The Length of the Sentence

By Matthew Cheney

I am a lover of long sentences, sentences that wind their way through various clauses and complements, bucking the contemporary trend toward bite-sized bits of information and prose that relishes its own staccato impoverishment, as if the sign of a great writer lies in her or his ability to keep everything small, to simplify and etiolate, rather than to perform high-wire acts of syntax and grammar, pulling the reader's attention first in one direction, then another, balancing it all on a string of phrases, a string that allows us, the onlookers, to revel in the sheer joy of language, the crazy courage of the feat itself, the suspense of wondering when it will collapse like a castle made of toothpicks or a spaceship built from playing cards—and then the joy in seeing it all work out just fine, because, yes, we were in capable hands, skilled hands, the hands of a master builder, or maybe just somebody who got lucky, which is often the case with writing that works well, as any writer will tell you: so much depends upon luck, which is not to suggest that the creator doesn't mind taking some credit for what was created, because regardless of how much luck or skill went into it, the fact is, the sentence still exists, still sits there wriggling around itself, proving to us all (including the author) that just because most people like things small and compact, and most writers are perfectly happy to indulge this desire, nonetheless exceptions remain possible and powerful, and may indeed be more powerful than they were in, for instance, the London of Samuel Johnson's time, when every scribe of any ambition at all went about constructing one architectural wonder of a sentence after another, because what is the point of writing if you cannot achieve with it things that cannot be achieved by speech, and this attitude led to a proliferation of ornate sentences designed to contain entire arguments between the first word and the final period, which often waited so far down at the other end of things that once the reader got to it, everything from the beginning had become a hazy memory, a vague recollection of the original idea, and so the ordinary reader, rather than the reader with perfect recall, was forced, if she or he wanted to understand the entire sentence, to return to the beginning and start reading all over again, hoping this time to bring more of the ideas into focus, or even to discover if the grammar held any ideas at all, because (at least from a cynical point of view) it was just as likely that the sentence was a bloated collection of words that said little, or perhaps nothing at all, and the unwary reader might get caught in the feedback loop of starting and ending and starting and ending again and again without ever really discovering anything of value, other than the structure of the sentence, for which the words were merely an excuse, and this might lead readers to distrust all such sentences, because anybody can tell you that a bad experience with one exasperating exhibition of linguistic panache is enough to make a reader wary of any but the most straightforward and simple writing, though we do stumble into a bit of a briar patch with such a desire, because "straightforward" and "simple" are entirely a matter of perception, and our perception of such things depends upon our level of literacy, our experience with other texts, our expectations of what writing should do, and our desires from the writing at hand, so it is difficult ever to say that one type of writing is somehow inherently "clear" while another is inherently "opaque", but on the other hand, I doubt anyone would suggest that a particularly long sentence is likely to be an example of the clearest writing possible, or that such a sentence could not be clarified by cutting it up into pieces, so I am not going to insist that everything is relative and there is some culture somewhere where long sentences are seen as the easiest things to understand, but I do want to propose that clarity should not always be the thing we value most, because while, yes, if I want to communicate a particular bit of information I'm going to try to do that in as clear a manner as possible, much of the time when I write I am not writing purely to convey information, but to convey some information in certain ways, and it is those certain ways that bring the pleasure of writing to me, that make me glad I am a writer and a reader, because when I read something where the author has paid as much attention to how they say what they say as what they say, all my pleasure centers get a workout, and let's be honest here, anyway, and admit that there really aren't that many original ideas or stories left to be expressed, so the manner of expression matters more and more, because why should I bother to read something full of pedestrian expression when I can leap back fifty or a hundred or a thousand years for something that says exactly the same thing, but says it with more style, with more attention to the details of how the idea is shaped and conveyed—the sort of attention that exists in a culture that cares about the way things are made rather than simply the fact that they were made, a culture that isn't fixated on function only, but on art and beauty, which, if we're to indulge our most Romantic and idealistic feelings, are the closest things to real truth as we're likely to find, because truth is contingent, which means it slithers and slips away just when you think you've got it in hand, and so truth is much like a long sentence, a sentence that exists simply to exist, impossible to sum up without reducing it to something less than what it is, because it was not written only to convey an idea, but to embody that idea as well, to show off a bit, to be maybe a touch arrogant, but also to prove that the world has room for such things, and a little bit of variety never hurt anybody, and not every page benefits from a lot of short sentences, because such things grow tiresome as much as long sentences do, though I must admit, having gotten to this point, short sentences do possess one advantage over their longer, more unwieldy cousins: they are easier to end.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.