A Sentence I Read Twice

“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.

I was.

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.

Are you?
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2 thoughts on “A Sentence I Read Twice

  1. Janis Koike

    This is a tough one. The reason for “my” is clear, but I really do not like the sentence.

    The structure and proximity of the verbals (helping and carrying) leads the reader to expect a parallel structure. That expectation is not realized. On the contrary, the “carrying” describes the “helping.” In other words, the writer did not help and carry; she helped by carrying. A better version might be: “After two antsy days of helping Bubby serve the holiday meals by carrying trays of food from the kitchen to the sukkah and back, I welcomed Chol Hamoed.” There is no longer a need for “my.”

    Actually, antsy doesn’t work for me either. Maybe tedious or exhausting. Antsy, to me, means anxious or nervous. Why would she be either?

    Nonetheless, I still think an English teacher might mark the sentence “awkward.” Let’s see . . . Helping Bubbe in the kitchen and carrying trays of food to the sukkah and back left me feeling antsy. But then came Chol Hamoed! Two sentences?

    And now I am writing, not editing. . . and I have never heard of Chol Hamoed.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    I just looked up Chol Hamoed – it’s the intermediate days between Passover and Sukkot. I hadn’t thought about carrying vs. helping – nice point! I think Feldman (the author) was trying say that she helped in numerous ways, including carrying. I found it interesting that the copyeditor was trying to fix the dangling modifier while keeping the author’s voice intact, and the sentence ended up a hybrid. As you said – “awkward.” Absolutely. And I hadn’t thought about “antsy” – you’re right on target. Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

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