A Better Way to Write a Long List

Two years ago, the following sentence appeared in the New York Times (the context is irrelevant to my point):

“Among those he identified were Mr. Christie’s chief counsel, his chief of staff and his press secretary, as well as a confidant he had picked as Port Authority chairman, his campaign manager and his political strategist.”

Most people wouldn’t give this sentence a second thought. And that’s as it should be. But to wordsmiths like me, what’s interesting is the way this sentence isn’t written:

“Among those he identified were Mr. Christie’s chief counsel, his chief of staff, his press secretary, a confidant he had picked as Port Authority chairman, his campaign manager and his political strategist.”

The second example is how most of us would write a list: By citing everything in a single clause.

Yet the “as well as” transition in the first example doesn’t feel forced at all. To the contrary, it flows naturally.

I suspect the reasoning for this unorthodox construction is that rattling off six things in a row inclines the reader’s eyes to glaze over, whereas citing three things, followed by three things, is easier to digest.

Coincidentally, around the same time as the article in the Times, an article in Time pulled off the same trick. Here’s the sentence:

“There will be a Madam President, after so many female governors and Senators and Prime Ministers, so many female entrepreneurs and CEOs, so many female judges and chancellors.”

Here, I suspect the reason for the odd listing is lyrical: The pairing off by two sounds so much better than one big mouthful: “Female governors, Senators, Prime Ministers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, judges and chancellors.”

Addendum (10/2/2019):

Here’s another example from the Times:

“Among those in the room were Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary at the time; Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state; Kevin K. McAleenan, the Customs and Border Protection chief at the time; and Stephen Miller, the White House aide who, more than anyone, had orchestrated Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda. Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff was also there, along with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and other senior staff.”

1 comment:

  1. Another reason to break up a list of, say, five phrases is to ensure that readers won't mistake, say, list item 3 for an appositive of list item 2.
    Consider the following sentence:
    "She invited Dan, his mother, June, his brother, and Carol."
    Is June Dan's mother? It's hard to say. If June is Dan's mother, "June" is merely an appositive, and the serial commas must be promoted to semicolons:
    "She invited Dan; his mother, June; his brother, and Carol." But so many careless writers neglect to use the semicolon in a complex series that we can't be sure.

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