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Bad Sentences in Classic American Literature

April 14, 2019

Classic literature is sometimes difficult to read because a lot of the books are filled with bad sentences.   Despite what critics might think, a bad sentence doesn’t have profanity or adult content.  A bad sentence is one that an English teacher would make corrections on if written by a student.

Here’s what I mean.  When I was in school, my English teachers did a good job explaining grammar and sentence structure, but then they would assign classic novels where the authors broke the rules that had just been taught.  If I tried to mimic the style of the authors I’d just read, my teachers would red-mark my paper.  To simplify matters, I simply took these sentences that students were not allowed to write and called them bad sentences.  Even if you don’t agree they are bad sentences, you probably understand what I mean.  Maybe you even relate.

Bad sentences abound in all kinds of literature, but today I’ll focus on classic American literature.  For example, Moby Dick by Herman Melville has a bunch of bad sentences, so many that I wrote an entire  blog post about it  several years ago.  Out of all the examples, this one at the end of Chapter 24 “The Advocate” is one of my favorites:

“And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

Speaking of Yale and Harvard, if you’re taking your ACT or SAT writing, don’t write like Herman Melville.

Maybe the semicolon usage was correct back in 1850.  Maybe it was a stylistic thing.  I understand that, but it’s confusing to be taught one way to use semicolons in school and then see them used differently in classic literature.  If I had used semicolons the way Melville used them in Moby Dick, I would have failed my English classes.

Here is a bad sentence from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (which I’ve written more about here), this one describing Jordan Baker:

 “She was extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless and with her chin raised a little as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall.”

I get the impression that this was a rough draft sentence that Fitzgerald never went back to finish.  She was balancing SOMETHING on her chin.  The word “something” is kind of vague.  If I had written that in college, my writing instructor would have demanded that I come up with another word for “something.”  “Something” is what you write when you’re not sure what word you want to put in in its place.  I kind of want to know what that something could have been.  If I am going to write that a character has her chin raised like she were balancing something that was likely to fall, I should be able to think of something that could be balanced on a chin.  A napkin?  A cocktail glass?  Several cocktail glasses?  A book?

The sentences in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne aren’t as long and ponderous as those in some classic literature, but there are plenty of other issues.  For example, in Chapter I, “The Prison Door,” Hawthorne starts the book with the following opener:

“A throng of bearded men, in sad colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.”

That’s the first sentence?  That’s the hook?  First of all, I lost track of what the sentence was even talking about.  If you cut out all of the prepositional phrases and other interrupters, you have “A throng was assembled.”   There are over 20 words between the subject and the verb.  If I had ever written a sentence with 20 words between the subject and the verb, my English teacher would have red-lined it and pinned my essay on the Wall of Shame bulletin board.

And if I had used the phrase “sad colored garments,” my writers group peers would have criticized me for telling, not showing.  “What colors are sad in the 1600s New England culture?” they would have demanded.  And then the phrase “… the door of which…” is clumsy.  Just say “… with a heavily-timbered oak door studded with spikes.”

Of course, these aren’t the only bad sentences in classic American literature, but the average reader can tolerate no more than three at one time.  If you yearn for more bad sentences in classic literature, you can simply read classic literature.  All of it is public domain, and none of the books are expensive, unless you choose to buy the expensive versions.

Bad sentences in classic literature aren’t necessarily bad.  These sentences are written in a style that is rarely used in today’s novels and are part of what make classic literature unique.  English teachers might like these bad sentences when they’re found in classic literature, but don’t try writing like this in your essays.  If you do, you will be accused of writing… BAD SENTENCES!!

  1. I love the sentences that go on for an entire page or more. I’m looking at you, Faulkner.

    • A few years ago, I was going to do a Bad Sentences in Classic Literature blog post for The Sound and the Fury, but I decided it belonged in a different category.

      I think I categorized it (along with Finnegans Wake and The Corrections) as Books That Make Readers Feel Stupid.

      These books don’t make ALL readers feel stupid, just guys like me.

    • meinjace permalink

      Cormac McCarthy does that a lot as well. There’s a section of Blood Meridian that’s a page and a half long sentence. I also think that this type of writing can be good if it’s presenting a certain tone or mood, but I agree that it is frustrating when English teachers ding you for imitating what they deem as “great writers.”

      • A page and a half? If I had written a page and a half sentence, my English teacher would have failed me (and probably would have convinced all the other teachers to to fail me to out of principal).

  2. As a former Literature major. I slap you a 🖐 and a 👊. I’m doing a classic lit reading challenge and find myself correcting and rewriting sentences. I wonder if in 50 or 100 years how readers will look at bad sentences. Or will they even know what a sentence is. I’ve seen some emoji stories popping up. 🤷‍♀️

    • I understand your concerns, but I’m not sure if emoji stories will last. That emoji movie wasn’t very good and set a pretty bad precedent for emoji stories.

      Good luck on the classic lit reading challenge!

  3. I don’t even know what most of that Moby Dick paragraph is trying to say. It was highly unlikely I was going to read it anyway, but now it’s definitely off the table.

  4. Uncle Tom’s Cabin has bad sentences and an overabundance of exclamation marks.

  5. I agree! I’m learning English and Spanish sintax now because I study translating and now, every time I write, I’m paranoid of the mark-ups because they’re not “grammatically correct”.

  6. I agree on the Melville, am ambivalent about the Fitzgerald, and disagree about the Hawthorne. I like that sentence. I didn’t lose track part way through. In fact, I would probably fault the prose of Hemingway far more readily than I would Hawthorne. Complex prose is more amenable to the exploration of ideas. Hemingway is much closer to pop lit, in my opinion.

  7. karensila permalink

    I study English Literature and being an English teacher as well i understand what bad sentences mean. i applaud immensely though the courage of the old in writing, at times bending the rules of English brings the fun in reading Literature. English Literature is a paradox in itself.

    • Nat permalink

      i or I? My teacher would circle that punctuation error for sure 🙂

  8. Loved this post! Thanks for all of your good sentences! So I agree . . . but I also definitely see the draw for writers to break the rules. With that said, if they’re still writing sentences that are “ponderous” and muddled and difficult to even read, they’ve lost me. I’m ALL about breaking the rules (after knowing the rules) but with the intent of conveying clear meaning. For me that’s the crux: clear meaning.

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