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.

The first principle of style

In his classic On the Art of Writing Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (pronounced more or less “Killer Coosh”) said this:

You have not been left altogether without clue to the secret of what Style is. That you must master teh secret for yourselves lay implicit in our bargain, and you were never promised that a writer’s training would be easy. Yet a clue was certainly put in your hands when, having insisted that literature is a living art, I added that therefore it must be personal and of its essence personal.

This goes very deep: it conditions all our criticism of art. Yet it conceals no mystery. You may see its meaning most easily and clearly, perhaps, by contrasting Science and Art…

Science, he explains, is impersonal and universal. Art is not so.

Style, therefore, must be personal to have value. Yet it cannot put the person at odds with nature and, unless needed, with his community.

That is why we must spend the early years of school laying a solid foundation in the rules of grammar and composition. They will never be able to use the tools to develop and express themselves if our students do not first learn the foundations of shared expression.