Not for the Faint-of-Heart

I love long sentences. I also love short sentences. In fact, give me a well-wrought sentence, and I’ll be happy for the whole time I read it.

In Joseph Williams’ book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 8th edition, he includes a chapter on “shape.” Prior to the chapter he includes these quotations:

“The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.” John Stuart Mill

“Sentences in their variety run from simplicity to complexity, a progression not necessarily reflected in length: a long sentence may be extremely simple in construction–indeed must be simple if it is to convey its sense easily.” Sir Herbert Read

Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we don’t want our writers to write as though their readers never move from the free throw line.

In this chapter on shape, Williams offers some counsel on how to make long sentences effective. However, in spite of his introductory paragraph, I came out of this chapter not having been touched by the heat of a passion for writing. In other words, I didn’t get the impression Williams loved this topic. It’s a tepid chapter.

However, it begins well:

If you can write clear and concise sentences, you have achieved a lot, and much more if you can assemble them into coherent passages. but if you can’t write a clear sentence longer than twenty words or so, you’re like a composer who can write only jingles. Despite those who tell us not to write long sentences, you cannot communicate every complex idea in short ones, so you have to know how to write a sentence that is both long and clear.

He goes on to provide counsel on long sentences in four areas:

  1. Revising long sentences
  2. Reshaping sprawl
  3. Troubleshooting long sentences
  4. Innate sense

To revise, he offers three rules of thumb (with plenty of examples):

  1. Get to the subject of the main clause quickly
  2. Get to the verb and object quickly
  3. Avoid interrupting the verb-object connection

To reshape he suggests that the writer cut out anything that can be eliminated or shortened, change, whenever possible, clauses to modifying phrases, and coordinate words, phrases, and clauses. Coordination, he points out, is “the foundation of a gracefully shaped sentence.”

Thus, to troubleshoot long-sentences, he offers the following guidance: Look for and correct

  • Faulty coordination
  • Unclear connections
  • Misplaced modifiers

Finally, he points out that “not even the best syntax can salvage incoherent ideas,” so you have to be sure that what you are saying makes sense, regardless of the elegance of your expression.

I know I have presented this to you abstractly with no examples to speak of, but if you are an experiened writer or teacher I hope it has given you some suggestions you can implement or reflect on. If you are new to some of these terms, then I hope I have done you the service of raising some questions, the answers to which will enable you to gain more control over the craft of writing.

That control is the source of genuine writing confidence. Nothing else will suffice.

To get a copy of this book, which I recommend for its very practical guidance and plethora of samples, follow this link.

A Delicious Four Course Sentence

I lighted on this sentence in the November, 1963 edition of Horizon Magazine (which happens to be my birth month). Here is the very type of a long sentence that could not be shortened and still say the same thing.

Here is why I love and demand long sentences and why people who cannot read or write long sentences are suffering half-lives:

It was wholly natural that the visitor who approached the holy city of Constantinople from across the dolphin-torn silvery blue of the Sea of Marmara, and rounded the promontory to enter the Golden Horn, saw rising on the spacious platform of the headland–over the masts of the merchantmen and the roofs of the warehouses, over the Hippodrome and the Senate House and the Great Imperial Palace, over the public square of the Augustaeum with its armor-clad statue of the Emperor on his enormous column–the huge domed mass of Hagia Sophia.

My stylistic puritanism is a little distracted by the “dolphin-torn silvery blue,” but I suspect others will love that phrase and I confess that it carries apt information in a tight purse – so I’ll not criticise it much.

I’ll congratulate him for taking a risk that seems to have worked. Blue might have been enough. Silvery might be the word that worries me most. Dolphin-torn belongs, but maybe is just a little jealous of the attention silvery takes from it. But let it stand. Besides, if you take out silvery, the rhythm is broken.

Look at that marvelous structure and notice how the structure is the story.

He (Philip Sherrard) wanted the reader to see the glory of perhaps the greatest building of the middle ages, the largest building on earth for over 1000 years. But he can’t just tell us of its magnitude. A scientific, quantitative description would render the description vacuous. So he puts us there.

We are the visitor. We know the city we are drawing near to is the “holy city of Constantinople.” To get there we cross the silvery blue sea of Marmara, occasionally, perhaps even frequently, in any case, characteristically torn by the unforgettable grace of the dolphins.

