The long sentence

May 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

In more than one book on the English language I have read that the length of the average sentence in the works of published writers is about fifteen words. Where sentences exceed thirty words, for example, in business documents, it is to be supposed that the writer has gone astray in his construction of sentences: the poorer the writer, the longer the sentence.
Long sentences, genuine ones, those that are not inflated by asides of doubtful relevance, do not abound in books.

It is not easy to write a long sentence. The more words we have, the greater the choice in their arrangement, and we find that there are a number of ways of writing the same information in one sentence. We may try four or five arrangements before we hit on the one that is best, and, even then, we are not always satisfied with the sentence. We know the sentence could be better written but the thought of its many possible permutations rather defeats us: so much work for a relatively small gain. We are not like Joseph Conrad content to move and remove a semi-colon and call that a morning’s work, or was it a day’s work?
It is often quicker to make that one long sentence into two shorter ones. Writing a long sentence seems similar to driving a carriage with four pairs of horses, and writing a short one to driving a carriage with one horse.

Long sentences are not common because they are hard to construct in a way that makes them readily understandable. Nevertheless, P G Wodehouse did not baulk at them:
There was an instant when Freddie could have saved himself at the expense of planting a number ten boot on Muriel’s spine, but even in that crisis he bethought him that he hardly stood solid enough with the authorities to risk adding to his misdeeds the slaughter of his aunt’s favourite cat, and he executed a rapid swerve. (The scared cat proceeded on her journey upstairs, while Freddie, touching the staircase at intervals, went on down.) Spring Fever by PG Wodehouse
To ease the strain, I asked him if he would have a cucumber sandwich, but with an impassioned gesture he indicated that he was not in the market for cucumber sandwiches, though I could have told him, for I found them excellent that he was passing up a good thing. (Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P G Wodehouse)

My knowledge of legal minutiae is, I regret to say slight, so I cannot asseverate with perfect confidence that this detention of Mr. Wooster would have ranked as an act in contravention of the criminal code, and, as such, liable to punishment with penal servitude, but undoubtedly, had I not intervened, the young gentleman would have been in a position to bring a civil action and mulct you in very substantial damages. (Thank you, Jeeves by P G Wodehouse)

Perhaps writers of non-fiction can chance longer sentences; their readers do not read solely for enjoyment, and they may be prepared to work harder. Yet the well-constructed long sentence does not make demands of the reader; all the hard work is done by the writer:
But scarcely any man, however sagacious, would have thought it possible that a trading company, separated from India by fifteen thousand miles of sea, and possessing in India only a few acres for purposes of commerce, would, in less than a hundred years, spread its empire from Cape Cormorin to the eternal snow of the Himalayas ; would compel Mahratta and Mohammedan to forget their mutual feuds in common subjection ; would tame down even those wild races which had resisted the most powerful of the Moguls ; and, having united under its laws a hundred millions of subjects, would carry its victorious arms far to the east of the Burrampooter, and far to the west of the Hydaspes, dictate terms of peace at the gates of Ava, and seat its vassal on the throne of Candahar. (Thomas Macaulay’s essay on Lord Clive*)

And then there are long sentences that appear to take one step forward to so many to the side or backward:

So that when, in early October, I met my old acquaintance and new love—and it was, I must make this eminently clear, a case on both sides of love at first sight, although it took me longer to recognise that flame, as I, for all my years, had never felt it before, and certainly would never have expected to feel it for a soul cloaked in that unexpected body, so thoroughly other from my former predilections—but anyway, by the time I met that inevitable love, I was recognisable to that person, in a way I probably wasn’t yet to myself, but certainly wouldn’t have been to anyone several months before. (The Hunters by Claire Messud)

All of which is neither here nor there in the story of Ridley Wandor, seeing as Ridley Wandor’s story is, fundamentally, the one I wish to tell; but I mention it simply to make clear that by the time of my inquiries, by the time I discovered what had happened—though not, yet, perhaps, at the time at which it happened—I was completely, or at least substantially, a different person from the one who had languished in old Eric’s Kilburn flat contemplating deaths both professional and personal. (The Hunters by Claire Messud)
PG Wodehouse and Thomas Macaulay both load their sentences with information and, despite this, the meaning of their sentences is easy to grasp. Whereas Claire Messud’s sentences have asides and qualifications over which your mind drifts so that when you come to the end of the sentences, you feel the need to re-read them and wonder if the content justified the length. Claire Messud’s rambling sentences were meant, I believe, to reflect the cast of the narrator’s mind and not necessarily Claire Messud’s. Yet I can only feel that nobody talks or thinks like that, not even an American academic.


* I have preserved the space before semi-colon as in text, but the eccentric paragraphing is not intentional



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§ 2 Responses to The long sentence

  • Tish Farrell says:

    It’s interesting how Wodehouse can pull off the long sentence, and build the comic circumstances simultaneously. A fine knack indeed. I’m wondering if we even have the wits to read long sentences these days. I know I don’t care to be bothered, and I’m a ‘reader’. I certainly don’t like writing them. It’s a shame in some ways: losing the skills to create a finely balanced, fully coherent long sentence.

  • ashokbhatia says:

    Some fine examples here. Wodehouse excels, whether in long ones or in short ones.
    Once, when I was reading Life Divine by Sri Aurobindo, I came across a very long sentence which comprises a whole paragraph, occupying almost 75% of the page.

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