Listen to the sound several same-structure sentences strung together make—
Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. (Getting bored yet?) Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da.
When sentences move at the same gait, readers drift from attentiveness to disinterest. Would you listen to a singer who sang the same chorus over and over? Would you watch a movie that played the same scene fifteen times? It’s unlikely. It’s also unlikely that you’d read something that droned on, sentence after sentence.
Listen to this example of what a series of short sentences can do.
We’re going to be ruthless about this. We’re going to be direct. Renault still has its problems. Renault cars betray their origins. They display Gallic idiosyncrasies. Renault fans are still absent. Hordes of them are in the European markets. The life-blood of commerce is finance. But Renault has countless punctured arteries. They must be stitched up.
How long would you keep reading something like that? Probably not long. The short sentence pattern creates a monotonous sound that grows wearisome.
Here’s how Phillip Bingham actually wrote it in the Motor Trend magazine.
We’re going to be ruthlessly direct about this. Renault still has its problems. Renault cars still betray their origins through Gallic idiosyncrasies. Renault fans are still absent in hordes in several of France’s neighboring European markets. And, if the life-blood of commerce is finance, Renault still has countless punctured arteries to stitch up.
Now let’s listen to a fiction example to see how several long sentences can cause a problem.
I am unaware of the exact date, but I calculate the day of the month by taking shots at the stars and by computing from old newspapers discovered in the privy. I imagine that you are on your way home, and this is perhaps good timing because your return, I am guessing by all outward appearances, has been long awaited and is long overdue. I have an anguished letter from Ross that sounds as though he could only hang on three days longer because, I suspect and have every reason to believe that he takes things too hard. I have heard him complain, saying that he thinks the New Yorker is complicated, but it is obvious that he has not experienced in the rigors of a boy’s camp, replete with pre-adolescents who have lost their blankets, and miss their mothers and fathers to the extent of melancholy… Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. Da da da da da da.
Long and breathless. Your readers will not stick around to notice what kind of a day it is if you assault them with a series of long sentences. You must vary the length of your sentences so they flow with a natural rhythm.
Excerpted from a letter to the woman he was to marry, here’s how E.B. White wrote the passage—
If my calculations are correct (one arrives at the day of the month by taking shots at the stars and computing from old newspapers discovered in the privy) you are on the way home. Probably none too soon. I have an anguished letter from Ross that sounds as though he could only hang on three days longer. He takes things too hard. If he thinks the New Yorker is complicated, he ought to see a boy’s camp. Lost blankets, heart-aches, fallings-in-the-lake—a marvelous confusion, always comical because kids are so funny…. I haven’t heard from you in a dog’s age, but my mail seems to be scattered around a bit anyway. I have succeeded in loosing track of about everything—people, dates, friends, mail, jobs, home. And it feels good…. Things are much as they were in the days when I was here before—the clanging gong that gets you up, the kids trading desserts for nickel candy bars, the still shore where you brush your teeth, the little lakes nearby where you can watch blue herons catch frogs, the lumber camp and the peat bog.
25, 14, 12, 3, 21, 33, 28, 8, 12, 35, 51, 16, 33, 4—those are the number of words in the first fourteen sentences of Mark Twain’s The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, a book of literary acclaim, enjoyed by the scholarly and the common, the young and old, and several generations.
A WORD ABOUT LONG SENTENCES
Please keep your e-mail traffic to a minimum while communicating only that which is worthy of our precious time and not weighted with superfluous details, clichés and poor run on sentences that never seem to have a point nor end and yet lure you to keep reading with the hope and anticipation of a great and glorious payoff which almost always misses the boat or falls ten cents short of a dime.
The writer penned the above sentence with humor to soften an admonition against heavy e-mail traffic. Often, though, the mistake of long sentence after long sentence is unintentional and without pleasing effect.
But good writers deliberates over every facet of their writing, which includes constructing sentences for rhythm and pacing—not merely because they have much or little to say.
In another letter to his wife, E.B. White wrote—
“Last night in the middle of this letter I began to feel queer in the head (the letter probably shows it) and when I touched my forehead it felt as soft as a piece of putty. I examined it in the mirror and the whole front of my head was swollen like the breast of a pigeon. “Tumor of the brain,” I told myself, and collapsed on the bed in one of my panics. The Illians had gone to the movies, so I prepared for the end—wrote a brief note to you, unlocked the door to save the hotel people the trouble of breaking in and went to bed, full of flatulence, dizziness and fear.”
The sentences in that passage are lengthy at 36, 21, 17, 42 words. Why would E.B. White, author and quintessential writing instructor of the modern age, stack several sentences, each verging on long? Was it simply a case of informality? No, E.B. White knew his craft well enough to write well on all occasions. And he knew the sound of humor—he knew long makes funny funnier. Long tickles the reader because it conveys the breathless pace of a speaker consumed by his affairs. In the same manner, long makes strange stranger and tense tenser. As long sentences withhold the pause of a period, they convey the tone of a setting or the voice of a speaker carried away by a particular emotion.