We come round the promontory to approach and then enter the harbor of the Golden Horn and we see – “rising on the spacious platform of the headland” – ah but what we see is too great simply to mention. It is majesty. Entering our vision, it is preceded by its royal attendants – each more magnificent than the other.

First, the common people parade before us under their masts and on their warehouse roofs. But higher still is the object of our wonder.

Next, over the gathering place of  the empire, where games are played and emperors sit with their people – even over the 400,000 seat hippodrome, the splendour of our vision rises.

And still, the senate house, meeting-place of Lords, the Imperial palace, the “armour clad statue of the Emperor” towering atop an enormous ten-drum column of porphyry -a hundred feet high or more – all are dwarfed by the incomparable dome that draws our eyes, and with them our souls, to the “transcendent reality” it embodied.

Vividly, concisely, without a wasted syllable, Philip Sherrard brings us into the presence of a lost glory, through the structure of one glorious sentence.

The visitor approaches.

The visitor sees: over, over, over – the huge domed mass of Holy Wisdom.

Notice too the proportion of the three overs, the single conjunction in the first, the double in the second, the absence in the third.

OK, I can’t justify the adjectives in the “dolphin-torn silvery blue” passage. But I’m here to praise the structure of this magnificent edifice, not its color. By holding the dome to the last clause, and by preceding that final clause with a whole series of properly arranged details, he demonstrates the essential skill of the artist, who, as Wendell Berry so aptly expressed it, is one who “knows what to put where, and when to put it.”

Even our ability to enjoy beauty is diminished by the absence of long sentences.

Another reason to love long sentences

There is what cannot be said any other way.

I knew what she meant, and in that moment felt as though I had shaken off some of the dust and grit of ten dry years; then and always, however she spoke to to me, in half sentences, single words, stock phrases of contemporary jargon, in scarcely perceptible movements of eyes or lips or hands, however inexpressible her thought, however quick and far it had glanced from the matter in hand, however deep it had plunged, as it often did, straight from the surface to the depths, I knew; even that day when I still stood on the exteme verge of love, I knew what she meant.

Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited, Book Three, Chapter One

How many perfections can you find in that sentence? I, plunged deeply, for twenty-five years, into the extreme verge of love, I know exactly what he means, and I, absorbed in his craftsmanship, following him clause by clause, phrase by phrase, word by word, conjuntion by conjunction, and punctuation mark by punctuation mark, like a hunter on a scent or a gardener in the evening cool, moving or still – moving and still – I love the way he said it.

Waugh’s provides an exemplar for people who follow the Ben Franklin approach to learning to write by imitation of form. Give it a shot and watch as your mind follows the architecture of a sentence into the depths of a thought.

Writing Harmony

Last night, when I was earnestly wishing I was fast asleep, a thought came to me that I thought (it being very late or very early) was quite profound. It went something like this, though of course all the profound illumination of the insight has faded with the light of day:

The soul delights in harmony. On the other hand, the senses delight in particular perceptions. As a result, there is a perpetual potential conflict between the senses and the soul. If the senses take in too much too fast, the soul can become disturbed. Therefore, the role of the mind is to bring order to what the senses perceive.

You can see this fairly easily in the natural sciences, where the mind orders physical reality under universal laws without which the physical world makes little sense. You can also see the impulse in the moral sciences, though it is quite a bit more difficult to achieve the desired harmony. Ethics, for example, seeks principles that govern human behavior while politics seeks principles that govern human society, each seeking a harmony of soul and community.

What struck me in the night, or maybe it was in the morning, is that this delight the soul dervies from harmony is another argument for long sentences. Let me explain. There’s a delight in simple harmony, but the soul likes even more if the harmony can be extended. In fact, ultimately what the soul wants is for everything to be harmonized. It cannot be content until it reaches that point.

So it’s a bit jarring to read, “I haven’t got no fishing pole,” and it’s more pleasant to read, “I don’t have a fishing pole.” It doesn’t disturb our inner sanctum as much. The objection that for some people the former is customary and thus more pleasant misses the point. It’s more pleasant because it is customary, therefore it harmonizes with their experiences and expectations. But the pleasure would be increased even more if their experiences could be harmonized with the logical forms of thought. This more extended harmony would give more pleasure to the soul.

