Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 1 December 2008

The long and the short of it (part two)

In our last post we looked at the arguments for and against long sentences. Now let's have a look at how far some people have been willing to go.

What is a sentence?

Up till this point I've taken for granted that we all know what a sentence is. An American linguist, C. C. Fries, counted more than two hundred definitions of the sentence. Simply put, the sentence is the basic building block of written language. In the past, sentences were often defined according to their meaning. For example, they were said to contain "a complete thought". This raises all sorts of questions about the difference between a complete thought and an incomplete one. Nowadays we can't even say with any degree of assurance that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop.

Of course not all definitions are very helpful: A sentence is a grammatical unit that is composed of one or more clauses. A clause is a grammatical unit that includes, at minimum, a predicate and an explicit or implied subject, and expresses a proposition. A predicate is the portion of a clause, excluding the subject that expresses something about the subject.

You get the idea. And because definitions have been stretched to breaking point so have sentences.

Longer and longer

As freedoms slip over the horizons some authors get carried away with themselves. Matthew Cheney's short story 'The Length of the Sentence' is 1109 words long; my own short story 'The Sentence' just beats him at 1127 but neither of us comes close to the last sentence of The Unnamable at a whopping 2671 words. Faulkner managed 1287 in Absalom, Absalom! The best Marcel Proust could come up with was a lamentable 958 though Victor Hugo didn't exactly disgrace himself at 823. Halton Borough Council made a name for themselves with a commendable 630. Check out the link if you don't believe me. Oh, and that Dickens sentence a bit early didn't even get out of double figures. Then again you could add all of those together and you wouldn't come anywhere near James Joyce. The last section of James Joyce's Ulysses, Molly Bloom's soliloquy, includes two sentences, the first one 11,281 words long, the second 12,931 words long. Jonathan Coe's The Rotters Club, published in 2001, has now well and truly smashed that record since the book contains a sentence with 13,955 words, a mere stroll in the park when compared to Nigel Tomm's new book The Blah Story, Volume 4 which consists of a single sentence containing 469,375 words which he then dwarfs in Volumes 16 through 19 which consist of one sentence 2,403,109 words long. To quote Ricky Gervais's comic creation Andy Millman in the role he will forever be remembered for as manager Ray Stokes: Are you 'avin’ a laff!?

So, why did I choose to write a 1127 word story? It was a challenge, to write a story in a single sentence, but I could've got away with two or three hundred. The reason I chose to keep going was to use the sentence as a metaphor; the narrator is someone who has been sentenced, we don't know what for, but the reader feels trapped by this very, very long sentence. I take the weakness of the long sentence and turn it to my advantage. Of course that trick only works once.

I managed a decent enough 196 in Living with the Truth where we get to hear about Jonathan's various fornications and adulteries:

The list was surprisingly long considering all the aspects of his character that were continually conspiring against him in this regard: a Thelma who worked in the creamed biscuit factory who was into older men and something he couldn’t pronounce too well but had definite Latin roots—she put him off custard creams for life; an Allison, a waitress, overweight and eager to please but hard work with it; June, once a regular, who did it to spite her husband (thankfully he never found out who the third party was (“person or persons unknown”)); Rose, a brief holiday romance (well, she thought it was romantic), who wrote to him care of the shop for months after, before taking the hint; Gillian, with the four cats, one called Widget he remembered, who simply wanted to footer around; Maycaroline—“all one word”—with her social worker’s eyes—they met through a computer dating agency (his one and only foray down that path); and, last, but by no means least, boozy Eileen—or, more specifically her breasts, Pinky and Perky (he never knew which was which)—she dozed off while he was doing it—but he did it anyway.

The reason I get away with this, and I don't think I do too bad of a job, is that it's a list, albeit a padded list, but nevertheless a list and lists can just meander on and on until you get fed up and decide to stick a full stop on the end and talk about something else.

Writing a balanced, well thought out long sentence is another thing entirely. In his article Mastering the long sentence, Roy Clark examines two sentences by Annie Proulx, the author of 'Brokeback Mountain', and feels he has come up with a formula:

Make meaning early with subject and verb; clear out some space for an inventory of detail or action; make the length of the sentence fit the length of the content or meaning.

It's a thought. But I'd like to return to something Matthew Cheney said in his post:

A friend of mine sometimes speaks wistfully of "lovely 18th century sentences", the sorts of things written by writers who intended to do with writing what could not be done with speech, and sought therefore to take advantage of writing's inherent, unique qualities -- the sentence as its own art.

I have to say, and for a guy with no great fondness for reading his work out loud, that I had never really considered that. I often read whole chunks of my novels to myself to make sure they flow even though I have no intention of ever reading them aloud; it's a good test I find.

I can still see the long sentence struggling to survive in this 21st century of ours. Thankfully I won't have to suffer too much of it myself. Even the humble sentence is fighting to keep a foothold ever since the sentence fragment bullied its way into our lives. I certainly didn’t get the memo – did you?

