Sunday, May 19, 2019

Worst Sentence Ever Written

Worst Sentence Ever Written

By Gary Gilson

My nominee for the worst sentence ever written in the English

“Refreshments were served, and a good time was had by all.”

Doesn’t sound like a very good time to me. Sounds deadly. The verbs
– “were served” and “was had” -- suck the air out of human experience.
Those verbs exemplify the passive voice. A simple way to differentiate
the active from the passive voice: In the active, A causes B; in the passive,
B is caused by A.

I’ll bet many of you have read that awful sentence before, perhaps in
a report of a church picnic. Whoever wrote it probably thought it was “writing.”

What could a writer do to make that picnic sound like a really good
time? Report exactly what people did. For example:

“Mary Lundstrom served her latest punch concoction — a
combination of pineapple, mango, and papaya juice; seven-year-old
Jackie Nelson won the 50-yard sack race, leaving Pastor Youngquist
in the dust.” Etc.

The active voice delivers a punch; the passive voice goes limp.

Now that example really is a picnic, compared with this one:

In a documentary about Death Row at a South Carolina state prison,
a young, illiterate inmate, convicted of murdering three members of a
family, described his crime like this:

“Me and my buddy broke into this trailer to steal stuff. After a while
we heard tires on the gravel outside, and a guy came in. We grabbed him,
we tied up his wrists and ankles, we put duct tape over his mouth, we tossed
him in a corner, and then we went back to stealin’ stuff.”

Two more people came home and suffered the very same treatment.

“Then, after there wasn’t nothin’ left to steal, we dragged them three
into the next room, where they was shot.”

Does anything in that final passage leap out at you? Re-read it and
think about it.

Notice the verbs: Everything in the inmate’s description of the crime,
leading up to that last phrase — “where they was shot” — occurs in
the active voice. He and his buddy stole, they tied their victims up,
they taped their mouths, they tossed them into corners, they dragged
them into the next room . . . all actions they performed.

“Where they was shot” happens in the passive voice. This inmate,
who probably never learned grammar, suddenly shifted — from
letting us see what he and his buddy did, to hiding their role in the

The criminal separated himself from his actions; his victims were
vaguely acted upon. The passive voice helped the inmate — probably in
his unconscious mind — to shun responsibility.

But I’m no purist about banning the passive voice. There can be
legitimate exceptions. For example, if persons being acted upon are
more important, or better human beings, than those acting against
them, by all means use the passive voice. To wit:

“Thirty-four Freedom Riders were savagely beaten by bat-wielding
members of the Ku Klux Klan.”

[May 19, 2019]

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