Another example, from E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate—
He had to have planned it because when we drove onto the dock the boat was there and the engine was running and you could see the water churning up phosphorescence in the river, which was the only light there was because there was no moon, nor no electrical light either in the shack where the dock master should have been sitting, nor on the boat itself, and certainly not from the car, yet everyone knew where everything was, and when the big Packard came down the ramp Mickey the driver braked it so that alongside the gangway the doors were already open and they hustled Bo and the girl upside before they even made a shadow in all that darkness.
One sentence. Its 121 words have the effect of telling us that something big is happening, something other than routine, something suspenseful, and something, more than likely, illegal. As the author breaks the laws of syntax, the characters of his story oppose their wills against the laws that govern.
In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco shows the magnitude of intricate carvings to a half-moon tympanum by choosing one long sentence to convey a sense of exhaustibility.
For example, brutes with six fingers on each hand; fauns born from the worms that develop between the bark and the pulp of trees; sirens with scaly tails who seduce seamen; Ethiops, their bodies all black, defending them- selves against the fire of the sun by digging underground caverns; ass-centaurs, men to the navel and asses below; Cyclopes, each with a single eye the size of a shield; Scylla, with a girl’s head and bosom, a she-wolf’s belly, and a dolphin’s tail; the hairy men of India, who live in swamps and on the river Epigmarides; the cynocephali, who cannot say a word without barking; sciopods, who run swiftly on their single leg and when they want to take shelter from the sun stretch out and hold up their great foot like an umbrella; astomats from Greece, who have no mouth but breathe through their nostrils and live only on air; bearded women of Armenia; Pygmies; blemmyae, born headless, with mouths in their bellies and eyes on their shoulders; the monster women of the Red Sea, twelve feet tall, with hair to the ankles, a cow’s tail at the base of the spine, and camel’s hoofs; and those whose soles are reversed, so that, following them by their footprints, one arrives always at the place whence they came and never where they are going; and men with three heads, others with eyes that gleam like lamps, and monsters of the island of Circe, human bodies with heads of the most diverse animals…
Similarly, in the right place, a series of terse sentences strung together with emphasis on the verbs will build intensity and drama. Witness:
It was cracked and it was missing several gems. But it was usable. She raised it gingerly above her head, closed her eyes, grimaced, and made the third pass. Then she put the wand down. And waited. Nothing. Quiet. Then—something? A noise by the banister? A whimper in the corner of the room? She couldn’t be sure. Wait! It was a whimper. And a terrible one!
Short sentences will also heighten emotion and tone.
“Oh, I was fat all right. A heavy double. Very rotund. Flaccid and soddy. Pear-bottomed and boomboom-bellied. Sa-sa-sa-sebaceous. A hippopotamus. An eggplant, a trolley car, a smoldering mound. As big as a lake. As round as a school tower. Yehhhhhhh!”
And of course, short sentences can reach the height of hysteria, as Edgar Allen Poe has made us well aware in his opening to The Tell-Tale Heart.
True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! But why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of the acute. I heard all things in the heavens and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! And above how healthily—how calm I can tell you the whole story.
Sentence length should not fall to chance. Each should be crafted with an intent, and variety used to create rhythm.
After several long sentences use a short one. After several short ones, a long one. Then a medium. Then two shorts. Keep varying the length and rhythm of word combinations. Throw in a single word now and then. Or a short question. After it, place a multi-claused sentence to serve as counterpoint.
Ditto for paragraphs. A string of long paragraphs appears forbidding. A group of short ones seems superficial. It’s not that people consciously notice sentence or paragraph lengths. The effect is subliminal, but nonetheless real. Such elements are among the so-called “indefinables” that, in the end, add up to good writing or bad.
Be careful using the em dash.
In the 19th century, writers tended to use the semicolon to death. Today the em dash has usurped its popularity, becoming so popular that it has encouraged the development of a kind of jerky, half-finished writing style all its own.
You’ve seen examples. Every few lines an em dash appears. No matter if it’s grammatically correct writers invent their own rules as they go. After a while—for sure—the page starts to look like a racing form—if you can read it at all.
Em dashes, properly speaking, are used to mark unexpected turns of thought, to introduce an afterthought or repetitive phrase, or to set off material that is too short to be placed in parentheses. It’s a powerful punctuation but overuse will render it impotent and even distracting.
Avoid unnecessary connectives.
An overabundance of however, moreover, therefore, furthermore, and on the other hand, implies that the writer is not skilled enough to move from subject to subject without relying on artificial transitions.
Thus, when correcting, go on a seek-and-destroy mission for unneeded connectives. And when you find ones that are not absolutely essential—notice that sometimes they can be expunge, then. Similarly, if you find yourself using one of these connectives frequently, especially a however or a furthermore, try to devise a better method of making the transition. Again, you might experiment with different sentence structures and word groupings.
For example, one person writes: The times were hard yet they were profitable. Another gives the construction a creative parallelism: The times were hard; the times were profitable.
One person writes: The pendulum swung freely. Therefore, Fritz concluded, the weights are the same. Another eliminates the connective and makes the scene more dramatic: The pendulum swung freely. Aha! The weights are the same, thought Fritz.
One person writes: Altogether, we all must now assume that the evidence is undeniable. Another loses the altogether and substitutes a tighter phrase in its place: The evidence, it now seems clear to all of us, is undeniable.