There can be no 'correctness' apart from usage.
—C. C. Fries, American academic
Lenin Nair is an interesting guy. His name alone is interesting. And, yes, that's who he's named after (I had to ask). He runs a blog called Cute Writing which I read from time to time. One thing he has a thing about is concise writing, using short sentences and not wasting words.
He's not the only one. I keep tripping over posts harping on at me to cut down on my words but it was one of Lenin's most recent posts that caught my attention and fired my imagination.
Say, an author wastes one word in every five sentences. There are 80,000 words in his latest novel. And there are 4 words in average in each sentence. This means ideally he wastes the first word of every sentence! Okay, here goes my calculation…
Totally 80,000 divided by (4*5) is what we want (is my math correct? I am weak in it). So, it is 4000. Our author wasted 4000 words in his novel. Now, to read those 4000 words, a reader requires one hour extra, let’s assume. And this is highly economical. Most authors waste far more than that.
One more assumption: our author has twenty books in writing (20 best sellers, each sold one million copies). Now, each book makes one hour waste on extra unnecessary words. So, our author makes 20 million of general public hours wasted! It is up to you to calculate how many days, months, or years it is. There are hundreds of best selling authors, and thousands of non-best selling ones, who give more danger to community than someone like Osama bin-Laden. They are delaying a lot of progress by riveting their readers’ attention on their useless words rather than their useful ones. - Why Waste Words in Writing?
Don't you just love statistics? I always have despite the fact I failed my Statistics exam at college but what were the odds on that? Personally I tend to stay clear of them. I don't trust 'em. But this is clearly just a bit of fun from Lenin to make a serious point.
It's something that I find myself running across more and more these days, online articles telling me how to write concisely, how many words per sentence, how many sentences per paragraph – and I am not jesting here. Tell me something, when did words become an endangered species?
I have a problem with all this. Although I agree that some authors do waffle on endlessly and needlessly about a lot of stuff, piling adjective upon adjective – there will always be those – there are also a lot of writers, myself included, who enjoy language for its own sake and relish the musicality of the longer sentence. Writing is not only about the destination (accurately conveying meaning) it is also about the journey (the experience of learning).
Small is beautiful
On the whole I agree that technical writing should veer towards conciseness, clarity and simplicity (the personality of the writer is neither here nor there) but in creative fiction the way the words say things matters every bit as much as the message that those words are there to communicate.
There's always a middle ground and I'd like to think that's where you'll find me; I tend towards the loquacious but steer clear of out-and-out verbosity.
In another article, How to Write Concise Sentences, Lenin provides a nice list of examples of words we often use to pad our sentences. Let's have a look at one here:
Using absolutely, totally, completely, etc: Don’t say “something is absolutely excellent”. Using just ‘excellent’ is enough.
Of course he's right. But he is also completely, totally and utterly wrong. That, by the way, is one of my pet interjections – "completely, totally and utterly" – and I enjoy using it. It's like my catchphrase. One of them anyway. It's not enough to say he's wrong here. I want to really emphasise his wrongness and stamp all over it. Or I could have said: "But he is also wrong, w r o n g, capital letters, bold, underscore AND italics." Or what about: "But he is also wrong. You would not believe how wrong he is. On a scale of one to wrong he's so very, very wrong."
Okay, maybe he's not as wrong as all that but you get my point.
To my mind the inclusion of all these adverbs adds colour to the text and English is a very colourful language. But when does it get to be unnecessary?
In his post Power of Short Sentences, Lenin draws our attention to the opening sentence to Oliver Twist:
Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.
In other words:
Oliver was born in the workhouse.
And this is exactly how the abridged version of the book on Glyn Hughes' Squashed Writer's site puts it.
But just look at what Dickens does in this sentence. He piles insignificance atop of insignificance. He doesn't even name Oliver who is reduced to an "item of mortality". It is a carefully constructed sentence. Of course it could be broken down into smaller sentences but for whose benefit?
Up till now I feel like I've been slagging off Lenin but I think he's the kind of guy who can take a joke. To redress the balance somewhat if I go right back to the start of his blog, his very first entry has this to say:
When you can write simple sentences, you don’t have to write too simple ones:
Tom is a boy. He wears a sweatshirt. He is 5 feet tall. He is fair. He is handsome. He is running. He is…
Now, that looks ridiculous! How about:
Tom is a fair good-looking boy of five feet, wearing a sweatshirt. He is running.
That’s fine and professional. To me, being professional is being subtle. When you see professionals and amateurs at work, you will know this
See, he's not obsessed with brevity for its own sake.
