How to write better sentences, part 4—hypotaxis
Last week I talked about parataxis—the style of writing where clauses and sentences are laid out one after another, with no connecting terms to explain how they relate, a style used in movements of narrative action, in the prophetic speech of DH Lawrence, and the famously minimalist prose of Ernest Hemingway. The opposite style is hypotaxis, where the connections between ideas are made clear, where one idea is subordinated to another.
Hypotaxis is the standard style for essays and arguments, and Ernest Hemingway, the supposed fanatic of the simple declarative sentence, switches to a very hypotactic style for his book-length essay on the arts of bullfighting and writing, Death in the Afternoon. Casual readers may not see the extent of the change, because in certain places, Hemingway retains his word set from the very paratactic early stories:
So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after and judged by these moral standards, which I do not defend, the bullfight is very moral to me because I feel very fine while it is going on and have a feeling of life and death and mortality and immortality, and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine.
But although we have the familiar words like “fine” and “good,” we also have interjections (“which I do not defend”) and classifications (“about morals, I only know that”) and explanations (the bullfight is moral because…). One page later, Hemingway is in full hypotactic mode, when he explains,
I believe, after experience and observation, that those people who identify themselves with animals, that is, the almost professional lovers of dogs, and other beasts, are capable of greater cruelty to human beings than those who do not identity themselves readily with animals.
Perhaps the most wonderful praise of the strongly hypotactic argumentative style comes from Northrop Frye, who, in his late opus Words with Power, suggests that the rise of “dialectical” writing was tied to the rise of powerful court bureaucracies and ancient kings, that it represented / enabled a turning from myth towards philosophy and monotheistic religion, offered (offers) a semi-magical power over its audience, the power of compulsion. One has to think hard to disagree with Hemingway’s claim about dog-lovers, even if one has never seen a dog-lover slap a child, the reader’s attention caught by how his sentence promises and holds back, moves forward only to elaborate again. Powerful hypotaxis delays gratification of understanding, setting up hooks (because…) and implying pay offs which the reader scans forward to reach. The deliberate use of multiple delays can stretch the ordered nature of hypotactic styles to a seeming disorder, such as in this mildly famous novel opening:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Stanley Fish, in How to Write a Sentence, considers this sentence an example of parataxis, but surely he is being deceived by diction. Holden Caulfield is using a very hypotactic “if… then… but…” sentence structure, and embedding within it various enumerations of his main idea. Fish says that Salinger makes no concession to the reader—but in fact Salinger merely claims to make no concessions. He is guiding us through his digressions, and what he didn’t want to tell us, we actually never wanted to hear. What Fish misreads as “additive” is the power of paratactic clauses working within a hypotactic structure. Sometimes as a morning writing exercise, I give myself the model of a long sentence that I found in Death in the Afternoon or in an essay by George Bernard Shaw, and just play with it, seeing how I can build up tension with “and” clauses, disgress, ramble, poet-ificate. For instance, here’s a sentence that I told myself had to go if, and, then, only…
If the morning were an ounce brighter, and the three-part tree outside my window not so wounded, the leaves that appear with the daylight on its dark arms seeming the same colour as the red brick walls behind, flicks of fire shivering in the wet, then I would have got up sooner, only these mornings, when the world looks drowned, the sky all one sour shade that is no shade at all, I feel too suited to the day to go walking in it, no noises in me to break the birdlessness, and I need another hour, covers up, to clear the flood waters that all night have been seeping in.
This disgressive hypotactic style has its limitations, especially when one is addressing an impatient reader, and want one’s argument to hit hard. When writers wish to give their hypotaxis style this “augmented” power, but do not wish to damage the cohesion of their arguments, they repeat the structures of their sentences, the technique that school teachers call parallelism, teaching readers how to distinguish a claim from an elaboration. For instance, inside his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King creates one incredible sentence made of many “when” clauses, some clauses short, some lengthened by ands. “Whens” begin each main clause, “ands” extend some of them, and “and sees” coordinate the longest series of elaborations, the parallelism ensuring that the sentence keeps rushing forward on its terrible course. Here is merely the first half:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”…
The repeated clause openers both keep the reader clear on how each piece fits into the overall story, and accelerate the reader’s eye, giving the sentence the weight of inevitability, the rising volume of its argument increasingly unavoidable. When King finally gives the answer to all these when clauses, “–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait,” the reader has long since been convinced.
