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




March 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the seventies the word ‘problems’ was freely used, but by the late eighties, ‘problems’ was seen as a negative word which reflected a negative cast of mind. It was better to speak of ‘challenges’, and better still to love a ‘challenge’.

The taboo on the word ‘problems’ continues right up to the present day. Oddly enough, since the early years of this century the word ‘solutions’, presumably to some implied problems, has abounded. But even the most popular words must lose their lustre and, it seems, that the positive word ‘solutions’ is giving way to the more negative one ‘issues’. A school, for example, that was once seeking storage space solutions may now declare that they have storage space issues.

The word ‘issues’ has distinct negative connotations yet it has recommended itself to the populace at large and is being so frequently used that unless you were to take up the life of a hermit, you could hardly escape it.

However, people use the word ‘issues’ in such an indiscriminate way that we cannot be sure what exactly it means, other than to say that ‘issues’ covers anything from a query to a serious personal reverse, and anything from a minor nuisance to wrongdoing that may be criminal.

Please, do not hesitate to contact me . . . personally, over the school phone or via email to discuss any issues.
Letter from a school about a student exchange itinerary (March 2014).
. . . I can wholly recommend her as she has really helped me with various issues . . . A personal email (March 17th) from a woman promoting the massage therapies of her cousin.
There are no issues. (March 20th) A swimming instructor’s verbal assurance to a father that he could buy his daughter a replacement swim hat before her next lesson.
And on March 24th, I learnt from news on Classic FM that The Co-operative Bank has to raise £400 million to cover other issues.

The word ‘issues’ is altogether too flexible in its meaning. A handy word for institutions of one sort and another to hide behind and for individuals to use in a rather self-aggrandising way: for example, parents who say they are prevented from doing things because of childcare issues. If what they mean is that they cannot get hold of a babysitter, rather than that the babysitter has turned out to be unfit to look after children, then why don’t they say so.

Let Jacques Barzun in the opening paragraph of an essay entitled ‘Look for Trouble Ahead’ have the last word:

George Orwell pointed out years ago that bad writing was often a sign of political deceit. Today it is a sign of unlovely human traits as well—vanity, pretentiousness, complacency about one’s ignorance, disrespect toward the listener, and a curious mixture of slavish imitation and a desire to appear original.


Examples of imagery

February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

The language of imagery in the hands of good writers:

E L Konigsburg  in  Chapter 7 of The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: . . .why don’t you find out instead of arguing about it now?” Claudia’s whisper began to sound like cold water hitting a hot frying pan.

Paula Fox in The Slave Dancer:

At first the wind had been a tight fist, shoving us on, but now it was an open hand pushing us on before it at such a rousing clip I felt my own arms had become wings as we flew across the water. (The ‘Moonlight’ section)

Hours past with nothing to mark them until in the east the sky paled ever so faintly as though a drop of daylight had touched the black.  (The ‘Moonlight’ section)

The truth came slowly like a story told by people interrupting each other.  (The ‘Shrouds’ section)

Margaret Mahy:

‘ . . .a stormy coastline where waves crashing on the rocks sent up great swirls of salt water and foam, briefly embroidering the grey air with lace and pearls.’ (Chapter 7, The Haunting )

These were true things, Laura knew, but they were only part of the truth which was something less orderly than Kate made it sound. Some parts of the full, disorderly truth were lodged in Kate and Laura like splinters of corroding steel. Their feelings had grown around the sharp, wounding edges which didn’t hurt any more but were still there, fossils of pain laid down in the mixed up strata of memory. (The Changeover)

Her skin was stitched and seamed with thin red lines, scratches from briars and from the lines of her own blows severing the briars.  (The Changeover)

Everything was velvety with dust.  (Chapter Thirteen, The Underrunners)

He swung the barrel of the gun towards Winola, not really aiming at her, using it almost like a teacher might use a pointing finger to single someone out.  (Chapter Thirteen, The Underrunners)

Orson walked across the room and through the hall door. Winola watched him, looking as sharp as if she were at the start of a race waiting for someone to say, ‘On your marks!’  (Chapter Thirteen, The Underrunners)