The maths behind it all

In the process of researching his post I've discovered that you can boil even the longest sentence down to a single number, the Flesch Reading Ease Score (FRES). Reader's Digest magazine has a readability index of about 65, Time magazine scores about 52; my paragraph was 56.6. 50-59 is considered Fairly Difficult.

The formula for the Flesch Reading Ease score is:

FRE = 206.835 - (1.015 x ASL) - (0.846 x ASW)

  • FRE = Flesch Reading Ease readability score
  • ASL = average sentence length in words or average number of words in sentence (number of words divided by the number of sentences)
  • ASW = average syllables per word (the number of syllables divided by the number of words)

It's not the only system. Many have appeared and disappeared since the 1940s. There's the SMOG Readability Formula, the New Dale-Chall Readability Formula, the Fry Graph Readability Formula, the Powers-Sumner-Kearl Readability Formula and the wonderfully-named Gunning’s Fog Index amongst others.

Looking at my sentence I'm not sure how this works. All I've done is padded out a list. I think you really have to take cognisance of the words. There isn't a complicated word in the whole sentence. It's just long and not even that long. Its length is appropriate to its content.

While I was learning about these different formulae I ran across an article, On the Necessity for Long Sentences, in which the author, a student of philosophy discusses how we express ourselves nowadays. Towards the end he begins summing things up:

Short sentences should only be used for emphasis, especially in a philosophical text. That is Flesch’s fatal mistake. Because everybody seems to write this way, our minds are being reduced to simplistic thoughts, thoughts that cannot be extended beyond the immediate subject and predicate, thoughts that don’t demand that we recall the main idea for more than eight or nine words.

The person who needs those sentences should not be studying philosophy. He should be studying grammar and learning how to read, two vital foundations for philosophy.

Please note that my primary concern here is not with philosophy but with writing. I’m arguing for the long sentence, contending that we have made ourselves stupid by refusing to express a thought that cannot be reduced to a single clause, by putting periods between every clause and sometimes phrase, by eliminating the semi-colon from the realm of comprehension, by compelling students, even in college, to think about matters for which the reading materials they have encountered have disabled them, by developing an attitude of resentment toward any writer that challenges their intellects beyond a single conjunction.

A thing of beauty

A thing of beauty shouldn't need to be explained and a long sentence when handled by a wordsmith is exactly that. I know what Nielsen’s reports all say about the capacity or at least the inclination of those reading online these days but, for God's sake, just stop a second and enjoy the words.

William Faulkner – 'Barn Burning'

The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish--this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. – 117 words

Thomas Love Peacock – Crochet Castle

In one of those beautiful valleys, through which the Thames (not yet polluted by the tide, the scouring of cities, or even the minor defilement of the sandy streams of Surrey,) rolls a clear flood through flowery meadows, under the shade of old beech woods, and the smooth mossy greensward of the chalk hills (which pour into it their tributary rivulets, as pure and pellucid as the fountain of Bandusium, or the wells of Scamander, by which the wives and daughters of the Trojans washed their splendid garments in the days of peace, before the coming of the Greeks); in one of those beautiful valleys, on a bold round-surfaced lawn, spotted with juniper, that opened itself in the bosom of an old wood, which rose with a steep, but not precipitous ascent, from the river to the summit of the hill, stood the castellated villa of a retired citizen. – 149 words

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

She sang mezzo-soprano and had married almost shockingly young, the boys coming along in close order, “the way certain comedians make their entrances in variety acts,” it seemed to her, and about the time Colfax shot his first brace of pheasant, she had abruptly one day packed a scant six trunksful of clothes and with her maid, Vaseline, reinstalled herself in Greenwich Village in a town house floridly faced in terra-cotta imported from far away, designed inside by Elsie de Wolfe, adjoining that of her husband’s younger brother, R. Wilshire Vibe, who for some years had been living in his own snug spherelet of folly and decadence, squandering his share of the family money on ballet girls and the companies they performed for, especially those that could be induced to mount productions of the horrible “musical dramas” he kept composing, fake, or as he preferred, faux, European operettas on American subjects — Roscoe Conkling, Princess of the Badlands, Mischief in Mexico, and so many others. – 164 words

Virginia Wolff - To the Lighthouse

The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, "How's that? How's that?" of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, "I am guarding you--I am your support," but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow--this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror. – 260 words

You can read an analysis of the last sentence here.


Dave King said...

A fascinating post. I was particularly interested in the readability scales. I know of them as a tool for grading children's reading material, though it is astounding how they can manage stuff well off their supposed limits when their interest is engaged.

We once did an analysis of newspapers and found that some tabloids had a greater reading age than some broadsheets, mainly on account of the sentence length.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think you can never discount interest, Dave. It's very hard to be scientific when it comes to humans - we're a contrary bunch - but I have to admit I'm strongly affected by the subject matter of what I'm reading. As for the papers, I heard someplace that the 'reading age' for The Sun was 8.

gingatao said...

