Let us Speak of the Quick Brown Fox

In which the author addresses a particular jumping fox.

Let us Speak of the Quick Brown Fox

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

There are four things that interest me about the preceding sentence.

  • First, I like foxes jumping over dogs, and so am pleased by the substance of the sentence.
  • Second, the sentence is a pangram, meaning it contains all the letters of the English alphabet. I am interested in that distinct character.
  • Third, the sentence is often used both to teach typists and for font display tests. I am interested in this history, both in regards to its cultural usage and its role in typography. (See especially The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst for the joys of Typography, though I don’t think there’s anything about quick foxes in there.)
  • And fourth, I am interested in the sentence as it functions mechanically: both grammatically (the words themselves and their functional relationships) and syntactically (how the words are ordered and put into play in terms of style).

Beyond its distinctive character and history, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” is not a particularly good or beautiful sentence.

In fact, it is rather ugly. Now, there is nothing wrong with the sentence grammatically. You essentially have a subject, verb, preposition, and object behaving well together on the page.

All of its ugliness can be found in the syntax.

Read it out loud and your voice will catch right after “fox” as you try to transition to “jumps.” The ending of “fox” dives with its sibilant “x” to a skidding stop. And “jumps” is doubly damnable by being a squishy/unwieldy word that also ends on a sibilant “s.”

That’s terrible.

You see, “fox jumps” sounds muddy, and muddy is not what we want to taste when we are going about the business of jumping over things. Don't you agree?

“The quick brown fox,” by itself, is a strong fragment. It moves with an alacrity that complements the spirit of its subject, despite being slightly overloaded with two adjectives. Yet it is still only a fragment, seeing as it lacks a verb.

“Jumps,” was not the right choice.

Something hard: “Leapt” or “bounded” would be preferable. (Either “leapt” or “bounded” would actually serve quite well, as you get onomatopoeia in either case and, as two syllable words, they make a nice handoff to the predicate part of the sentence – what the fox’s verb is effecting.)

“Over the lazy dog,” is okay. There’s nothing to commend or condemn in it other than the fact that it is boring. But why shouldn’t lazy dogs be boring?

Yet, despite our efforts, “The quick brown fox leapt over the lazy dog,” still isn’t a strong sentence. It just isn’t balanced. We spend all this time (six words) with a supposedly quick fox to get him over a notably lazy dog.

The economy of the sentence is glaringly wonky.

Consider: “The fox leapt the wall.” That’s a compact and muscular sentence. There’s a reason the minimalists like Hemingway and Raymond Carver have such followings – you get stuff done tightly and with vigor.

So, how shall we go about addressing your wonky economy, oh sentence? Well, we must be honest with ourselves (if we haven’t been already – and why wouldn’t you be, Dear Reader?) We know who the culprits are despite finding ourselves somewhat attached to them. It’s the adjectives: “Quick,” “brown,” “lazy.”

Even though, “The quick brown fox,” sounds good rolling off the tongue, it just isn’t worth much in terms of meaning. The only value “quick” has, is the contrast it creates with “lazy.” That comparative tension is a nice touch, but the word still has to go.

And “brown”? No one cares that the fox is brown. If the fox had been pink or striped or spectral, then the adjective would provide us with some juicy narrative information. “Brown” is just bland filler. I can’t cash that check for anything more than its root exchange rate in the dictionary. Blah.

How about “lazy”? It’s the only adjective that’s pulling its weight on both sides of the sentence. It lends cachet to “quick” and it describes the dog succinctly. “Lazy” also has a nice onomatopoeic touch – trailing off into sloth with its muddy sibilant ending. And that hard dental sound at the beginning of “dog” has a satisfying bite following on its heels. Bravo.

So, where has our courageous analytic resolve taken us?

“The fox leapt over the lazy dog.”

We sacrifice much to come to this refined line. Distinctive character, history, pedigree – but we all knew the original sentence was terrible. Something had to be done. We had to be ruthless, with clear eyes and steady hands. (And you’re probably an accomplice by now, Dear Reader.)

Our newer, slimmer, more agile sentence is now endowed with a poetic lilt. We’ve trimmed the fat off the fox and swapped out mud for springy turf with “leapt,” all while keeping our slothful canine as he was – dozing obliviously.

Of course, no one will actually use our sentence. Indeed, it is likely to sink into the mire of the unmemorable. Because, you see, even though we fixed the sentence. We also robbed it of everything that made it enduring. It was a bad sentence. But you knew its name.

Requiescet in pace, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

P.S. A couple other ways to play with the sentence have to do with how you make use of pauses as a reader: Take a breath after "fox" so you don't skid/stumble into "jumps" (you're also sympathetically breathing with the fox before he takes flight). If you go on to add a brief pause after jumps, as indicated by an em dash thusly: "The quick brown fox jumps – over the lazy dog," you'll get the fox to hang in the air a bit as he vaults over the hound.

Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

Want to throw me some coin to support me financially? I have a Busker's Hat to help buy coffee and used books.

Was this email forwarded to you? Come and visit my outpost to choose a path through Perilous Realms.

Perilous Realms

Well met, Traveller into Perilous Realms. I am your guide Bryan Rye, Game Master and Author. Stay awhile and let us speak of many things.

Read more from Perilous Realms
Time Life's Third Reich series

In which the author speaks of childhood beasts of war. A pack of books, bristling with arms... Let Us Speak of Playing with Wolves We begin with two words: “Wolf Packs” It was one of those phrases that captured my imagination as a child. Yes, I drew wolves and worgs growing up – they joined falcons, snakes, and sharks as the animals that fascinated me most. And my older sister even painted a little picture of a wolf howling at the moon that I still have (somewhere). But I’m not talking about...

Fortresses we shall raise.

In which the author speaks of childhood castles. Fortresses we shall raise... Let Us Speak of Building Blocks I built castles when I was younger. And so I dreamt of becoming an architect – for that was the profession that was allowed to “play with blocks” when you grow up. At first, I largely raised the same castle – over and over again – as I did not have a great variety of blocks to work with. And endless repetition to children is not the terrible burden that adults feel. Later on, when I...

Optimus Prime: "One Shall Stand, One Shall Fall."

In which the author reflects on two impactful quotes from childhood films. "One shall stand. One shall fall." An Author’s Notebook Welcome, Dear Reader, to An Author’s Notebook, where I share various notes from my week in reading and writing. Today I take a cursory journey down the well of memory. Our subject arises out of two quotes from Hasbro movies: “One shall stand. One shall fall.” - Optimus Prime. “I was once a man.” - Cobra Commander. Both of these lines are the most poignant and...