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 tentIt’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.
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.
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.