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Prof. Brooks Landon, U. Iowa, Ph.D. U. Texas at Austin. Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read (Great Courses) (2013). pp 199-200.

        Thomas Babington Macaulay, who, it should be remembered, was himself known for his use of balanced form, accused Johnson of writing in “Johnsonese,” a style that he called “systematically vicious,” and famously opined in a sentence that is itself a masterpiece of balance:

His constant practice of padding out a sentence with useless epithets, till it became as stiff as the bust of an exquisite; his antithetical forms of expression, constantly employed even where there is no opposition in the ideas expressed; his big words wasted on little things; his harsh inversions, so widely different from those graceful and easy inversions which give variety, spirit, and sweetness to the expression of our great old writers—all these peculiarities have been imitated by his admirers, and parodied by his assailants, till the public has become sick of the subject.

I feel that this sentence can be greatly improved if Macaulay didn't overwhelm his subject with lengthy noun phrases. Point form feels incomparably more readable to me:

The following peculiarities have been imitated by his admirers, and parodied by his assailants, till the public has become sick of the subject:

  1. his constant practice of padding out a sentence with useless epithets, till it became as stiff as the bust of an exquisite;

  2. his antithetical forms of expression, constantly employed even where there is no opposition in the ideas expressed;

  3. his big words wasted on little things;

  4. his harsh inversions, so widely different from those graceful and easy inversions which give variety, spirit, and sweetness to the expression of our great old writer.

  • 3
    Do you know of any 19th-century writer who wrote in bullet points or numbered lists instead of sentences? – Rand al'Thor Feb 2 at 15:48
  • @Randal'Thor No, but I haven't read much 19th-century writing. – Chrome Feb 2 at 20:10
2

To answer the question implied by your "I feel": The sentence in question

His constant practice of padding out a sentence with useless epithets, till it became as stiff as the bust of an exquisite; his antithetical forms of expression, constantly employed even where there is no opposition in the ideas expressed; his big words wasted on little things; his harsh inversions, so widely different from those graceful and easy inversions which give variety, spirit, and sweetness to the expression of our great old writers—all these peculiarities have been imitated by his admirers, and parodied by his assailants, till the public has become sick of the subject.

is itself written in Johnsonese, and is itself an example of J's being parodied by his assailants. To cut it into short choppy pieces would spoil the parody.

In stylistic contrast to this parodic sentence, Peter Shor points out, Macaulay wrote this way about Johnson, in the next paragraph (in a review of Boswell's Life of Johnson published in 1831, reprinted in volume 2 of his Critical and Historical Essays, vol 2):

No man surely ever had so little talent for personation as Johnson. Whether he wrote in the character of a disappointed legacy-hunter or an empty town fop, of a crazy virtuoso or a flippant coquette, he wrote in the same pompous and unbending style. His speech, like Sir Piercy Shafton’s Euphuistic eloquence, betrayed him under every disguise.

which has comparatively short choppy sentences, lacking the elaborate structure of the parodic sentence the OP asked about.

The answer to the question in your title is more subjective. I, for one, think it is a masterpiece of balance, but I'd be hard pressed to say whether it outdoes (say) Gibbon's best along those lines.

  • Looking at the context of that quote in the original, I think you're absolutely correct. But you should probably add the context in your answer as evidence. – Peter Shor Feb 3 at 17:54
  • I think you misunderstood me: I meant you should contrast it to Macaulay's writing when he's not parodying Johnsonese. For example: "No man ever had so little talent for personation as Johnson. Whether he wrote in the character of a disappointed legacy-hunter or an empty town fop, of a crazy virtuoso or a flippant coquette, he wrote in the same pompous and unbending style. His speech, like Sir Piercy Shafton’s Euphuistic eloquence, bewrayed him under every disguise." – Peter Shor Feb 3 at 19:28
  • I think I did, and thanks for holding my hand here. I have edited my answer accordingly. – kimchi lover Feb 3 at 22:15

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