4. I enjoyed the Harry Potter series. I would give the author a pass as someone who was writing as a juvenile. I do appreciate your input and examples because I know my own writing is an abomination. Your post is a great help for me.

  5. I have read the Harry Potter series a few times. Although I have noticed flaws in the narrative, I never noticed these bad sentences. In fact, I never notice them in any book I read, mostly because I think no author could go wrong there. You have given me a new perspective!

  6. I don’t think these sentences are actually bad, maybe more like “needs improvement”. For example, “must have” makes perfect sense – if you’re telling a story in the third person, you don’t necessarily describe every character’s feeling or reaction, but instead describe their visible behavior – and “must have felt” comes in as a guess of what the feeling was of someone whose actual feeling was unknown.
    Also, what’s wrong with “big”? It’s a legitimate English language word, as far as I know.

  7. I love harry potter and have never thought of any bad sentences in it.

  8. Sorry for the long reply, but this is a particular passion of mine — writing that is, not Harry Potter. I have read the series and I agree with you. This is probably the best written (or most tightly edited) of her books and I didn’t notice any shortcomings while reading it. I did become conscious of ‘poor writing’ when I was reading some of the later books, of the kind that any writer might produce when drafting a novel. My feeling is that the manuscripts were rushed into publication without due attention to editing, by Rowling and/or others. I would have stopped reading them after the third book if I hadn’t become engaged with the characters.

    Having said that, I don’t agree with your teacher’s rules of ‘good writing’ either. It’s perfectly reasonable to use the work big to describe something big — sometimes the simplest words are the best. There is no agreed rule book for good writing, only preferences that change over time. If Jane Austen submitted her manuscript for Pride and Prejudice, or Tolstoy sent in War and Peace to publishers today, both would fail to meet modern ideas of good writing.

    Some of my favourite classics include long, winding sentences teeming with semi colons, rambling descriptions, slabs of background that tell rather than show. You can get to page 37 without encountering any action or dialogue at all. Yet millions of people still read and enjoy such books, hundreds of years later, because they are wonderful stories, with memorable characters, masterfully crafted in the style of their time.

    Our ideas or ‘rules’ of good writing will pass too. Personally, I’ve always found modern trends in writing too rigid and austere. It feels like the accountants have taken over and applied the principles of economic rationalism to writing, stripping our work of any excess. Superfluous words and punctuation are gone. That Rowling was allowed to sneak some transgressions passed the editors gives me hope.

    To look at it another way, if an editor had gone through these examples with a red pen, to produce a technically flawless book, would it have improved the book and the story?

    Take this sentence:
    ‘He bent his great, shaggy head over Harry and gave him what must have been a very scratchy, whiskery kiss.’

    And make it this sentence:
    ‘He bent his great, shaggy head over Harry and gave him a scratchy, whiskery kiss.’

    Read them aloud. Is it really an improvement? Your English teacher may prefer it, but the longer, imperfect original has a heart and soul that the improved sentence lacks.

    As an amateur writer, it’s a problem I have when editing my own work. I find it difficult to ignore ‘the rules’ as I’ve learned them, but when I have edited ruthlessly for technical correctness, I find my work has lost its sparkle.

    The Harry Potter books are far from perfectly written (if you read the rest of the series you’ll find plenty of examples), but they seem set to become enduring classics that will continue to capture the hearts of young readers. Perhaps that’s the ultimate test of good writing — write something that people want to read.

  9. If you can forgive the self promotion, I once wrote a piece on how my favourite writer might be judged under the ‘modern rules of writing’ : https://honoriaplum.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/a-matter-of-style-wodehouse-and-the-modern-rules-of-writing/

  10. HP series is great, but hard to read because of bad sentences ) Very similar to da vinci code, which is a novel so badly written it is impossible to go beyond the first hundred pages, even for someone who’s not a native speaker )

  11. Very interesting post, as always! Still, let’s not forget that this book is a VERY long one. I think expecting from the author to work for every single comparisona and style figure is too much. Let’s give’em a few lazy ones. About DaVinci code and the writing: you know the saying, it’s so bad it’s good. 🙂

  12. Utterly disagree with you about the scratchy, whiskery kiss. JK is using ‘what must have been’ to imply that the writer/reader is, in this instance, standing at some distance and observing. Think about it, one would hardly be in the middle of a scratchy whiskery kiss. I’m as much of a Grammar Nazi as the rest but suspect J K Rowling is a better writer than your English teacher is ever likely to be.

  13. Furthermore, J K Rowling isn’t an American. If she had written The entrance hall was so big the whole of the Dursley’s house would have fit inside” it would have screamed ‘American’ to an English speaker of English.

  14. Nice review. As far as bad sentences or not, I always reminded myself that this was a Children’s Literature or Young Adult book. And yes, there is the fact that J. K. Rowling is British. Those Brits do speak and spell differently than us Americans.

  15. The whole of Harry is poorly written. Now we have a whole generation of persons like yourself wondering about bad sentences. How about prolix sentences filled with the wrong words or malaprops.

  16. Meh, it seems I’m the only one who actually likes the fluidity of the writing in HP, so maybe I’m biased….But I think most of these were overreactions:) Example 1 uses “what must have been” since we can never know whether a baby (or I guess anyone for that matter) thought a beard was scratchy or not unless that baby decides to tells us; so it’s an assumption. Example 2 really is a matter of opinion/preference of whether an adjective’s “bad” or not; that’s like saying “blue” is a bad description just because it’s so commonly used. But I do agree Example 3 and 4 are examples of 2nd-POV and redundancy respectively, ones I never noticed.

