Part I Let’s hear it for the occasional long sentence!
It’s a beauty
The modern English sentence is beautiful and elegant because it flows they way we think. It is more intuitive than being confined to merely the simple, complex, compound, and compound-complex sentence options of yesteryear. And it’s more powerful.
It’s like a train
The modern English sentence I’m talking about resembles a train. You have the engine at the front, the main clause.
The officer marched into the village.
But you can also add a number of cars following that engine–in fact, quite a good idea. And these freight cars carry the goods–in many contemporary sentences that’s where much of the meaning is communicated. Now let’s add to the above example sentence:
The officer marched into the village, his AK-47 at the ready pointing forward, his soldiers following close behind, a small but formidable combat unit.
Permit me to diagram that sentence above it so its structure is more obvious:
The officer marched into the village,
His AK-47 at the ready pointing forward,
His soldiers close behind,
A small but formidable combat unit.
It also works with Non-fiction:
The above sentence reads like fiction, doesn’t it? Actually, it is fiction. and it’s starting to get a bit long, but is it clear? I think so.
So now let’s look at a non-fiction sentence. I’ll improvise on some of my wiring above:
The modern English sentence is like a train: It has its engine, and it has its freight cars, trailing behind, adding valuable cargo (meaning), often essential actually and clarifying.
Three more brief examples…
This time from Ali Luke’s just-published novel Lycopolis (available in a Kindle edition and soon as a paperback):
Brandon watched him, trying to fathom him out. [Added participial phrase. Kindle edition, location 1392]
Brandon especially enjoyed puzzles, with things to solve. (Added prepositional phrase. Again, Kindle location 1392]
Brandon still disliked being alone in the silence – though he could sleep if he whispered strings of primes into the darkness, backwards and forwards, until the room buzzed with numbers. [The added backwards and forwards is a couple of adverbs, call it an “adverb cluster”; and until the room… is an added adverbial clause. Kindle edition: at location 1353-1354]
(More on the types of additions in my soon-coming blog on this topic, Part II.)
Don’t be too choppy
Modern style–influenced I suspect by copywriting techniques, TV ad video clips addressing a rather short, contemporary attention span–with its frequent very short phrases and even single words punctuated as sentences–can easily get a bit choppy unless we writers take care to include variety in the lengths of our sentences.
Learning this style can be freeing, providing you with formidable weapons for your writing-style arsenal. It can also provide you skill for adding rich texture and meaning into your sentences when you wish to.
Faulkner did it
Faulkner could write sentences that go for a whole page before adding that period. Yet they were in fact simple sentences (by definition, that is not compound or complex or even compound-complex–just a main clause with many add-ons), and all of them perfectly clear and reader-friendly. So could Thomas Wolfe. Even Hemingway wrote sentences like the one I used as an illustration above.
A challenge for you…
Roy Peter Clark in his fine, fairly recent book Writing Tools, 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, says this:
Until the writer tries to master the long sentence, she is not writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better. (Page 36)
Augment your versatility.
Master the long sentence as well as the modern chopped up sentence (and I’m not knocking sentence fragments punctuated as sentences–I use them myself!).
A couple of Promises…
It takes a bit of practice, but if you learn to write this way (assuming you haven’t already!), I promise you this: it can be a freeing experience. I think you will find that your writing sings at times like poetry. And I also think you will find that your efforts at writing such sentences can actually generate ideas and enable you to pack those sentences with vivid details and clarifying illustrations, and much much more-at will.
Number 2 Challenge for you…
When you read, be alert for this sentence type (called by some “the loose sentence” in contrast to tight, formal ones). See how often it appears and how effectively it works.
Suggested Further Reading:
Note– Both of the two following books are out of print and often hard to find but ‘worth their weight in gold.’
Notes Toward A New Rhetoric, 6 Essays for Teachers by Francis Christensen (Harper and Row, 1967)
A Modern Rhetoric by Francis Christensen (Harper and Row, 1976)– Professor Christensen’s master work.
Writing Tools, 50 Essential Strategies for every Writer by Roy Peter Clark ((Little, Brown and Company, 2006)
Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner (Oxford University Press, 3rd Ed., 2009)
100 Ways to Improve your Writing by Gary Provost (Signet, 1985)