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A Word, Please: It’s often best to chop up ‘ugly’ sentences

In an old episode of the animated series “Family Guy,” New England buffoon Peter Griffin argues about zoning laws with a weird-looking contractor whose eyes are freakishly close together.

Suddenly, Peter blurts out, “I have to draw you.” Cut to Peter’s bedroom, where the beefy, bald contractor is splayed out nude a la “Titanic” as Peter sketches away.

Ugly is like that sometimes. Mesmerizing. Intriguing.

Ugly sentences have that effect on me. I feel the need to capture whatever it is that makes them so preternaturally awful. That’s where grammar gets interesting.

Take this sentence from a recent New York Times article: “That a hacking operation that Washington is convinced was orchestrated by Moscow would obtain malware from a source in Ukraine — perhaps the Kremlin’s most bitter enemy — sheds considerable light on the Russian security services’ modus operandi in what Western intelligence agencies say is their clandestine cyberwar against the United States and Europe.”

Spectacular.

The Times is a bastion of superb writing. But everyone lays an egg every now and then — usually a group effort involving not just the writer but editors and copy editors and possibly even page designers. Not even the Gray Lady is immune.

Most readers who slog through a sentence like this wisely choose to not look back. Then there’s me. Mesmerized by the ugly, I find myself overwhelmed by a Griffinian urge to strip it naked and stare until it reveals to me the mysteries of its monstrousness.

I even have a name for these beauties. I call them Frankensentences.

The easiest way to fix one of these abominations is simply to chop it up into smaller pieces. That forces you to construct a logically flowing series of simple clauses that each expresses a clear idea. Monster slayed.

But to understand a sentence like this, you have to analyze the syntax.

Start by finding the main verb. Settle in. This will take a while. It’s not the first verb phrase, “is convinced.” It’s not the second verb phrase, “was orchestrated.” It’s not the third verb phrase, “would obtain.”

No, the main verb is actually the 27th word in the sentence: “sheds.” All that stuff that came before — those 26 words including multiple verbs — that’s the subject.

The subject of the sentence is a nominal clause. This means a whole clause, complete with subject and verb, that’s functioning as a noun. A subordinator such as “that” makes this possible.

For example, take “You work hard,” which is an independent clause. Put “that” in front of it, and suddenly it’s a subordinate clause. It can be the subject of another verb: “That you work hard is what matters.”

Or it can be an object of a verb like “know”: “I know that you work hard.” In either case, the clause is doing the job of a noun. So it’s a nominal clause.

So the subject of the Times sentence is “That a hacking operation that Washington is convinced was orchestrated by Moscow would obtain malware from a source in Ukraine.”

It contains multiple clauses within it, most notably a relative clause that begins with “that Washington is convinced.” A relative clause modifies a noun that comes before it, in this case “operation.”

So this whole clause is functioning as an adjective, within a clause that’s functioning as a noun.

Then comes an appositive, the stuff between the dashes that essentially just restates the noun “Ukraine.”

Then comes the main verb and its object, “sheds light,” followed by a prepositional phrase in which everything after the word “on” is the object of that preposition — a long, rambling noun phrase.

Within that prepositional phrase is yet another prepositional phrase, which begins “in what Western intelligence …” The object of that preposition is yet another nominal clause — essentially everything after the word “in” — which itself contains another clause: “agencies say.”

If you’re picturing a set of Russian nesting dolls, you’re not alone.

The key to understanding a sentence like this is knowing that clauses and phrases can work as nouns, adjectives and other parts of speech.

But for most people, the best advice is to just look away.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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