  17. Great post – love your reviews as always.
    No, you’re right, much of HP is not the best written and I don’t accept the argument that it’s YA or for kids so that makes it ok – many YA book are brilliantly written.(Phillip Pullman, Malory Blackman books etc).
    However, the thing that makes HP so popular are the stories, not the florid prose and who can knock Rowling for that? The same goes for Dan Brown – the man can really write a page turner and that is a skill in itself.
    More distracting for me was the way she wrote Hagrid’s speech – all those apostrophes and missing letters – too much.

    And no one has mentioned the most important point of your post – how are we to determine whether glass or a baby’s bum is smoother? Preferably without being arrested 🙂

    • kymreadsbooks permalink

      The way Hagrid speaks, that was written so the reader could fully “get” the way that he speaks and how his language is.

      • Yep, I get that, but I think you can give a flavour of an accent just by slipping in a few colloquialisms and dropping the occasional word ending. Over filling the speech with dropped letters and punctuation until half of the marks on the page are apostrophes is overdoing it I think. Very distracting. But then, I read the books to my son a few years ago – I suspect if I’d read them as a ten year old, it wouldn’t have bothered me at all 🙂

        • I agree with Lynn. I, too, find it an unpleasant distraction when it’s laid on so thickly.

  18. kymreadsbooks permalink

    Being British, I don’t actually think they are written that bad. It swings both ways because I can read a lot books by American authors and think the writing is terrible. A lot of it is the culture of the countries and the way we speak and the language we use. The original story was Harry Potter and the philosophers stone. It had to be changed for the American market. Every time I see it talked about by an American it narks me because the book was edited so you guys could understand it.

  19. I love the Harry Potter series and it’s a yearly tradition of mine to read them at the start of the year. I agree that there are some “bad sentences” in there, but really the books were written and geared for young readers to get them to enjoy reading and broaden their imagination. For the seasoned reader and writer, those bad sentence structures and choice of words can be distracting true. However, it all comes down to whether or not you are reading a book purely for the pleasure of it (in which case sentence structure, grammar, etc.) would not be an issue, or for literary purposes.

  20. Dina permalink

    Wow! So much makes sense when you explain it. I enjoyed reading your post. While you might be right… I don’t feel disappointed or expect an aspiring author to know this… writing is a means of expression. I see it for that and at times just isn’t perfect. I’m OK with that
    (thinking I’ve made a LOT of mistakes here….) 🙂

  21. maddaandhalfofthewholestory permalink

    How is Harry Potter classic literature :/?

  22. I think we need to remember that the Harry Potter books were originally for children, so it makes sense that the language and sentence structure aren’t competing with classic literature. That being said, some of these sentences do make me cringe. At least the stories were entertaining.

  23. Shreya Suravarjhula permalink

    Harry potter is boring piece of literature for me.Sorry guys but the book sucks

  24. Just discovered your blog. I enjoy your reviews & am following. look forward to seeing more from you in the future!

  25. Michelle L. permalink

    Yes I agree that parts of Harry Potter had awkward phrasing, but they weren’t necessarily bad sentences. I believe what JK Rowling has done gives her a certain tone of voice, that is unique to her writing style. Once you know the rules of grammar, you can break them for stylistic character.
    Harry Potter is not the best written novel, but it will no doubt go down in history as a classic. The plot isn’t the most complex, but it’s relatively easy to understand and its very fun. I’m still shocked when people tell me that they haven’t read Harry Potter, because I own all the movies and have read the books countless times.
    I was actually thinking of doing a Harry Potter book review on my page: pacificbookclub.wordpress.com

  26. Shreya Suravarjhula permalink

    Dear blogger pals i’m requesting you people to kindly read my recently launched blog n do leave ur feedback.

  27. I am probably one of the biggest potterheads ever, and I can’t stand either the books (for their bad writing style and word choice, not to mention the overuse of adverbs), or the movies (just. no). I think the main reason why I love the the series so much isn’t that the word is great or anything, but the imagination that drove the Potter world left so many plot holes (yes it’s actually a positive thing now) to explore I can’t help but be opened up to opportunities it offers.

  28. Can you just rename this “proof that real writers don’t need to follow the idiotic rules my English teacher asked me to follow for no apparent reason in order to be successful”? It would be much more accurate.

  29. My problem with HP is the use of plural pronouns, supposedly to make them gender-neutral. When reading HP to my daughter, I would edit them, sometimes after tripping over them.

  30. The only one of your quoted “bad” sentences I’d object to is “The entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursley’s house in it.” To me, “could have fit” is grammatically incorrect.
    The others are merely matters of style or word choice.

  31. I definitely understand where you’re coming from. I took AP English Language in high school, and the teachers hounded us for “bad sentences”. But, as it’s fiction, I think it can bend the rules a bit.

  32. I remember commenting on this post first time round, and reading it again it still aggravates and, therefore, vastly entertains me. I’m a follower and much as I enjoy those of your posts that I happen to catch I do think you’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick here. None of those sentences are ‘bad’. I shudder to think what English lessons in America must be like, if a teacher would judge her pupils by this, the worst sort of anti-creative, faux grammatical correctness.

    (And now, to add insult to injury, we are bombarded by nonsensical, cretinous tweetings of Donald J Trump, a high-quality American English speaker if ever there was one.)

    I have had the occasional short story/poem published in my long life and bad grammar, spelling and punctuation would normally leap screaming out at me too, but I read the Harry Potter books end to end when they first came out – my first reading of a ‘children’s’ story as an adult – and was so entranced by the story I never once felt the intrusive presence of ‘writing’ or ‘a writer’.

    Hands off our J K Rowling, is what I say. She’s writing the Queen’s English, not American High School-eze.

  33. Anonymous permalink

    Did your English teacher write anything worthwhile?

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