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.