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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wow! That's a long sentence

What’s not to like about a long sentence? After all, it takes skill to build one, packing all that information in and holding it there with just one period like a dam that causes the valley to flood and creates the unnatural beauty of a man-made lake, finding voluminous connections between ideas that shimmer like sunlight bouncing from the lake, making them want to hold together as a single unit and defy anyone who wants to tear them apart, showing us the brilliance of the mind that created it.

Or maybe not. I do know I have found long sentences I truly admire. They’re everywhere in literature. Take, for example, this one from The Sun Also Rises:

I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money, and then I started to think how I would make it, and thinking of making money reminded me of the count, and I started wondering about where he was, and regretting I hadn’t seen him since that night in Montmartre, and about something funny Brett told me about him, and as all the time I was kneeling with my forehead on the wood in front of me, and was thinking of myself as praying, I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realized there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would the next time; and then I was out in the hot sun on the steps of the cathedral, and the forefingers and the thumb of my right hand were still damp, and I felt them dry in the sun.
That’s 196 words. And tell me you can’t follow that. I know. Hemingway cheated. He put a lot of short sentences together with commas. But that semicolon at the end — it’s genius. Or consider Frost’s poem “The Silken Tent.”

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
It’s a sonnet, 14 lines, 104 words, and a single sentence — and a pure work of art. The words and thoughts hold together so well and convey so much imagery and meaning that when you teach the poem you often have to point out to students that it’s a single sentence.

One approach to teaching students about the subtlety of language, about subordination and coordination, about the use of modifiers, and about becoming fluid in its use is sentence combining. That’s the process of taking a series of short sentences and seeing what is the least number of sentences you can turn that series into.

But this post isn’t really about using long sentences. Creating long sentences that are effective and pleasing is an art. But too often writers use long sentences because they don’t take the time — again — to think of their readers. Look at the following sentence. It comes from a letter I got with my city utility bill explaining a change in the trash collection and recycling schedule.

The only exception to the system-wide adjustment is for customers residing in multi-unit buildings of three or more units per building without garages or carports who may elect to continue using the in-ground containers, but service will be once-weekly instead of twice weekly.
That’s 43 words. Compare it to the Hemingway sentence, which is 196 words. Which one’s clearer? I would say it’s Hemingway’s because he never loses track of how his reader processes ideas. The writer of the letter, on the other hand, seems to just want to get the information out and leave it up to the reader to sort through it all. The problem is there is too much information there and no clues for the reader to follow to know how to separate the ideas or even what the important ones are. At least, that's the situation on first reading. And how many readers are going to actually stop and give that sentence a second reading? How might the letter writer have made it easier for the reader to find out what he or she can do about the garbage?

The writer could have started simply by separating the sentence at the comma. It’s a compound sentence, but the two ideas — the exception and the collection schedule (service) — are not closely enough related to have any reason to be joined like that. Not only is there too much information for the reader to hold, but the reader is challenged to figure out why those two complete thoughts are together as one.

The only exception to the system-wide adjustment is for customers residing in multi-unit buildings of three or more units per building without garages or carports who may elect to continue using the in-ground containers.* But service will be once-weekly instead of twice weekly.
Next, the writer can look at the first sentence with the goal of finding discrete bits of information and setting them up as such. The goal is to let the reader focus on the message and not on finding the message.

The first bit of information is that there is an exception:

There is one exception to the changes that take effect in March.
The next bit of information is who the exception applies to:

It applies to customers who live in multi-unit buildings with at least three units and no garage or carport.
And finally, what the exception is:

These customers may, if they wish, continue using underground containers.

Then one last tweak to the first edit we did will give us this:

There is one exception to the changes that take effect in March. It applies to customers who live in multi-unit buildings with at least three units and no garage or carport. These customers may, if they wish, continue using underground containers. The change in service will, though, still apply. That is, service will be once-weekly instead of twice weekly.
Five sentences, and the passage is as clear — albeit not as artistically pleasing — as Hemingway’s one sentence. But since the reader doesn’t have to struggle to get the information, on some level, it’s just as satisfying.

* Note that after the first edit, “elect to continue using the in-ground containers” has the emphasis that suggests it’s the important part of the message.


  1. Excellent and educational post, Grandpa!!
    Wonderful image: the dam held by a single period forming a man-made lake of beauty . . .
    your disection of the two passages was masterful too!
    You are a treasure. When I grow up I'd like to be a word-doctor like you. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us, ALOHA from Waikiki-

  2. Thank you, Cloudia. You made me smile.

  3. I laughed when I read this. I have a long sentence in my post today, and I tried to think of a way to shorten it but I could not.

    I think long sentences work if the writer uses plain English, such a Hemingway used in his sentence.

    Isn't the English language wonderful?

  4. The language certainly is wonderful. So was your post today, Jo. I put it in today's spotlight over in the right sidebar.

  5. That was a fantastic post Grandpa. Oh long sentences mmmmm. I am guilty of either too shorrt or too long a sentence. I really loved your examples too and showing the differences between a long sentence carefully structured that works well and another which clearly does not. I find your posts tremendously beneficial. Thank you. I shall go over and check Jo's post out.

  6. Thanks, Lilly. Any time I can quote Hemingway and Frost in the same post, I'm happy.

  7. I truly admire your knowledge and aspire to write clearly without feeling like I'm over-structuring but I fear that if I knew and followed all of the rules, my fingers would refuse to type, lest I break too many of them as I go along - the rules, not my fingers. (51!) ;)

    Sigh! In my case, ignorance is bliss. Just don't get me started on those who don't use paragraphs!

  8. Hi, Hilary. I think trying to write by the rules is the shortest route to writer's block I know. The only rule that really matters is think of your reader. How is your reader going to respond to what you do. And I don't know. Sometimes I worry about breaking my fingers too. Wow. That just summoned up the image from "The Hustler."

  9. *snort* I know I'm definitely guilty on this one-sometimes I feel like the run on queen!

  10. Most entertaining and enlightening post! I enjoyed reading through it.

    As I read it I thought of two things. First, I could relate to Hemmingway's character as I, too, am a rotten Catholic! Well, I used to be. Now I am not participating at all so I am not sure what the right word would be (and, yes, I ended that sentence with a preposition!!) But I could certainly relate to the man who was praying but actually thinking of so many other thoughts.

    Second, upon reading the statement from the utility company it was obvious it had been written by a lawyer! Heh! As a lawyer, I feel free to comment on how awful most lawyers write!

    In my classes I give my students a long, long, long (!) exculpatory clause contained within a contract and ask them to write it in "English" or words we can actually understand. It is amazing how clearly something can be if a person takes some time to edit and construct the thoughts into workable bites of information.

    Of course, judges used to be paid for their work by the number of words they used - thus long rulings became common.

    I always liked Oliver Wendell Holmes method of writing - he always wrote standing up! He was also a critic of people who wrote long winded essays when a short phrase would do!

    You can tell I am not related to him...!! Take care!

  11. Seattle City Light, Washington State Department of Health Services, and Social security should hire you to edit their letters to consumers.

    I try to help clients figure out what the heck the above agencies are talking about.

    Thanks for adding works by Hemingway and Frost. They are both poetry, in my humble opinion.

  12. I would kill to have your skills! I want to be an expert in grammar.

    Great post!

  13. I have been pushed to the brink of sanity by many a long sentence.

  14. I love any number of Faulkner's long sentences, too. Nice to see a blog that examines the words and doesn't just add to general noise of the blogosphere.

    Thanks for finding my blog, so I could find yours!