November 12th, 2017

Oddly enough, I’m reading Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence—Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase and on Friday I read chapter 11: Hypotaxis and Parataxis (and Polysyndeton and Asyndeton). Forsyth wrote:

There’s nothing wrong with parataxis. It’s good, simple, plain, clean-living, hard-working, up-bright-and-early English. Wham. Bam. Thank you, ma’am.

“Orwell liked it. Hemingway liked it. Almost no English writer between 1650 and 1850 liked it.

“The alternative, should you, or any writer of English, choose to employ it (and who is to stop you?) is, by use of subordinate clause upon subordinate clause, which itself may be subordinated to those clauses that have gone before or after, to construct a sentence of such labyrinthine grammatical complexity that, like Theseus before you when he searched the dark Minoan mazes for that monstrous monster, half bull and half man, or rather half woman for it had been conceived from, or in, Pasiphae, herself within a Daedalian contraption of perverted invention, you must unravel a ball of grammatical yarn lest you wander for ever, amazed in the maze, searching through dark eternity for a full stop.

“That’s hypotaxis, and it used to be everywhere. It’s hard to say who started it, but the best candidate was a chap called Sir Thomas Browne.

The abomination that Oliver quotes—and that appears below—is not an example of Browne’s genius. Forsyth writes:

Browne gave to the English language the glory of the preposterously long sentence that nobody in their right minds would ever say aloud, sentences that are intricate games, filled with fine flourishes and curious convolutions. Such sentences have a remarkable quality: civilization.

There is nothing civilized in the speech of President Donald John Trump:

Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.

This is Day 296 of the Presidency of Donald John Trump.


  1. Mary Jo says:

    That is not just hypotaxis; that is an incoherent phrase, indicative of a speaker who cannot put his thoughts into meaningful sentences.

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