Fear not the long sentence

A year ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth.” It argued that authors express their most important ideas or dramatic moments in the shortest sentences. This turned out to be a popular piece, the most emailed of the day. Teachers and editors anointed the short sentence as the solution to many writing problems.

trainFrom my shot comes a rebound:  “If the short sentence is the gospel truth, then what is the long sentence?”  My best answer is metaphorical:  “It’s a journey on a westbound train.”

Editors advise, “When it comes to the long sentence, children, be afraid, be very afraid.”  In the common view, the long sentence too often spins off the tracks, a wreck on the road to comprehensibility. It is not an irrational fear. In almost every story I have written comes a moment when I must take that overly ambitious sentence and cut it in two.

When I fight this anxiety, when I advise writers to “Fear not the long sentence,” my encouragement inspires looks of alarm from teachers as if I were advocating taking all the garter snakes out of high school terrariums and replacing them with anacondas.

Care must be taken with the long sentence of course, the care of craft, because mastery of the long sentence is an arrow in the quiver of almost every writer I admire. As always, the exercise of craft begins not with technique but a sense of mission and purpose. By my count, there are three main reasons to cast a long sentence:

  • To take a journey through a physical or emotional landscape.
  • To create a catalogue or inventory.
  • To build a mosaic of logic or evidence.

Let’s test an example of each, beginning with this excerpt from one of my favorite novels, Herzog by Saul Bellow:

The wheels of the cars stormed underneath. Woods and pastures ran up and receded, the rails of sidings sheathed in rust, the dipping racing wires, and on the right the blue of the Sound, deeper, stronger than before. Then the enameled shells of the commuters’ cars, and the heaped bodies of junk cars, the shapes of old New England mills with narrow, austere windows;  villages, convents; tugboats moving in the swelling fabric-like water; and then plantations of pine, the needles on the ground of a life-giving russet color.

Think of yourself as riding northeast on a train through Connecticut, as is the protagonist in Bellow’s novel. You chug along slowly (with a seven word sentence); then accelerate (with 31 words); by the time you reach your highest speed  (50 words), you are rattling between the landscape and the seascape with the detritus of civilization flying by you. With that longest sentence, the author takes us on a journey. We see what he wants us to see in the order he wants us to see it.

There is a bit of an inventory in Bellow’s sentence, a list of things that fly by you on a moving train. That effect is magnified in this controversial sentence that begins David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

I describe this 88-word sentence as controversial because I have found it listed among the best and worst sentences ever written, and it does convey a look-at-me quality that some critics find self-indulgent. But make believe, for a second, that you love it. Take a ride across a symbolic American landscape, populated by (count them) 19 species of weed and wild plant – each with a wonderful name – all headed for the verb “invaginate,” DFW’s pregnant synonym for “enclose.”

Take a journey, review an inventory, or, if you prefer, follow the path of an argument. Consider this example from Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ describing a plan of action immediately after the Kennedy assassination:

No single gesture would do more to demonstrate continuity and stability – to show that the government of the United States would continue to function without interruption despite the assassination of the man who sat at its head – and to legitimize the transition:  to prove that the transfer of power had been orderly, proper, in accordance with the Constitution; to move, in the eyes of the world, any taint of usurpation;  to dampen, so far as possible, suspicion of complicity by him in the deed; to show that the family of the man he was succeeding bore him no ill will and supported him, than the attendance at this swearing-in ceremony of the late President’s widow.

Caro has proven countless times that he understands the power of a short sentence. His description of the second that changed LBJ’s life forever – and America’s -- during the motorcade through Dallas is told in a single sentence, serving as a paragraph, just six words long:  “There was a sharp, cracking sound.”

Contrast that to the 115 words in the example above. Notice that it contains the two qualities we have already described as characteristic of long sentences. It takes us on a journey of sorts, not across a landscape now, but across a plan of action. And it contains an inventory, not of physical objects but of a set of purposes. It adds a final element though, and that is a body of evidence. The case is framed early and late in the sentence: that the best way to show the peaceful transfer of power in America was by the presence of Jacqueline Kennedy at LBJ’s swearing-in ceremony. Every word between those frames is designed to persuade.

From my study of the long sentence, I have concluded that:

  • It helps if subject and verb of main clause come early.
  • Use the long sentence to describe something long.
  • It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order.
  • Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
  • Use the long sentence as a list or catalog of products, names, images – saving the most important for the end.
  • Long sentences need more editing than short ones.

By contrast to some famous sentences written in the 17th century – “sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness” as novelist W.G. Sebald described them -- contemporary long sentences seem modest in their ambitions: to take the reader on a little journey of discovery amidst an endless sequence of 140-character bits of language.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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