Glancing to the left as he crossed the street, Ellis saw the city council had installed new street lamps since he had last walked that way. Retreating, like precisely spaced blooms in a park garden, they rose on long green stems which curved elegantly at the top, then blossomed into hoods of deep crimson. (Chapter One, 24 Hours)

Street lights looked down at him from long, slender necks of concrete, curving over at the top as if light were too great a burden to be held. (Chapter Two, Memory)

The ironing board was covered with a blanket and sheet, and all over the surface of the sheet, sometimes going right through the blanket to the metal beneath, were black triangular tracks. Electricity, given more freedom than it should have had, had left a dangerous trail in Sophie’s laundry. The iron itself stood precariously at the end of the ironing board in the place provided. It was still plugged in and switched on, but it was covered with a sort of burnt toffee that suggested it was quite cold. The cord was frayed, and where it entered its plug, Jonny glimpsed the bright tinsel of fine wire. (Chapter Six, Memory)

Her long, tangled hair still scribbled down her shoulders like the hair of the past Bonny . .   (Chapter Twelve, Memory)

From Jan Mark’s Trouble Half-way:

The gloves [rubber gloves] were too large and the water clamped them hotly against her fingers. It was as if some creature had been lurking in the bowl, under the bubbles, and grabbed her hands in a toothless mouth.  (Chapter Three)

Amy moved up to an empty chair where Derek had sat and rubbed a bald patch in the furry steam on the window pane. (Chapter Eight)

Nella Larsen’s  Passing:

What small breeze there was seemed like the breath of a flame fanned by slow bellows. (Part One, ‘Encounter’)

. . .in rooms whose atmosphere would be so thick and hot that every breath would be like breathing soup.  (Part One, ‘Encounter’)

And that little straightening motion of the shoulders. Hadn’t it been like a man drawing himself up to receive a blow? Her fright was like a scarlet spear of terror leaping at her heart.  (Part Three, ‘Finale’)

Yes, life went on exactly as before. It was only she that had changed. Knowing, stumbling on this thing, had changed her. It was as if in a house long dim, a match had been struck, showing ghastly shapes where had been only blurred shadows. (Part Three, ‘Finale’)

But beating against the walled prison of Irene’s thoughts was the shunned fancy that, though absent, Clare Kendry was still present, that she was close. (Part Three, ‘Finale’)

‘To Florida’ by Robert Sampson (Hard Boiled an Anthology of American Crime Fiction):

‘She [Sue Ann] stared at him and it was like looking into a long tunnel with a fire burning in it, far back.’ Sue Ann is just beginning to discovering the terrible things that Jerry, her boyfriend, is capable of.


January 31, 2014 § Leave a comment


“The art of describing something by showing how it resembles something quite different is called imagery.”  Sylvia Cassedy (In your own words)

Writers are called on to provide descriptions of places or people. And writers have been made very conscious that the reader is easily bored. The reader of today will not, it seems, stand for much, least of all, for long descriptions. Writers must confine themselves to telling details. Hot steam hissed from the wet rings left by wine glasses on the steel tables of outdoor cafes. Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies) has very effectively given us an impression of a heat wave in Paris.

To achieve a similar economy, the writer may also have recourse to  “imagery”.

Jane Austen creates a full and vivid world with little description, and almost no imagery. Offhand, I can only think of one image used: Harriet praises Emma’s piano playing to the detriment of Jane Fairfax’s but, prejudiced as Emma is towards Jane, she cannot let that go. Emma likens her own playing to lamplight and Jane’s to sunlight. An image that is not only very straightforward but very effective too.

Yet a simple image may prove ineffective because it is inaccurate. It is not sufficient to say “x” is like “y” to produce an image. The writer must truly find a point of comparison between two things. The writer who can produce an effective image in one book may not in another. In Circles of Deceit Nina Bawden describes Aunt Maud who looks as she grows older more and more like a barmaid; broad, florid face surrounded by hair stiff as hay sprayed with varnish . . . Is hay ever sprayed with varnish? If the reader has to pause to think about the image, the image, I think, fails. This image is not direct enough. We do not really know what hay sprayed with varnish looks like; we can imagine it but not immediately. The effective image creates an instant picture in the mind.

