Elena Ferrante delaying the verb

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein

Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.

This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.

Fiction offers more leeway. Communicating facts is not its aim, and readers can expect to be taken on tangents: it’s part of the experience. Of course, it has to be done with judgement and skill. Here’s an example from Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend, which I just finished reading. A group of young friends are walking in the city, making fun of its street fashion. Pasquale is infatuated with Lila:

We went as far as Palazzo Cellammare laughing and joking. Pasquale, who did his best to avoid being next to Lila and when she took his arm immediately, politely, freed himself (he spoke to her often, of course, he felt an evident pleasure in hearing her voice, in looking at her, but it was clear that the slightest contact overwhelmed him, might even make him cry), staying close to me, asked derisively:

‘At school do your classmates look like that?’

Europa editions cover of Elena Ferrante's novel "My Brilliant Friend", showing a newly married couple from behind, walking towards on grass the sea, followed by three children as bridesmaidsThe main verb, asked, arrives a whole 60 words after its grammatical subject, Pasquale, yet it’s no hardship to be made wait for it. The topic coheres: it’s all about Pasquale, his feelings for Lila, and his behaviour around her. The intervening material – a complex subordinate clause, a self-contained parenthesis with multiple clauses, and a participle phrase – is self-consciously elaborate, impossible not to notice, so we yield to it and enjoy the detour before finally reaching the predicate: asked derisively.

The line may feel a bit more disjointed here, taken out of context, than it does in the book, where the reader tunes in to Ferrante’s style (and to Ann Goldstein’s beautiful translation from the Italian). But even allowing for that, it’s a good illustration of how writing advice and norms can differ hugely from one genre to another.

12 Responses to Elena Ferrante delaying the verb

  1. Thank you for this info about not losing the verb. I have heard a bit about Elena Ferrante of late. I need to get hold of one of her books. In fact I am going to Italy in a few days what better book to take to read on the long flight ? A timely post in my reader this morning. Louise

  2. astraya says:

    English has the standard word order of SVOx, so all else being equal the verb is going to come sooner rather than later, unless you either lose control or deliberately decide to put it later. Almost as many languages are (x)S(x)O(x)V, so the verb standardly comes later/last. In Korean, one might say ‘I that (long description) person like/don’t like’, whereas in English it would be ‘I like/don’t like that (description) person (long description). In fact, in Korean, it is acceptable to omit the subject, so one might say ‘that (long description) person (object particle) like/don’t like’, meaning ‘I don’t like that person’.

  3. burghfanincincy says:

    One of my closest friends (now deceased) used to pile up incredible amounts of words without ever getting to what the sentence was all about. I called it “the infinite preamble”. When we shared an apartment, I’d tell him, “I’m going to the bathroom and should be back around the time you get to the point.”

    I would tell him that spoken English and written English are not the same, that you can do that sort of thing in print because the reader can chop through the verbiage to get to the subject and verb, but it did no good. His spoken sentences should have come with road maps.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I imagine it could be maddening, but you make it sound almost endearing; “the infinite preamble” is a poetic way of describing the habit. I know one or two people like this too, who just love to ramble. Nothing can persuade them to accelerate towards the point of it all.

  4. languagehat says:

    Here’s the Italian, for purposes of comparison:

    Avanzammo fino all’altezza di Palazzo Cellammare ridendo e scherzando. Pasquale, che evitava in tutti i modi di stare accanto a Lila e quando lei gli si era messa sottobraccio si era subito liberato con gentilezza (le si rivolgeva spesso, certo, provava un evidente piacere a sentirne la voce, a guardarla, ma si vedeva che anche il piu piccolo contatto lo travolgeva, forse poteva persino farlo piangere), tenendosi vicino a me mi chiese con sarcasmo:

    «Ascuola le tue compagne sono cosi?».

    I highly recommend the series, and Stan, I can’t believe you’ve read the first and aren’t already racing through the second!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Ah, thank you for this. The strategy seems to have been preserved quite faithfully in the translation. As for reading book #2, I will when I get it; in the meantime there are enough unread on the shelf to keep me busy for years!

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