The world’s worst written sentence

Consider the following sentence:

“Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of  a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis.”  

According to columnist at The Economist, the above sentence would qualify to be nominated as “the world’s worst written sentence”, yet, believe it or not, there are worse. (Read the Economist column to find out more.) So what is wrong with the above sentence?

From a grammatical perspective the sentence is perfectly fine. What seems to bother people such as the columnist are stylistic issues. Without doubt, style can be a tricky subject. That is why, newspapers, TV networks and several magazines developed their own style guides. Nevertheless, one would still think that writing is, above all, a creative process. Conforming to rules regulating and restricting this creativity, thus, sounds a little odd.

Fun with writing rules

What plays a crucial role in this matter is the genre. Certain expectations are triggered by knowing the genre of movies or books for example. A comedy would not be considered a comedy if laughter and humour were not involved. A crime novel would not be considered as such if no crime was committed. That is why, knowing that the so called “world’s worst written sentence” was penned by an author and academic of economics and can be found in a book on the economic crisis sheds a different light on the sentence.

The column seemed to have caused quite a stir as Mark Liberman, linguist and Language Log blogger, investigated the Economist’s own language use. Another column by the Economist on the issue of style followed. Reference was made to George Orwell‘s rules on writing which were first seen as the remedy for stylistic issues such as the “world’s worst written sentence”.

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Having been presented with the Economist’s own use of metaphors and stylistic “flaws”, the columnist revised Orwell’s six little rules. Eliminating all instances of never and always results not in language rules, but in valuable advice. Something worth bearing in mind is revised rule no. 6.:

(vi) Good writing is no place for the tyrant. Never say “never” and always avoid “always”, or at the least handle them with care. Overusing such words is an invitation for critics to hold you to your own impossible standard.

Another piece of advice: Keep creativity alive and carry on.

keep-creativity-alive-and-carry-on-1

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About Carmen Ebner

Carmen Ebner is a PhD candidate at Leiden University Centre for Linguistics and currently investigates attitudes towards British English Usage. Carmen is part of the project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public, which is supervised by Prof Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.
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One Response to The world’s worst written sentence

  1. Carmen Ebner says:

    Reblogged this on Proper English Usage and commented:

    Style can be a tricky subject. Find out more about “bad” sentences and how they can be avoided.

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