If Nina Bawden had said Aunt Maud’s hair was the colour of hay or had the texture of hay, we could easily understand what was intended, though we probably would not think the image sufficiently original. In an earlier book Tortoise by Candlelight, Nina Bawden writes: His moustache [Martin Bean’s] had a shabby, loosely tethered air as if he had borrowed it from a cheap theatrical costumier’s. The moustache is before us and so too is the ineffectual and unsuccessful Martin Bean.

Robert Cormier in The Chocolate War writes: Her hair was like maple syrup. Which of maple syrup’s characteristics is Robert Cormier likening the girl’s hair to? Does he mean glossy-looking like maple syrup, or that her hair is the same colour as maple syrup? He cannot intend to mean that her hair is sticky like maple syrup but he does leave the possibility open.

Lucy Boston and E L Konigsberg want us to imagine the hair of old women. And both using a different image are very successful. Mrs Oldknow’s hair (A Stranger at Green Knowe) is “cobwebby”. We understand that the hair is white, wispy (maybe wispily tangled) and there is not much of it. Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler’s hair is altogether white now and looks like frayed nylon thread. (From The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). When nylon thread, as opposed to natural materials, frays it is particularly wispy and thin-looking.

The casserole slid into the oven like a letter into a mail box. Robert Cormier offers us this comparison in The Chocolate War. Is there much similarity between letters and casseroles? Letters are light and are dropped into mailboxes; casseroles are heavy and are not dropped into ovens. Is the image supposed to suggest other hidden things or have some allusive significance? Even allowing that the image may have some obscure meaning, the image should still work on an “obvious” level. If Robert Cormier had visualised a letter dropping into a mail box and a heavy casserole being pushed into an oven, he would have seen that the two have little resemblance to each other.

Images do not abound in prose writing and on average it would be unusual to have more than a handful in a book, one of which, perhaps, would be memorable. There are exceptions: Lucy Boston and P G Wodehouse often had recourse to, and had a gift for, the language of imagery.

Simple but effective: He looked back and saw his own dragging footprints, like wounds in the snow. And also from The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston: The trees dangled with icicles that tinkled like japanese bells.

Fanciful but accurate: It was this that had blotted out the sunshine for Bingo and made him feel, warm though the day was, that centipedes with icy feet were walking up and down his spine. ‘Leave it to Algy’ A Few Quick Ones (1959) by P G Wodehouse

Not simple, but striking and apprehension is immediate: It [the rain] came slapping across the roof like a boy in slippers too big for him .  .  . ‘A Real Durwan’ from Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies.

Few things are more effective than the use of imagery: for a few words full and vivid pictures are created in the reader’s mind. Yet one can’t help but feel that writers do a great deal of mental trawling to obtain those few words.


June 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Some years ago when I was a member of an online craft group which consisted almost entirely of North Americans, I could not help but be struck by their use of the word share. In my childhood, I associated share strongly with a bag of sweets or some good thing to eat. If you owned the sweets, you did not want to share them, but if someone else owned the sweets, you certainly wanted your share.

There was a lot of sharing in my online group, naturally not of sweets. Bad and good news were shared. Someone might report a sad piece of history or news, and add perhaps the words, I just wanted to share.

Share? But I do not want a share of that, I would find myself thinking. I still had, and have, my childish notions of what share means. Bad news is not something to share. How can you share something no one wants a share of?

You can, of course, tell them your bad news.

However, more and more people in the UK are sharing things. I can’t get used to it. Last night, at a talk here in London, the speaker, having told us something useful added, ‘I just wanted to share that with you.’  Is a little extra credit attached to a speaker who shares something with us rather than merely tells us something?

I agree with Larry Trask (an American) about this usage:

Share (with) Only this morning, the electronic question list on language to whose panel I belong received a question from a young American woman, who asked us ’Could you share with me your thoughts on this matter?’ This eccentric use of share is predominantly American, though perhaps not unknown elsewhere. It sounds silly and it should be avoided. Prefer a blunter verb, such as tell or advise. Our correspondent would have been wiser to write ‘Can you tell me what you think about this?’

From Mind The Gaffe* (2001) by R L Trask

* When you get off an underground train at some London stations, an automated announcement is made (or shared), ‘Please mind the gap.’  There is a space between the platform edge and the train.

