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Opinion

A Word, Please: How to avoid the horror of Frankensentences

Oxford English Dictionary
In English, which lets writers use any number of connective tools to cobble together phrases and clauses, it’s possible to put together so many of them that readers get lost.
(Oxford University Press)

I think I made a word: Frankensentence.

I Googled it recently and got quite a few hits, including an entry at UrbanDictionary.com.

But when I refined my search to hits before 2010, the year my “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences” was published with the word “Frankensentence” in it, nuthin’.

Of course, in the age of digitized searchable everything, it’s foolish to claim you had an original thought. But I’m no stranger to foolishness. So I’ll take credit on contingency. Until I see evidence I’m not the mother of the word “Frankensentence,” I’ll assume I am.

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Regardless of who coined the term, the Frankensentence is a useful concept. The idea is that in English, which lets you use any number of connective tools to cobble together phrases and clauses, it’s possible to cobble together so many phrases and clauses that your reader gets lost — or at least turned off.

So the word Frankensentence can remind us to keep sentences short.

The most common culprit stitching together Frankensentences is probably the word “and.”

Such as in the sentence, “I was so happy she said ‘yes’ and I burst into tears and called my mom and knew we would live happily ever after.”

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Those ideas do not belong in a single sentence. But through the power of the word “and,” a sentence like that could go on forever.

“I was so happy she said ‘yes’ and I burst into tears and called my mom and knew we would live happily ever after, and I saw Tom looking at me and had an itch and …”

Ramping up the horror of a sentence like this is the way it connects whole clauses like “I saw Tom” with verbs like “knew” and “called” as if they were of equal stature. It’s grammatical, but gross.

Another popular suture for Frankensentences is the humble comma, which at times is an “and” in disguise. “I burst into tears, called my mom, saw Tom looking at me” and on and on, with commas meaning essentially “and.”

Semicolons are worse offenders. The whole purpose of a semicolon is to join sentence elements so unwieldy that a simple comma can’t handle the job.

One of the semicolon’s two functions is to link whole clauses that could stand alone as sentences, raising the question: Why not let them stand alone as sentences instead of cobbling them into a Frankensentence?

The other job of the semicolon is to join elements that themselves contain commas, often leaving the reader with a big mess: “The committee heard testimony about removal of trees, stumps and brush; funding for new park projects, school maintenance and road and pothole repair; and the need for studies on traffic, redistricting and pedestrian safety.”

The dubiously useful semicolon allows you to drag that sentence out forever, never asking yourself whether that’s best for the reader.

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Subordinating conjunctions create a lot of Frankensentences. Words like “although,” “because,” “when,” “if,” “since” and “after” let you create relationships between clauses like “Because we were late to the theater, we missed the previews.”

That’s very useful, but it’s easy to abuse these conjunctions to create overly long, unnecessarily complex sentences.

Even relative pronouns “which,” “that” and “who” can stitch together Frankensentences because they allow you to tack on information without end: The car, which had a sunroof, which had a leak, which was caused by Joe, who pried it open with a screwdriver that he found on the ground, which was littered with tools …” and on and on.

Don’t let Frankensentences terrorize your readers. Keep an eye out for these monsters and smash them to bits whenever possible.

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