On Monday, blogger Eric Turkewitz was rightfully horrified by two sentences in a decision by a New York appellate court. Here's the first sentence from Dockery v. Sprecher:
In an action, inter alia, to recover damages for medical malpractice, etc., the plaintiffs appeal, as limited by their brief, from so much of a judgment of the Supreme Court, Queens County (Hart, J.), entered July 10, 2008, as, upon the granting of that branch of the motion of the defendants Stanley Sprecher, Peninsula Radiology Associates, P.C., and Peninsula Hospital Center pursuant to CPLR 4401, made at the close of the plaintiffs' case, which was for judgment as a matter of law dismissing the complaint insofar as asserted against them, upon a jury verdict finding the defendants M. Chris Overby, and Levine Overby Hollis, M.D.s, P.C., 45% at fault, and nonparties Philip Howard Gutin, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center 55% at fault for the injuries sustained by the plaintiff Thomas Dockery, and that the plaintiff Thomas Dockery sustained damages in the principal sums of $10,000,000 for past pain and suffering, $27,750,000 for future pain and suffering, $370,000 for past loss of earnings, $80,000 for future loss of earnings over a period of 28 years, and $21,636 for loss of Social Security income, and that the plaintiff Karen Dockery sustained damages in the principal sum of $18,000,000 for past loss of services, and $48,700,000 for future loss of services, and upon so much of an order of the same court entered December 3, 2007, as granted, after the jury verdict, that branch of the motion of the defendants M. Chris Overby and Levine Overby Hollis, M.D.s, P.C., pursuant to CPLR 4401, made at the close of the plaintiffs' case, which was for judgment as a matter of law dismissing the complaint insofar as asserted against them, dismissed the complaint insofar as asserted against the defendants Stanley Sprecher, Peninsula Radiology Associates, P.C., Peninsula Hospital Center, M. Chris Overby, and Levine Overby Hollis, M.D.s, P.C.
Wow. Does that suck. Yes, but not as hard as the second sentence, which was over ten percent longer. The one above is 303 words long; the second contained 343 words. I'm not going to reprint the second one because (1) there is some question as to whether it is actually a single sentence, because it has semicolons, and (2) it's already been posted and I don't want to be responsible for the Internet exploding.
Eric, who practices in New York, bravely and respectfully criticized the court's work and expressed the hope that it could do better. I, who do not practice in New York, am going to be more of a smartass about it. What possible excuse could there be for that horrible train-wreck of a sentence? It isn't just that it's long, although that is a very bad sign. It's also so recursively complicated that it is impossible to figure out the meaning of the first part without reading to the end, by which time you have forgotten what the first part said. The writer uses the full name of every party every time. The facts aren't in chronological order. It uses Latin. I have to stop now because this is giving me a nosebleed.
As Eric also points out, this is not just about style, it's about meaning. I felt obligated to see if I could do better, and after about 20 minutes of reading that one sentence, I think this is what it means:
Karen and Thomas Dockery sued several defendants after Thomas was allegedly injured by medical malpractice. At trial, the jury found two of the defendants (Dr. Chris Overby and Dr. Levine Overby Hollis) 45% at fault, assigning the remaining 55% to nonparties. It awarded Thomas more than $38 million in damages, and awarded Karen over $66 million for loss of services. After the verdict, however, the judge granted motions for judgment as a matter of law that defendants had filed at the close of plaintiffs' case, and dismissed the claims against all defendants. Plaintiffs appealed.
I'm honestly not sure if that's accurate, though, because of the extreme badness of the court's original language. And as Eric points out, it would be better if the law were not so hard to understand.
A long sentence every once in a while is not a bad thing, if done right. In this article, Gerald Lebovits cites the example of a "famous 202-word sentence" by Justice Scalia — it's long, but is long for a reason, and is still readable because of parallelism and the use of other techniques to break it up into shorter units. None of which applies to the Faulknerian monster above. According to experts like Bryan Garner, most mortals should stick to an average of 15-20 words per sentence.
Maybe statutes are different — or maybe not. One commentator has stated that 42 U.S.C. § 1396a, a multi-part, but single-sentence, Medicare statute that sets forth what state plans for medical assistance must provide, "is generally regarded as the longest sentence in the English language." I could not get an accurate word count of this monster, but it was somewhere north of 11,600 words.
It's long, but I'm not sure it's fair to call it "English."