My friend Bruce DeSilva and I have a two-person private club, called “The New York Times Dreadful Sentence Society.” We send each other awful bits from the paper. It’s not a contest, but if it were, this sentence would surely win. It appeared in a feature about Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks:
But it’s their friendship – and the bond of the 2,000 Year Old Man routine – that has helped sustain the two men through the bad times (Mr. Brooks’ wife, the actress Anne Bancroft, star of “The Graduate,” died in 2005; Mr. Reiner’s wife, Estelle, best known for her one line in “When Harry Met Sally” – “I’ll have what she’s having” – died in October 2008) as well as the good.
What’s wrong with that sentence?
The author starts simply with subject and verb, “it’s their friendship,” and begins a series of insertions, each of which will add to reader confusion. Inside the phrase “through the bad times … as well as the good,” the reader encounters 38 words and two clauses. The first clause, “Mr. Brooks’ wife … died in 2005,” has two insertions in it: “the actress Anne Bancroft” and “star of ‘The Graduate.’” The second clause, “Mr. Reiner’s wife … died in October 2008,” has one long insertion, “best known … she’s having,” which includes three names and a quote. By the time readers get to “as well as the good,” they’ve forgotten the front end of the phrase, “through the bad times.”
What’s wrong with that sentence? Readers might have to read it three or four times to figure out what it says. The real problem with this sentence is that the writer just kept shoveling information into it, and paid no attention to the readers’ understanding.
[Got any horrible sentences in your collection?]