Sunday, February 7, 2010

Whatever happened to the paragraph?

Remember when a paragraph was a set of sentences expected to express some thought or notion that an author wanted to get across? In those long ago days even a single sentence could ramble on quite fluidly, commas here, semi colons there, and one might even encounter the occasional colon. I always liked the colon, perhaps because so scarce they seemed exotic.

If one goes back further still—yet not all that far—an extravagant paragraph might go on for a page or more, sentence after rambling sentence. This extreme could be annoying because if you were interrupted while digesting this big mouthful it was hard to find your place again when you got back to it.

When I studied grammar in high school, our teacher said definitively that a paragraph should express a complete idea. That mystified me; almost anything, even a word, can put across an idea: sweet, noisy, and I could go on. So that definition always seemed to me pretty shaky, worse than useless actually, a waste of time; I was no better off than before. But as the years have flown past, paragraphs have become shorter and shorter.

Now I think, the ultimate has been reached. I just read an article in the New York Times—which organization is, or was, staffed with echelons of editors. A writer could hardly get an article through this phalanx without having punctuation and organization checked upside down and backwards; and that doesn't even count fact-checking and other such editorial function. So people think of them as exemplars of this sort of esoterica.

Here is the article I read, not very interesting I found, after I got into it; I can give you the whole article in one sentence:

Profligate Greece spent more money than she had and now wants to borrow more, but the Euro people, tightwads, don't want to give her any; so she threatens to borrow from the IMF, but The Euros don't like that idea either because it makes them look cheap and unsteady.

Think of all the trees I might have saved. Why do I read articles like this in the first place? The answer is simple, if not edifying; the headline sucked me in: "Debt Problems Chip Away at Fortress Europe" I like to read articles that confirm my biases about the snooty Europeans. There you have it; not pretty, but human. But that's not my point.

Why the New York Times thought that this might be news—something that is new—I can't even imagine. Nevertheless the story, as I hypnotically read it, was mesmerizing; it was as though I were watching a public execution; the entire article consisted of about 31 paragraphs—and 33 sentences. Paragraphs! Sentences! Nearly every paragraph, if such they can be called, consisted of one sentence. One sentence! Consider this so-called paragraph:

    But that may be easier said than done.

Or this one:

The speculator's bet is a simple one.

That's right, these are entire paragraphs, brought to you by the Doyen of literary organization and punctuation. So, that's it for the paragraph. Muerte.