Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Dear Reader, — Do Long Sentences Still Have A Place In Your Life?


Naturally, I’m not just addressing the Reader in this post—writers are the ones who make sentences; so

Dear Writer,

Do long sentences still have a place in Your life?

I must let you know Shalon Sims’ blog gave me the prompt for this post.

She quotes a sentence from Pico Iyer as example:

“Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or.”

That sentence comes from an article in the Los Angeles Times, The Writing Life: The point of the long and winding sentence.

Pico says, in that article:

“‘Your sentences are so long’, said a friend who teaches English at a local college, and I could tell she didn’t quite mean it as a compliment. The copy editor who painstakingly went through my most recent book often put yellow dashes on-screen around my multiplying clauses, to ask if I didn’t want to break up my sentences or put less material in every one. Both responses couldn’t have been kinder or more considered, but what my friend and my colleague may not have sensed was this: I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against—and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from—the bombardment of the moment.”

Not even having to go near the Realm of Twitter, writers of blogs are frequently advised to break-up long blocks of words—use bullet-points—fracture the flow—all in the name of the agitated, distracted, time-sore Reader

In my own reading experience, my favorite long-sentence-writer is a Persian-born man who studied at Oxford, Shoghi Effendi.

Even though I’m a seasoned reader and even though I sometimes have to read his sentences more than once, as a writer, I can see no other way Shoghi could have produced the effect he does if he chopped-up his literary effort.

Once I got used to the sense profluence produced by his long sentences, I realized some of the intricate yet crucial connections between punctuation and thought.

Here’s just one of Shoghi Effendi’s long sentences:

“A community, relatively negligible in its numerical strength; separated by vast distances from both the focal-center of its Faith and the land wherein the preponderating mass of its fellow-believers reside; bereft in the main of material resources and lacking in experience and in prominence; ignorant of the beliefs, concepts and habits of those peoples and races from which its spiritual Founders have sprung; wholly unfamiliar with the languages in which its sacred Books were originally revealed; constrained to place its sole reliance upon an inadequate rendering of only a fragmentary portion of the literature embodying its laws, its tenets, and its history; subjected from its infancy to tests of extreme severity, involving, at times, the defection of some of its most prominent members; having to contend, ever since its inception, and in an ever-increasing measure, with the forces of corruption, of moral laxity, and ingrained prejudice—such a community, in less than half a century, and unaided by any of its sister communities, whether in the East or in the West, has, by virtue of the celestial potency with which an all-loving Master has abundantly endowed it, lent an impetus to the onward march of the Cause it has espoused which the combined achievements of its coreligionists in the West have failed to rival.”

Was that “too” much for one sentence?

Would it really have the same effect if broken into shorter sentences?

Is it technology that’s driving so many writers to accept the contention that readers want short sentences?

Is it something in the fabric of a world going insane at ballistic speed?

Is there something inherently wrong with long sentences?
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8 responses to “Dear Reader, — Do Long Sentences Still Have A Place In Your Life?

  1. John Pope October 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    My thoughts on sentence length are mixed. My writing style came about as a result of many moons as a freelance journalist writing for space, short and sweet. And years of starting sentences with and as a microfictionist.
    Pico mentioned above-‘I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against—and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from—the bombardment of the moment.’
    I admit that is the best argument for hefty prose I’ve ever heard. I once called Joan Diddion a showoff on the way to a Calculus class, T-shirt fiction for you Alex. If there is no other way to do it as Alex you have mentioned above then I support the writer, but if you are just showing off how good you are than heed this example from my favorite show Frasier.
    Frasier: [walking to the door] Well, if I drop out just as you announce
    your candidacy, people might suspect something’s up. It’s
    better that our political legerdemain remain sub rosa, hmm?
    How would a normal person say that, Dad?
    Martin: No one needs to know how the hot dogs are made.
    Readers don’t always need to know how the hot dogs are made. .

    Like

    • Alexander M Zoltai October 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      Excellent analysis, Blue.

      Obviously, long sentences must prove their literary worth—as must short ones

      Also, overall “Form” has much influence on sentence length—T-Shirt Fiction must eschew it!! :-)

      Like

  2. Martina Sevecke-Pohlen October 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    The bombardment of the moment – We are living in a fast-paced world where we are always told that we have less time and need to do everything quicker. Who tells us? Is there a prescription for short attention spans?
    In the 1950s, a group of young German authors demanded a literature of short sentences with as few adjectives as possible, clean and easy to understand. They wanted to take literature away from the verbosity of nazi-orators and influenced the writing style of other authors until far into the 1980s, and of course they influenced teachers. I remember being told to shorten my sentences. Yet I still feel that the melody of my writing needs long, longer and short sentences.

    Like

  3. deadeyescribe October 30, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I adore all sentences, long and short. Like Martina pointed out, at times I use sentence length for that ‘rhythm’ I **try** to express in writing.

    Like

  4. Once October 31, 2012 at 1:40 am

    In my time, I have been exposed to everything from Vonnegut’s phobia vis-à-vis the semi-colon and the antipathy of the many to the use of proper punctuation; Hemmingway’s prowess with the short and simple sentence to weighty heft of complex structure in Henry James, Dickens, Hawthorne et al; the absurdity of the obsession by most with absurdist plays when I was in university in the 60’s to the usual monoliths of Shakespeare; et cetera, et cetera. In youth, of course, I fell prey to the extremist theories running rampant through the teachings and works of this professor or that one. In age, however, it has been my pleasure to fall in love with the works of protagonists of every bent and direction whether from one camp or another, one period or the other.

    A shorter length of sentences produces the effect of chocolate mousse, delicious at times, but gone in seconds on the tongue; a longer verbosity can tire me just as surely as getting to the bottom of just why it is we enjoy the mess and tedium of what little meat there may be in any given lobster. Quite frankly, Scarlett, after all these years of study, reading, teaching, and conversing, when it comes to the length of sentences, I’m not sure I give a damn.

    The simplicity and understatement of Frost can make me salivate as readily as the impossible sentence and paragraph construction of Henry James or Charles Dickens; the important thing is that magic or gestalt that speaks to the truth of the matter that what I am reading is a “greater” than the evident sum of its parts. What is most important to me is the wonder that I am not the same after having read whatever the writing and would have been the poorer for not overcoming whatever my habitual reaction may be in any given moment to either the brevity or the longevity of the work I’ve read. Reading for entertainment is not to be denigrated; by the same token, reading to gain the edge on the enormity of this life and its universe removes it from such academic sweeping generalisations concerning style and content as might otherwise be relevant when reading for pleasure. My own interactions with music are somewhat similar notwithstanding the fact that I neither read nor produce music of any kind.

    Like

    • Alexander M Zoltai October 31, 2012 at 3:37 am

      Chocolate mousse & lobster—brilliant!!

      And, “…the important thing is that magic or gestalt that speaks to the truth of the matter that what I am reading is “greater” than the evident sum of its parts.”, moves me to agreement.

      And, when you said, “What is most important to me is the wonder that I am not the same after having read whatever the writing and would have been the poorer for not overcoming whatever my habitual reaction may be in any given moment to either the brevity or the longevity of the work I’ve read.”, I was standing up and cheering :-)

      Plus, your reference to an art you enjoy but don’t practice certainly drives your thesis home

      Like

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