Let's move the focus away from poor Lenin and look at why people have it in for the longer sentence. Here's an example provided by Ken Macrorie in his book, Telling Writing where he talks about what he calls 'namery' the habit of naming things that do not need naming:
He starts with this example:
Juliet and Rosalind are women who fall in love. This is one of the few similarities between these two characters. They are different in age, with Juliet being an impetuous adolescent and Rosalind being a mature adult. This different is illustrated by the manner in which each character falls in love. Juliet rushes into romance and gets married as quickly as possible while Rosalind makes sure of her love for Orlando--a much more rational and logical choice than Juliet's.
Now, on the surface this doesn't look too cumbersome. The sentences are not obsessively short but just because the component sentences are on the short side doesn't necessarily make it good reading. Macrorie provides a streamlined version and it's worthy of note that he doesn't try and force it all into a single convoluted 'clever' sentence.
One of the few similarities between Juliet and Rosalind is that they both fall in love; but Juliet rushes into romance while Rosalind makes sure of her love for Orlando. Juliet is an impetuous adolescent; Rosalind is a mature adult.
There is of course a problem with short sentences as Emma Darwin points out in her post In praise of the long sentence:
Short sentences don't flow. Yes, the next one may develop it. But at each full stop the reader, well, stops. There are several unfortunate consequences. One: rhythmically and therefore mentally the reader has to start up again each time. They may choose not to. Two: because you can't easily link each sentence grammatically and logically to the next, you're relying on the reader to make the connections: to move the story on, to provide their own profluence. Some will, some won't, but none will do it as well and reliably as when you, the writer, provide it. And Three: it's boring to read/hear for any length of time, just as is a single drum beat instead of the stress and slack, the interlocking rhythms of our human existence.
A similar point is made by Matthew Cheney in his post, In praise of long sentences, where he includes a quote from Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, the opening paragraph from his chapter on 'Length':
The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement. You'll never confuse a reader with sprawl, wordiness, or muddy abstraction. But if you never write sentences longer than twenty words, you'll be like a pianist who uses only the middle octave: you can carry the tune, but without much variety or range. Every competent writer has to know how to write a concise sentence and how to prune a long one to readable length. But a competent writer must also know how to manage a long sentence gracefully, how to make it as clear and as vigorous as a series of short ones.
The online sentence
The main cry for shorter sentences comes from people involved in writing for the Web, shorter sentences, smaller paragraphs, plain English, lots of white space please. Since more and more people are being drawn to the Internet for information does this mean that what they're going to find has been diluted in some way to support the medium? In his article, Web Writing vs Print Writing, Kerry Redshaw explains the science behind these outrageous demands. In printed material, the brain slows down to string multiple syllables together. On the Web, that comprehension is slowed down by another 25% and with that slow down, we often lose the rhythms of sentences.
The Nielsen Report, which he references, provides some sobering statistics:
- 79% of users scan the page instead of reading word for word, focusing on headlines, summaries and captions.
- Only 16% actually read word for word what's on the screen.
- Web readers are 3 times more likely than newspaper readers to limit in-depth reading to short paragraphs.
- On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.
- Of those Web users who do read the entire page, most only absorb 75% of the content.
It's amazing anything goes in at all.
The most important conclusion was that writing on the Web should be 50% shorter than its paper equivalent simply because people don't read what they find online; they scan it and pick out the interesting bits. So we're advised to keep it simple, succinct and scannable.
Interestingly the turning point in sentence construction happened well before computers, with the inception of the pulp detective novel; at least that is what Otto Penzler suggests in the article Pulp Fiction Murdered Long Sentences:
I think it was really the beginning of a different kind of writing. The kind of writing in the world of literature that everyone had been familiar with was Henry James with long sentences, long paragraphs. And then Ernest Hemingway came along and Dashiell Hammett came along and they started to write short, quick, clipped sentences that didn't require lots and lots of description. The pulps provided the perfect springboard for that literary tone.
The real answer is that there is room for both. If you look at this speech by Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 (IIiv) we find the character of Falstaff getting more and more long-winded in his sentences. I've reformatted it to make my point:
But to say I know more harm in him than in myself, were to say more than I know.
That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny.
If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved.
No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
To which the prince replies:
I do. I will.
Here we have a fine example of two very different kinds of power. And each is appropriate to the character involved.
In my next post we'll have a look at the lengths to which some authors go to demonstrate the effectiveness of the longer sentence and then we'll consider some of the maths behind it all.