“Readers shouldn’t have to read a sentence a second time.” What a useful guideline for writers!
But some sentences compel a second reading for a good reason: They’re so well written that they’re worth a second look. I came across one of those sentences yesterday in a book I’m enjoying very much: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Reject of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman.
I no longer remember how I heard about the book or why I initially wanted to read it – but I’m realizing that I was on to a good thing.
It’s a memoir written by a woman who was reared in a strict Jewish sect and made a dramatic decision to leave. What’s really astonishing is that her mother had taken the same step earlier, even though it meant abandoning her children. As I said, it’s a powerful book.
But let’s look at the sentence that hit me so hard:
After two antsy days of my helping Bubby serve the holiday meals, carrying the trays of food from the kitchen to the sukkah and back, Chol Hamoed is finally here.
[I’ll offer you some help. Chol Hamoed is a four-day break in the middle of the strict Jewish observance of the Sukkot holiday. A sukkah is a temporary wooden structure where meals are eaten during Sukkot. Bubby is the author’s grandmother.)
Now I have three questions for you: Which word stopped me in my tracks, why, and what did I do after I’d read the sentence a second time?
Did you figure out which word sent me reeling? My (“my helping Bubby”).
Why? Because without it, the sentence would be a dangling modifier. (Chol Hamoed is a holiday, so it couldn’t help serve the holiday meals.)
After two antsy days of helping Bubby serve the holiday meals, carrying the trays of food from the kitchen to the sukkah and back, Chol Hamoed is finally here. DANGLING MODIFIER
What did I do next? Mumble “Simon & Schuster?” to myself, and then check the spine of the book to see if I was right about the book’s publisher.
Most publishers would probably have left the dangling modifier alone. The sentence sounds more natural without the added my. (I might have omitted it myself.)
But a meticulous copyeditor decided to add that extra speck of quality to the sentence. Simon & Schuster is the only publisher I’m familiar with that still does that kind of copyediting.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had that kind of reputation? “Of course the apostrophes are right. After all, [insert your name] wrote this piece!“
Careful attention to detail is rare in our increasingly laid-back, take-it-easy approach to life. (When was the last time you dressed up to go out to eat? Do you remember when people wore corsages for airplane trips?)
I’m not trying to persuade you to make ultra-formal choices whenever you’re writing. I often choose the casual option myself.
Here’s the thing, though. I think through my options. I try not to settle on the first thing that comes into my head.
To put it another way: I’m looking forward to the day that my delete key is worn out.