Holey mackeral, there's some big numbers in there. I think of sentences as mental breaths, sometimes a mental breath takes longer than a physical one, sometimes not. In the end I think the thing I most appreciate in a long sentence is a feeling of elegance and balance, very hard to define, but the sentence from Virginia Wolff is a wonderful example.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Paul, all I can say is that some of these authors must have some pretty healthy mental lungs. People will always try and push the boundaries but some of these numbers are just plain silly.

McGuire said...

Another interesting essay, Jim. I really like this, I'm about to go out to teach right now, so I'll keep this brief.

My general conclusion was that 'long sentences' should not be shunned. Brevity maybe the soul of wit, for some, but elaboration can mean the difference between being understood and being left baffled.

Your post indirectly7 seemed to highlight an orwellian point, i.e. in Oceaina, there was a move to 'reduce language' in the form of 'newspeak' so that literally, the number of thoughts a citizen could have would be drastically reduced, and everything could be said in short sharp phrases or terms.

There is a need to keep complexity, lofyty language, even archaic language, not simply to ewducate and inform, but to keep our thoughts open to a much old and new language as possible. Least we be reduced to a citizenry of sound bites.

I'll be re-reading.

Ken Armstrong said...

Very interesting. I would be a little fearful of long sentences. Although, from your post, I see that I seem to have got through some without really noticing that I had, Virgina Woolf and Jim Murdoch included. I think I'll go off and try to write a big sentence now. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

McGuire, I think it's an interesting point you make and I do see it among what Winston would call 'the proles' in our society where street slang takes certain words and makes them do for everything. I have a slang dictionary among others and it's interesting to look up a work like 'fuck' and see just how broad a definition it has taken on. I always liked the character Station from Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey where he reduced everything to the single word, "Station."

And, Ken, yeah, I used to enjoy writing long sentences – I still speak in them – but I find writing in shorter sentences and sentence fragments these day. I suspect this is because I'm spending a lot more time reading on the Internet. Bad Internet.

Andrew Kern said...

Jim (may I call you Jim?),

While I read your post I felt a welling of appreciation, beginning somewhere just below my diaphragm, sitting there for a second, then suddenly rising up my esophogus until it finally reached my eyes, where (and I kid you not, this actually happened) it started to breathe on them, moistening them, and sort of irritating them like a Wisconsin wind that blows across Lake Superior and rushes through the north woods until it meets you out on the coast of Lake Winnebego and pokes you a few times, laughs and throws your hat on the ground, only all that mixed with pleasure because it noticed you and after all it had something quite profound hiding in its breath.

So thanks for including me in your amazing post that collects selections from the writings of some of the true geniuses of the long sentence.

I think a long sentence is a little like a long baseball game: great, if it's close, filled with wanderlust, suspenseful, and hiding the outcome till the fat lady sings.

One thing I hate about the Flesch Kincaid thing (and I hate the FK thing) is it's attention to quantity and it's almost complete disregard for form. If a sentence begins with a simple clause and then adds a series of well-ordered, syntactically sound, subordinate clauses, such a sentence is no more difficult for a child to read than a series of repetitive, punchy, more or less brain dead phrases that put a period at the end of each.

I don't get why people think children are so stupid. Have you ever noticed how long and convoluted a sentence they can both say or follow when they talk or listen?

So I'm writing in a punchy Friday-night-hungry attitude to say thank you for drawing the attention of your readers to this issue on which I believe the future of our civilization rests.

For myself, I believe that the only correct and viable definition of a sentence is "a complete thought expressed in words" for the simple reason that there is such a thing, and that "sentence" is the name by which we've been calling it for 2000 years or more (it comes from the Latin, sententia: sense).

If you think a thought you have to think that thought about something, and you have to think something about the thing you are thinking about: every time, bar none, try it see what I mean?

The period seems to me a courtesy by which we demonstrate that we care enough about our readers to indicate that we want this thought to continue our relationship by actually communicating instead of just controlling, so we are going to complete it: now.

Jim Murdoch said...

Very valid points, Andrew, and you are so right about not just children but all of us. We don't think about it when we're rabbiting on but I notice it when I'm writing dialogue I find myself wanting to write on and on and on. Of course I don’t. I use sentence fragments more and more. Because they're not frowned on like they used to be. But really it's just people saying they don't know when to use anything bar a full stop.

Bobby said...

Hi Jim,

I really enjoyed this post and the examples you listed. I suppose it really doesn't matter if a sentence is long, short, fragmented or whatever - as long as it makes sense and is readable - nothing else matters. I don't pretend to be an expert on grammar or sentence structure, and I know I make mistakes, but I would rather write an enthralling story filled with minor errors than an uninteresting perfectly written one. Nonetheless, you have provided some great food for thought.

Jim Murdoch said...

That's really one of my main aims with the blog, Bobby, to make people stop and think. So often we go through live doing and never question why we do things a certain way. I was always told that a sentence had to be a complete unit of thought – it should make sense on its own – but why, for God's sake? A girder is a complete unit but it only really makes real sense as part of a bridge or a building. I'm still a bit wary about using too many sentence fragments. They're good for emphasis. Or to speed up things.

Sandra said...

I enjoyed reading that. Thank you.

Ping services