The Critics’ Corner
It Beats As It Sweeps As It Cleans
by Don Webb
“It beats as it sweeps as it cleans!”
— Hoover vacuum cleaner slogan, 1919
Why is this century-old slogan so memorable? Because it enumerates the frenetic actions of the Hoover vacuum cleaner? No, the same information could be conveyed with “It beats, sweeps and cleans.”
Then why say it in such a weird way? The reason is summed up in one of our official mottoes: “Poems are not made with ideas, they are made with words.” The slogan becomes memorable — indeed, a kind of mnemonic virus — because it uses grammatical humor, namely the repetition of “as” in the sense of “while.” The result is a jingle in anapestic trimeter.
“Yes,” you may say, “that is all very nice, but what good is it?” Good question. Let’s see how the principle applies to ordinary prose narratives rather than to advertising.
Why might “as” become a problem? After all, it’s used commonly as a correlative conjunction, as in: “as [adverb or adjective] as.” However, “as” can also be used as a generic conjunction of time, meaning “while” (or “whilst”) or “when” or “before” or “after.” It can even mean “because.”
Many writers use “as” so indiscriminately that the usage becomes a noticeable verbal tic. Readers may assume that “as” means “while,” but they may be wrong. Heed the Bewildering Stories motto: “Something that can mean anything means nothing.”
The Hoover vacuum-cleaner slogan is an example of one way in which English grammar indicates simultaneous action. There are several other ways, too. But many of our contributors seem — at least unconsciously — to “beat as they sweep as they clean”
as they write... when writing narration.
The result is distraction at best, confusion or inadvertent humor at worst. Let’s rummage in the grammatical toolbox for something that is less likely to create run-on sentences or otherwise call attention to itself.
The following passage occurs in the original text of a story in this issue. It has been chosen as an example not because it’s exceptional but precisely because it is not; it represents a pattern often found in the prose submissions we receive. In fact, similar passages could have been chosen from at least two other submissions in this very issue. Consider it a random choice:
Earl sat silent and listened to the rhythmic tick of the wall clock and the radio’s endless chatter as Ferris ‘Burrhead’ Fein, with the San Francisco Seals, slammed one out of the park with two men on base. He smiled faintly as he crunched a peanut shell between his fingers, popped the nut into his mouth, as he remembered a game with the Kansas City Blues back in 1938.
The repetition of “as” as a coordinating conjunction tells us one thing very clearly: all the actions in the scene are present simultaneously in the author’s mind. And that is quite normal.
As readers, we do not see the scene in the same way; we see it unfolding one action at a time. To the author, each “as” is essential, because they all mean “at the same time.” We’ll understand, but we’ll also wonder whether “as” need be repeated so often. For emphasis? If everything is emphasized, nothing is emphasized.
What actually takes place in this scene? To find out what happens in any scene, select the verbs and subjects. In this case we’ll find a sequence of events:
- Earl sat
- Earl listened
- Fein slammed
- Earl smiled
- Earl crunched
- Earl popped
- Earl remembered
The moment is brief in the context of the story, but its relative brevity does not affect the grammar. The moment comprises a set of events, not all of which are simultaneous. What if the actions take place sequentially?
Earl sat silent and listened to the rhythmic tick of the wall clock and the radio’s endless chatter. Ferris “Burrhead” Fein, of the San Francisco Seals, slammed one out of the park with two men on base. Earl smiled faintly and crunched a peanut shell between his fingers. He popped the nut into his mouth and remembered a game with the Kansas City Blues back in 1938.
One might say, “That’s very clear, and it will do, I suppose. But it seems a bit flat. Can’t it be fancied up a little?”
“Fancy” for its own sake is a very bad idea; it’s more likely to be met with confusion than admiration. But the question is valid; clarity for its own sake can become dull. Rather, let’s ask, “How can the sentence structure denote relative emphasis as well as sequential and simultaneous action?”
Of the seven verbs in the passage, which is the most important? For the sake of argument, let’s choose the last one, because it’s the effect; all the other clauses enumerate the conditions of Earl’s remembering the baseball game of 1938.
First, let’s see how it might be handled in other languages and by other authors. French and Italian, for example, have resources such as grammatical gender, agreements and pronouns that allow formal prose to avoid repetition and to subordinate cause to effect. At a stretch, the style lends itself to sentences worthy of Marcel Proust:
When, amid the rhythmic tick of the wall clock and the radio’s endless chatter, Ferris “Burrhead” Fein, of the San Francisco Seals, slammed one out of the park with two men on base, Earl, sitting and listening silently and smiling faintly while crunching a peanut shell between his fingers and then popping the nut into his mouth, remembered a game with the Kansas City Blues back in 1938.
The main clause is: “Earl remembered a game.” That’s the effect. Everything else — the causes or conditions of Earl’s recollection — is subordinated to it.
In English, causes lead to effects like a row of toppling dominoes; that’s why the sentence seems so strange. In French and Italian, effects grow out of causes like flowers from seeds. Though convoluted, the sentence has the virtue of logical coherence.
Let’s split the difference, then, while trying to avoid run-on sentences. In the following passage, the grammatical indicators of simultaneous and sequential action are underlined.
Earl was sitting and listening silently to the rhythmic tick of the wall clock and the radio’s endless chatter. Suddenly, Ferris “Burrhead” Fein, of the San Francisco Seals, slammed one out of the park with two men on base. Earl smiled faintly and crunched a peanut shell between his fingers. When he popped the nut into his mouth, he remembered a game with the Kansas City Blues back in 1938.
See how that’s done?
The progressive — or continuous — past tense in “was sitting” and “was listening” automatically implies “when something else happened.”
“Suddenly” — the comma is optional — is an adverbial conjunction; it’s a colorful substitute for “then,” an adverb so spare that many contributors find it almost too easy to use unconsciously, as though by force of habit.
Next, there’s good old “and”:
In “Earl smiled [...] and crunched [...],” the conjunction may mean “and then” or “and at the same time.” English can be comfortable with the ambiguity; in French it’s unacceptable; you’d have to choose.
Finally, “when” emphasizes that Earl’s eating the peanut and remembering the baseball game take place at the same time. Is the peanut analogous to Marcel Proust’s madeleine, an association that prompts a recollection? The relatively emphatic “when” makes the inference quite reasonable.
At least — for better or worse — we can say there is not a single “as” in the paragraph.
Would or should everyone write the paragraph the same way? Of course not. The point is that English grammar is much more complex than it may seem; it has a lot of handy tools ready for use and something for every occasion. We’ve shown the consequences of relying heavily on one particular grammatical device: it distracts readers. They start paying attention to the verbal tic and forget what’s being said.
Do accomplished writers really think at the level of the sentence? Do they pay attention to such things as inadvertent humor, repetition, relative emphasis and simultaneous action? Yes, they do, all the time. Do not believe any who say they don’t. Ideally, the process becomes second nature; until then, a good editor can help.
Copyright © 2014 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories