Archive for Style and register

Parse depth in essays vs. novels

In "Trends" (3/27/2022) and "Embedding Depth" (11/28/2022), I noted that Earnest Hemingway's reputation for "little short sentences" is generally false to fact. I made the point by comparing the distribution of sentence lengths and embedding depths in his memoir A Moveable Feast to Usula K. Le Guin's essay collection The Wave in the Mind.

In a comment on "Embedding Depth", Bloix complained that A Moveable Feast is probably not "a reliable example of the style that made [Hemingway] famous in the 1920s and 30s." In today's post, I'll explain again why I chose that work, amplify the point by comparing Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises to Le Guin's 1974 novel The Dispossessed, and wave my hand at broader generalizations about dialogue vs. exposition and fiction vs. essays.

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Inaugural embedding depth

Following up on yesterday's "Embedding depth" post, I've done the same analysis to the 62 Inaugural Addresses of U.S. presidents. (Actually, 61 of them — I had to omit John Adams' 1797 address, because its 35th sentence is 797 words long, which made the standard version of the Berkeley Neural Parser break down in tears…)

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Embedding depth

In "Trends" (3/27/2022) I compared the distributions of sentence lengths in Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Wave in the Mind. The background, and some of the conclusions, can be found in the slides for my SHEL12 presentation. Hemingway is known for his short and simple sentences — see e.g. "Homo Hemingwayensis", 1/9/2005, for some discussion — but as I showed, his average sentence length is actually a bit on the long side for his time. And his overall distribution of sentence lengths is essentially identical that found in (later) work by Ursula K. Le Guin, despite her hilarious discussion of an alleged difference in her 1992 essay "Introducing Myself":

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How many characters does it take to say "staff only"?

In sending along the photograph below, Geoff Dawson writes:

I find it hard to believe it takes nine characters. Curious as to what they really say.

From a furniture shop in South Melbourne Australia.

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Trends in book titles

I've been interested for some time in the way that (written) English sentence lengths have evolved over time — see "Trends", 3/27/2022, or the slides from my 5/20/2022 talk at SHEL12, "Historical trends in English sentence length and syntactic complexity". It's well known that the titles of published books have undergone an analogous process, but I don't think I've written about it. (Nor do I know of any scholarship on the topic — perhaps some commenters will be able to suggest some.)

A couple of days ago, while looking for the origins of an idiom, I stumbled across a contender for the title-length championship in in an interesting work from 1740 (image here):

THE ART of READING: OR, THE ENGLISH TONGUE MADE Familiar and easy to the meanest Capacity. CONTAINING, I. All the common words, ranged into distinct tables and classes; as well in regard to the number of letters in each word, as to the easiness of pronunciation, and the bearing of the accent. With useful notes and remarks upon the various sounds of the letters occasionally inserted in the margin. II. A large number of lessons, regularly suited to each table. III. An explanation of several words; particularly such as are of the same, or nearly alike in sound: designed to correct and prevent some orthographical errors and mistakes. IV. Some observations, rules, and directions, relating to the reading and writing English properly and correctly. The whole done after a new and easy Method. Approved of, and recommended, as the best book for the use of children, and all others, who would speedily attain to the knowledge of the English tongue. By P. SPROSON, S. M.

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Chinese parallelism in an English-language scientific paper

I received the following letter and observations from the editor of a science journal:

We will be rejecting the paper because it is outside the range of topics the
journal handles. But it also has a writing style that I'd like to warn the
authors to avoid. Here is a sample (from the usual "review of previous work"):

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The ideology of short sentences, part 1

Karla Adam and William Booth, "What next for Boris Johnson? Books, columns, speeches, comeback?", WaPo 7/9/2022:

Many assume Johnson will eventually return to his former profession of journalism. Writing a weekly note for the Daily Telegraph was lucrative, \$330,000 a year, which fellow hacks calculated to garner him over \$2,750 an hour. […]

He also owes a publisher a biography on William Shakespeare, which he has not completed. He did finish a biography of his idol, Winston Churchill, which some critics panned as a worthless retread, lacking in insight, scholarship or new material, but which the reviewer in the Financial Times called “crisp, punchy, full of the kind of wham-bam short sentences that keep the reader moving down the page.”

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Memoirs of a Woman of Long Sentences

In the question period after my virtual talk yesterday at SHEL 12, an alert audience member asked about the outlier in a graph that I showed of average sentence length over the centuries. The outlier is marked with an arrow in the plot below, though no such arrow singled it out in the presentation:

I had been struck by the same point when I made the graph, and identified the work and author as John Cleland's 1748 epistolary novel, "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure", commonly known as Fanny Hill.

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Trends

About six weeks from now, I'm scheduled to give a (virtual) talk with the (provisional) title "Historical trends in English sentence length and syntactic complexity". The (provisional) abstract:

It's easy to perceive clear historical trends in the length of sentences and the depth of clausal embedding in published English text. And those perceptions can easily be verified quantitatively. Or can they? Perhaps the title should be "Historical trends in English punctuation practices", or "Historical trends in English conjunctions and discourse markers." The answer depends on several prior questions: What is a sentence? What is the boundary between syntactic structure and discourse structure? How is message structure encoded in speech (spontaneous or rehearsed) versus in text? This presentation will survey the issues, look at some data, and suggest some answers — or at least some fruitful directions for future work.

So I've started the "look at some data" part, so far mostly by extending some of the many relevant earlier LLOG Breakfast Experiment™ explorations, such as "Inaugural embedding", 9/9/2005, or  "Real trends in word and sentence length", 10/31/2011, or "More Flesch-Kincaid grade-level nonsense", 10/23/2015. 

In most cases, the extensions just provide more data to support the ideas in the earlier posts. But sometimes, further investigation turns up some twists.

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Good translation is an art: Bēowulf

As a published translator myself, I certainly strive to make my translations worthy of being considered as art.  But it isn't always an easy task.  Witness "The Tricky Art of Translation and Maria Dahvana Headley’s Modern Beowulf", CD Covington, Tor.com (Mon Feb 7, 2022):

It’s not very often that a thousand-year-old poem has a new translation that gets people hyped up, at least in the Anglophone world, but Maria Dahvana Headley’s recent Hugo Award-winning translation of Beowulf stirred up a lot of interest—there’s even a video series of writers and entertainers reading it out loud. (Alan Cumming’s section is excellent—he really knows his way around alliterative verse.)

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Pull!

From an anonymous colleague:

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Sino-Japanese aesthetics and a new mode of translation

[This is a guest post by Ashley Liu]

The following is a new way to translate classical Chinese poetry into Japanese. Recently, some Chinese shows about premodern China have become popular in Japan. The Chinese songs in the shows–written in classical Chinese poetry style–are translated into Japanese and sung by Japanese singers. I am fascinated by how the translation works. As you can see below, the Japanese version has waka aesthetics but keeps the 7-syllable format of Chinese poetry. The Japanese version seems to reduce the original meaning by a lot, but if you read it carefully, the way it captures the core meaning is ingenious, e.g., 風中憶當初 (remembering the past in the wind) = 時渡る風 (wind that crosses through time / brings back time).

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Slurring and blurring

Something seemed amiss from the very first words of this video:

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