Nominated for the Trent Reznor Prize

« previous post | next post »

Over the years, we've periodically discussed the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding. Today's nominee, submitted by Joe Stynes, comes from "The Hilaria Baldwin Story: 'I'm Living My Life'", NYT 12/30/2020:

“We’re all bored and it’s just seemed so strange to me that no one had ever come out and said it, especially for someone who gets so much media attention,” said the woman, who was granted anonymity by The New York Times because she said she was scared that Mr. Baldwin, who agreed to take an anger management course in 2019 in order to dispose of charges after a fight with a man over a parking spot and has been arrested, escorted from a plane and suspended from a job as an MSNBC host, all in the last decade, would punch her.

You can find some of the previous nominations here.

This example manages to fit 48 words between the subject ("Mr. Baldwin") and its verb phrase ("would punch her"). This is more than double the 19-word gap in the German sentence that Mark Twain complained about in "The Awful German Language", and the 20-word New Yorker gap that I noted in "The Awful German New Yorker Language", 10/6/2003.

The Obligatory Screenshot:


  1. jin defang said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 7:52 am

    doesn't the NYT have editors whose job is to catch verbal monstrosities like this? It would've been easy to break the sentence into three or even four shorter ones.

    [(myl) For all we know, an editor created this sentence by collapsing three or four shorter ones.]

  2. Laura Morland said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 8:00 am

    I guess newspaper reporters are no longer taught to privilege short, choppy sentences.

    Since this is Language Log, I thought I'd point out that the "it" to which the frightened-for-multiple-reasons anonymous woman refers is that Hilaria Baldwin often speaks with a Spanish accent, although she grew up in Boston and has only ever vacationed in Spain (although her parents have retired there).

    I was "bored," and so I clicked on a related article yesterday; truth must out.

  3. Craig said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 9:00 am

    Maybe the reporter had been reading Henry James?

  4. Yerushalmi said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 10:52 am

    My God, man, if you can't put it in a separate sentence at least set it off with parentheses or dashes so we know where it ends!

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 1:17 pm

    For good measure, the trickily embedded part is four levels down in subordination.

  6. Quinn C said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 1:36 pm

    Is the NYT author impersonating a German person?

  7. milu said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 1:57 pm

    Is it just me or is this particular example comparatively readable? I did have to go over it a second time just to make sure i'd got it right the first, but it turned out i had. Still not calling this reader-friendly, mind

  8. Alexander Browne said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 3:16 pm

    @milu I agree. Usually I have to read these a few times, but this one mare sense to me on first read.

  9. DaveK said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 3:57 pm

    I understood it on my first close reading, but stylistically it’s a nightmare. Once you get through the list of Mr Baldwin’s misdeeds, “would punch her” comes as an anticlimax. In fact, by that point, anything short of “would level her hometown with a nuclear bomb” would be a disappointment

  10. RfP said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 4:08 pm

    I think the author was just having some fun with this sentence. Indeed, I do believe he was mostly trying for hilarity.

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 4:20 pm

    I did not make it through on first reading, but had to backtrack to figure out where "and has been arrested…" was meant to attach. A comma after "parking spot" might have helped.

  12. Bloix said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 5:02 pm

    Like Gregory Kusnick, I came to a screeching halt at "has been arrested." What? He got in a fight over a parking space and has been arrested? You just told me that he took an anger management course to dispose of the charges over the parking space. How did he manage to get himself arrested for the same thing twice? Oh, now that I've read it again at 50% normal speed, I see that he got arrested twice – once for the parking space fight, and another time for who knows what.

  13. Anne Cutler said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 8:36 pm

    Curiously, I find that "all in the last decade" is responsible for the readability (I got the meaning on first go, too). It's like a reset, an audible closing of a parenthesis.

  14. Viseguy said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 8:54 pm

    I can't help wondering if "'it's'" was a transcription error, or if the speaker really meant the contraction for "it has".

    I had no trouble decoding the sentence, having been primed by myl's intro to be on the lookout for tricky embedding. But if I'd encountered it in the wild, so to speak, I think I'd have had to backtrack and reread it — though maybe not if the editor had only inserted a "who" before "has been arrested".

  15. uflemming said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 10:01 pm

    Viseguy: I wondered about the same thing, and why nobody has mentioned this before.

  16. RfP said,

    January 5, 2021 @ 3:55 am

    @Viseguy: that contraction sounds like perfectly idiomatic AmE to me. Completely normal and unremarkable, in fact.

  17. Terry K. said,

    January 5, 2021 @ 9:00 am

    Agreed, it's meaning it has is pretty standard and unremarkable.

  18. Rose Eneri said,

    January 5, 2021 @ 9:22 am

    It seems I never see the word "is" in writing anymore (except at the beginning of a question.) I often must re-read sentences to determine whether the contraction stands for "it is" or "it has."

    Is "is" dying in writing? The contraction saves only a single space of text.

  19. DaveK said,

    January 5, 2021 @ 10:24 am

    The “it’s” sounded perfectly idiomatic to me, but the “no one had ever come out” seemed off. The verb should either be “has come out” or “came out”.
    Of course it may just be a transcription error or typo.

  20. Lane said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 12:16 pm

    Like RfP, I suspected a little bit of fun on the writer or editor's part – like "this guy's got so many anger-management problems if I tried to list them in one sentence you couldn't follow it."

  21. 번하드 said,

    January 8, 2021 @ 4:22 pm

    Oh, I found this sentence pretty unremarkable, but then I happen to be a German^^

RSS feed for comments on this post