Back to my fishing pole, it would be even more pleasurable if I read, “I don’t have a fishing pole, having left it on the bottom of the sea, in the gullet of a great fish that grabbed the bait and pulled the pole out of my hand.”

The pleasure that I am speaking of is strictly formal and is the delight the soul takes in a somewhat extended harmony. The pleasure of the narrative, or the distaste for it, is peripheral to the specific pleasure I’m talking about, though if the sentence is well-crafted it will harmonize with the narrative, thus extending the harmony even further.

If, on the other hand, I had read, “Leaving the dock, the fishing pole flew out of my hands, so I don’t got one now,” in and of itself, the multiple disharmonies in this sentence would disturb the inner harmony of the soul and seek clarity and correction.

A long sentence that maintains harmony and keeps due proportion is a great pleasure for the soul, and it is a pleasure we ought not to derive our students or ourselves of. Another way to say that is that the soul takes great pleasure in a well-ordered sentence that either remains harmonious throughout or comes to a resolution at the end. Yet another way to say it is that the soul likes sentences that sing.

If we lose the sensitivity for verbal harmonies, we undercut our intellectual development.

Our era is philosophically opposed to the possibility of a metaphysical harmony, having rejected the logos in all its variations (cf. RV Young, At War With The Word), and I believe that despair (for that is precisely what despair is) is the root of our emphasis on brute sentences, the short macho sentences that Ernest Hemingway made into an art form but that almost nobody else can.

So with our endless assault of short sentences we both undercut our intellectual development and deprive the soul of a great pleausre. I’m prepared to argue that we also undercut our moral and spiritual development.

Read this poem by John Donne and tell me that its form doesn’t give you pleasure.

The Indifferent

I can love both fair and brown,
Her whom abundance melts, and her whom want betrays,
Her who loves loneness best, and her who masks and plays,
Her whome the country form’d, and whom the town,
Her who believes, and her who tries,
Her who still weeps with spongy eyes,
And her who is dry cork, and never cries;
I can love her, and her, and you and you,
I can love any, so she be not true.

Of course, the content can be very disturbing to the reader, but let me just point out that it is John Donne writing and if you judge the content by a first read, and that of only part of the poem, you are judging o’er hastily.

But once again, that only underscores my point. You want a harmony within the poem, and you want the harmony to extend beyond the poem to blend happily with your experiences and beliefs.

The most healthy soul is the one that, like the princess in the fairy tale, can feel the pea 17 mattresses down, and is disturbed by it.

So consider the poem for its own sake, its formal beauties, and let the form give you the pleasure it intends, thus honoring the poem for its virtues. Notice that the section copied above is all one extended harmonious sentence – and if you want to see how it turns out, look it up!

On the Necessity For Long Sentences

We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.

That is the second sentence in Charlotte Bronte’s 19th century novel Jane Eyre. According to Microsoft Word, it scores an 11.1 grade on the Flesch Kinkaid readability level.

Now, I’ve always been a qualified fan of Rudolph Flesch and his book  The Art of Plain Talk. Even more than that, how can a person who values Benjamin’s Franklin’s pioneering work in developing phonics, possibly complain about Flesch’s famous work, Why Johnny Can’t Read.

Furthermore, so much time has melted since I read Flesch’s Plain Talk that all I can do here is offer qualified recommendations to people who want to learn some basic principles of public speaking.

However, to understand why I went on that rabbit trail, I need to write some more opening sentences from a more recent book than Jane Eyre. Consider these words, because they are very, very revealing:

Sophie Amundsen was on her way home from school. She had walked the first part of the way with Joanna. They had been discussing robots. Joanna thought the human brain was like an advanced computer. Sophie was not certain she agreed. Surely a person was more than a piece of hardware?

I must state here and now that I have not read Sophie’s World, though I know of many children who have and many schools that use it. I don’t know why he wrote the opening paragraph to this book on philosophy at a 3.6 grade level.

Perhaps it was because he was being overly concerned about his audience: knowing they were being invited to think hard about issues that the greatest minds in history have still not settled and, for some reason, wanting junior high and high school students to engage in these matters, perhaps he felt like they shouldn’t have to pay too close attention to what they were reading; so he made it simple.

