Carl Voss wrote to me about this sentence in a recent humor piece by Woody Allen in The New Yorker called "Udder Madness (I had already noticed the same sentence when reading the piece):
That's why when included in last week's A-list was a writer-director in cinema with a long list of credits although I was unfamiliar with the titles I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day.
It is a remarkable piece of sentence construction. Here's what's going on.
That's is a contracted form of that is, and inside the complement of is we find a fused ("headless") relative clause beginning with a fronted why. Inside the clause thus introduced there is a preposed adjunct beginning with a preposed when.
Inside the clause that when introduces there is another fronted adjunct, with an structure found mostly in main clauses: it begins with a preposed passive clause included in last week's A-list, continues with the verb was, and ends with the subject.
But the subject has two post-head adjuncts, the second of them a very complicated one. The head noun is writer-director; the first adjunct following it is the preposition phrase (or PP) in cinema; and the complicated second adjunct is another PP, with a long list of credits. After that comes a concessive PP, although I was unfamiliar with the titles, which I think (having modified my view since I first posted this) has to be understood as modifying the clause which we now at last arrive at. We have parsed no less than four preposed adjuncts (why, when…, included…, although…), and now we get to I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day. That is the heart of the clause beginning with why.
If we put each of the constituents I have mentioned in square brackets, we get (I think, after several revisions) this:
That's[why [when [[included in last week's A-list] was [a writer-director [in cinema] [with a long list of credits]]]] [[although I was unfamiliar with the titles] [I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day]]].
It's perfectly grammatical, I think; but it's certainly a bit challenging, especially with the startling choice of punctuation: none, no commas at all after any of the preposed constitutents. It makes your pulse race a bit (if you're a syntactically sensitive soul) when you encounter three preposed elements in a row, and then a verb that precedes its subject, and then another preposed element: ([why [when [[included in last week's A-list] was… although…). It's like you've opened four successive boxes within boxes within boxes and there still isn't any sign of the gift.
[Many thanks to those who wrote comments telling me I was wrong about where the concessive adjunct fits. I decided you were right, it belongs with the main clause, and I thought this page would be less confusing if I revised the post and removed the now uninterpretable comments that had convinced me to. —GKP]