Readers may now be wondering how hypotaxis could be used in fiction, aside from very talky moments like the sentence from Catcher in the Rye above. It’s possible to see the difference between a hypo and a paratactic style in the work of a single author. William Trevor, in “Access to the Children,” wants to portray a ruined man who doesn’t know how sorry he is. Malcolmson is not very conscious of his problems, and the story’s narrator is not willing to spill the beans. So, in quite paratactic prose, the narrator explains:
In the Volvo he asked them if they’d like to go to the Zoo and they shook their heads firmly. On the last two Sundays he’d taken them to the Zoo, Susie reminded him in her specially polite, very quiet voice: you got tired of the Zoo, walking round and round, looking at all the same animals. She smiled at him to show she wasn’t being ungrateful.
But in Trevor’s “A Day,” his narrator is a much stronger presence, who encases his protagonist in the soft bars of language and reflection. Mrs Lethwes spends her day remembering, not acting, and rarely gets a simple declarative sentence in which she might move forward. I first heard “A Day” read aloud, for the New Yorker fiction podcast, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and rereading it, I remain stunned. It only gains on later visits—the first-time reader not seeing what the opening page actually reveals. And in sentences like,
In bed again, lying on her side, facing her husband because, being fond of him, she likes to watch him sleeping.
we feel that Mrs Lethwes cannot get anything ended, anything started, her sentences drifting as her day drifts. As someone that I cannot remember remarked, the excessive placement of Trevor’s character stresses her lack of power. She is never at the start of a sentence, and she is always being related to her surroundings.
It was in France, in the Hotel St George during their September holiday seven years ago, that Mrs Lethwes found out about her husband’s other woman.
Some stories will not suit such a clear preference for either hypo or para. The two styles can be blended very effectively, of course—they have to be, as on a largely unconscious level we move from narrative action to explanation and observation—but one final technique available to a skilled writer is the sudden break out of hypotaxis, into parataxis, for a moment of calm, a moment of repose or clear action. There can be enormous power when a largely hypotactic style switches to a moment of parataxis, as if the explaining, relating, justifying mind is suddenly still, and something like a direct perception of reality opens up. I think this is why, for me, the most magical moment in The Great Gatsby comes in chapter five, when Gatsby has finally met Daisy, and has thrown all his shirts on the bed. Although the meeting itself seems quite troubled, and Nick knows it, something inside him is moved, and when a song is played, he drops his analytical, questioning cast, and simply states the reality of the world all around him, and his sensation of being within it.
In the music-room Gatsby turned on a solitary lamp beside the piano. He lit Daisy’s cigarette from a trembling match, and sat down with her on a couch far across the room, where there was no light save what the gleaming floor bounced in from the hall.
When Klipspringer had played The Love Nest, he turned around on the bench and searched unhappily for Gatsby in the gloom.
“I’m all out of practice, you see. I told you I couldn’t play. I’m all out of prac ——”
“Don’t talk so much, old sport,” commanded Gatsby. “Play!”
“IN THE MORNING,
IN THE EVENING,
AIN’T WE GOT FUN——”
Outside the wind was loud and there was a faint flow of thunder along the Sound. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York. It was the hour of a profound human change, and excitement was generating on the air.
This brief moment does not last, of course, and not even Gatsby really believes in the life of his long dead romance. Soon, after this moment of pure reception, Nick begins again his commentary on Gatsby’s disappointments and doubts, and soon Gatsby is dead, and Daisy returned to Tom. The whole novel seems to have occurred in order for Nick to hear the wind rise outside, and the flow of thunder along the Sound.