Or maybe he was trying to capture the implications of the mind working like a robot, so he wrote the opening paragraph in a robotic/computeristic manner. Maybe the reader will encounter complex syntax later in the book.

I turn randomly and optimistically to page 223 and read these words:

What was the difference between a dog and a person? She recalled Aristotle’s words. he said that people and animals are both natural living creatures with a lot of characteristics in common. But there was one distinct difference between people and animals, and that was human reasoning.

How could he have been so sure?

This paragraph draws me in and makes me want to read more, but probably (I cannot be sure until and unless I read much more) not for the reasons most authors would hope. First, I sincerely hope that he will not so simply dismiss Aristotle’s ideas.

I suppose a teenage girl might ask that question, especially one who has been conditioned toward skepticism by the structure and process of her education. But the question is really rather silly. If she remembers Aristotle’s words, then how can she possibly not remember that every word that preceded and followed them was the reasoning behind his being “so sure?”

What exactly were Aristotle’s words? They aren’t quoted here, only a paraphrase.

In what context did she experience them? Did her teacher give her a quotation or even a paraphrase himself, thus preventing her from encountering these words in their context?

I’m asking those questions so as to expose myself to ridicule. I know that a book would not survive if they had not been addressed at some level. Flipping through a few pages I note that the author places great emphasis on mystery and uncertainty. The ending indicates a father – daughter dialogue has been going through the entire book.

 

But here is something interesting. Page 189, in a chapter entitled The Renaissance, a time during which cultured life was enamored of, perhaps inebriated on, Platonic party games:

Philosophy is not a harmless party game. It’s about who we are and where we come from. Do you think we learn enough about that at school?

 

Nobody can answer questions like that anyway.

 

Yes, but we don’t even learn to ask them!

This goes to the heart of my concern. Here we have young people being confronted with questions that they are convinced can’t be answered. The reader is confronted with a 3000 year stream of philosophical speculations, from Aristotle, to Democritus, to Freud.

To be comfortable with this book, I need to know that the students are being given a coherent set of tools and a sound tradition to maneuver the wild shoals of metaphysical speculation.

I have been engaged in philosophical studies for 25 years, since I first tried to read Plato’s Republic. I’ve been engaged in theological studies much longer, since I started memorizing Bible verses and doing exegetical studies of the epistles of Paul. I’ve learned a few things in that time, though not much.

 

One thing I’ve learned is that a child should not be given this rope to hang himself if he does not have a mentor to guide him through it.

 

And that’s why the opening paragraph bothers me so much. This is a book about philosophy! You can’t do philosophy at a 3.6 grade level. You can learn about it, but why would you teach a child that there are no answers about who we are and where we come from, or that if there are answers the most recent discoveries indicate that they are blobs of protoplasm waiting to become manure.

 

There is, I am suggesting, a breakdown in the form of writing and the content of writing, at least in this first paragraph, that points to a much deeper and more penetrating breakdown between the content of the book (the history of philosophy) and reality (the content of metaphysics).

 

Permit me to recall Gaarder’s paragraph on Aristotle:

She recalled Aristotle’s words. He said that people and animals are both natural living creatures with a lot of characteristics in common. But there was one distinct difference between people and animals, and that was human reasoning.

That opening sentence should not be seperated from the next. The act of recollection should not draw the readers attention, but the words of Aristotle. Or rather, since they are not quoted, they should probably not be referred to. Instead, i would suggest something more like this: Aristotle had said that…

 

Then, at the end, when a phrase should have received more punch, more isolation, more distinctiveness, he blends it in with the preceding sentence. one distince difference between humans and animals: human reasoning.

 

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.

 

Have you tried to read Paradise Lost? The challenge is not the length of the sentence, though they are frequently immeasurable; the challenge is remembering the subject of the sentence. But if he had not written it that way, he would not have written the same poem, and the reader would have suffered for it.

 

We can write very well for business and advertising. Sometimes we get by on scientific writing. But to write about things that matter greatly: metaphysics, theology, ethics, politics, the arts, I say, to write about these matters demands that we be able to control more than a single clause at a time.

 

We cannot think beyond the capacity of our syntax.

 

The irony is that Flesch, who valued Plain Talk and Phonics so highly, has undercut Johnny’s ability to read by justifying writing that would keep him stuck at the mental development of a child in 3.6 grade.