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Sentences: dissecting the style of Lauren Slater


This page explores the intricacies of writing style. It’s not a how-to. It’s a study in just how much complexity goes into writing good prose: the marriage of meaning with music, substance with sound.

Lauren Slater is an anomaly.

Having done graduate work in psychology, she writes about science for regular readers in a non popular-science way.

Writing about a discipline whose procedures and prose emphasize order, methodology and technical specificity, Slater conveys her meaning with storytelling verve and poetic sensibility, telling the tale of not just the experiment, but of the scientist, not just the theories, but the personal applications to her–and, perhaps, your–life. Her distinctive writing has been selected for the Best American Essays, Best American Science Writing, and Best American Magazine Writing.

Below are a few sentences out of Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century (2004), from a chapter discussing cognitive dissonance—that is, how we change our beliefs, even in the face of conflicting evidence, to fit our self-perception.

Dissonance. A million rationalizations, fault lines in the earth, in the brain, and all sorts of ways to sew them up. We can only imagine Festinger’s fun, and also his sorrow, as he saw the way people leap to lies, overlook, sift through, sort out, tamp down. (116)

These are highly lyrical and rhythmic, yet they carry precise meaning, categorizing things and actions with a ring of the scientific method. How does Slater marry literary and science discourse styles?

Slater combines noun-style and verb style sentences

These sentences are, at root, lists. The first two list objects—concrete (geographical features, anatomical features) and abstract (dissonance, rationalization). They are sentences—well technically, they’re fragments–of nouns. Hence, grammarians would call them noun-style sentences. These type of sentences emphasize persons, places and things (nouns) and conceal action (verbs), as in this extreme example:

The structuring of the reactions of alter to ego’s action as sanctions is a function of his conformity with the standard. [Talcott Parsons, The Social System, Glencoe, Free Press, 1951, p.38]

Slater’s next sentence lists actions (overlook, sift through, sort out, tamp down), and its first phrase is full of action (“We can only imagine Festinger’s fun”). Grammarians call this a verb-style sentence. These emphasize actions, and move their main verbs to prominent places:

He explained how effectively we were keeping the enemy off balance, not allowing them to move in, set up mortar sites, and gather for attack. [John A. Parrish, A Doctor’s Year in Vietnam, Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1973, p. 235]

What effect does noun/verb style have?

Noun-style sentences might allow Slater to make interesting, poetic connections. For example, “Fault lines in the earth, in the brain,” connects earthquakes and how we try to understand/rationalize them through our faulty human perspective.

They also may suggest, in their object-focused way, a scientistic “thinginess” of categorizing and listing (academics call it “reification”).

Verb style sentences are vivid and may allow Slater to show how action progresses: first we overlook the details of a situation, then we sift through what we can, then we sort out something of an answer, thereby tamping down the cognitive dissonance in our brains.

(In case you’re interested, my previous sentence, which adds connective words and phrases to Slater’s original, is called polysyndeton. Slater’s sentence, which leaves them out, is asyndeton.)

Slater’s got rhythm

All of us are aware of alliteration, and the advantages added after applying it (and its annoyances if abused). This is certainly one technique Slater uses to give rhythm to her sentences:

Festinger’s fun

leap to lies

She also uses assonance:

People leap

Also his sorrow

She also uses meter (in this case, iambs—unstressed syllable, stressed syllable):

all sorts of ways to sew them up

he saw the way people leap to lies

overlook, sift through, sort out, tamp down

Slater varies her phrase lengths

Sentences that use phrases of similar length (like how Winston Churchill described the life of a politician: “He is asked to stand, he wants to sit, and he is expected to lie.”) are called isocolon. And while similar phrase lengths create a sort of rhythm, used undramatically they produce tedious prose. A vertical ordering of Slater’s phrases shows how she keeps things interesting:

A million rationalizations,
fault lines in the earth,
in the brain,
and all sorts of ways to sew them up.

We can only imagine Festinger’s fun,
and also his sorrow,
as he saw the way people leap to lies,
sift through,
sort out,
tamp down.

Slater mixes Latin and German etymology

More simply, she uses a combination of multi-syllable and single-syllable words:

Latin Anglo/German
dissonance (dissonantia) fun (fon)
rationalizations (rationalis) lies (lyge)
million (milli-) tamp (tampin)
people (populi) leap (lepen)
imagine (imago) sew (sewen)

The Result: Slater’s style reinforces the text’s meaning

Slater combines short phrases with longer ones, big words with little ones, noun-style and verb-style sentences. Why all this juxtaposition of difference? A simple explanation could be that it creates variety. But considering the subject of the chapter–cognitive dissonance–all this juxtaposition amplifies, perhaps, how our brains try to make sense of things that jar inharmoniously against each other. It makes the writing itself into a case-study.

Going further, all this combination foregrounds the central contradiction in Slater’s style battle, i.e., that she’s writing with a scientific method, but with a literary aesthetic.

And after all, that’s really what these sentences are saying. They’re saying Hey, don’t just look at the experiment, look at the scientist who tested this, imagine yourself into his white lab coat. They’re saying Don’t think about cognitive dissonance as abstract rationalizations, think about how you lie to yourself.

That’s certainly something to think about.