I don’t think that Americans tend to say ‘mind’ when they mean ‘watch out for’ or ‘pay attention to’.

That’s the stuff! A note on Adriana Hunter’s translation of ‘Beside the Sea’ by Veronique Olmi

April 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

The mother is bringing her children ‘to see the sea’.  This phrase would have caused no problems in French: voyer la mer ( I hope this is correct). We talk of people never having ‘seen the sea’ but not of their ‘not having had a look at the sea’ or their not ‘having caught a glimpse of the sea’. Usually such repetition can be avoided, for example: How much is the fare to the funfair?  can be replaced with, How much to the fair?  However, the repetition of the sound ‘see’ is justified in English because there is no natural alternative.

But should Adriana Hunter have used the word ‘stuff’ so much in the opening pages of Beside the Sea?

. . . I’d  taught them not to waste stuff and to think of the next day.  (page 9)

Yep, sometimes I sit in the kitchen for hours and I couldn’t give a stuff about anything.  (page 9)

. . . I’d stuffed them full of warm clothes for the kids,  (page 10)

. . . stuff from home, familiar things,  (page 10)

. . . we could see the drivers’ hands, their legs, their stuff on the passenger seat,  (page 11)

. . . ever since I broke my collar bone I’ve had trouble carrying stuff . . .  (page 15)

Beside the Sea is an excellent story. Yet when I sampled it, reading a handful of pages, my attention was snagged by the recurring use of the word ‘stuff’. Why did Adriana Hunter use ‘stuff’ or some variation so much in the first few pages? Was this use deliberate? Or was it an oversight? It would have been easy to find a replacement for the word stuff in most of the sentences.

I couldn’t give a stuff. This ‘not giving a stuff’ is a phrase that the mother uses several times in the book. The Irish don’t use this expression. It is an expression I associate with English people, and I believe it was used in the 1970s. I don’t think anyone ‘gives a stuff’ today. People, if they use such a formulation, usually don’t give a [much stronger word] than a ‘stuff’ or they ‘couldn’t care less’. Would a woman like the mother use such an expression, an expression that no one else uses? Why did Adriana Hunter chose that particular expression? Does Adriana Hunter know anyone who uses it?

The re-occurrence of ‘stuff’ did distract me from the story when I first read the opening pages. I thought the word in different contexts had appeared too much. It seemed to me to be a small flaw in an otherwise excellent translation. But perhaps Adriana Hunter had a purpose that escapes me.

When Hibernian and Albion obliquity meet American directness

January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Many years ago I was using a public telephone in Newport, Rhode Island. I was making a call to a woman who did not know me to ask her if she could put me and my friend up for the night. It was then late in the evening, half past ten or so. My connection with the unknown woman was this: an Irish girl I knew had been a paid boarder with her the summer before.

I am not sure what part of the call I had reached when an American man, waiting to use the phone, asked me: ‘Will you be long?’

I had been on American soil for only a few days but I knew the man’s question was to be taken literally. If my phone call were to be a short one, he would wait; otherwise, he would find another phone.

If an Irishman had asked, ‘Will you be long?’ I would have understood that I was to get off the phone at once and not keep him waiting. Had an Englishman asked the same question, I would have been uncertain what he meant: but I would have known better than to take the question at face value.

Americans may run into a little difficulty in England, if they take things too literally. Some years ago, a young American student was working temporarily in an architects’ London office. One morning, a superior of his asked him a question, along the lines of ‘Would it be convenient for you to prepare the room for lunch?’ The young American indicated that it would not be convenient. He was in the middle of some other work.

The Englishman regarded the American’s response as a piece of cheek. What the Englishman had meant, and what every other Englishman would have understood, was: ‘Please get the room ready for lunch immediately.’ The mention of convenience was just, as Henry James would say, “the mere twaddle of graciousness”*.

The American student would probably have been appalled if he had understood how his answer had been interpreted. He had not refused to get the room ready (as the Englishman thought) but was only postponing doing so, until he had finished the work in hand.

The English and the Irish are not always to be taken at their word.

* pg 234, Selected Letters of Henry James edited by Leon Edel (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1956)

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