Writing sentences – the long and the short of it

The longest sentence ever written in English is argued about, but a good example is one written by the stern Primitive Baptist Minister Cushing Biggs Hassell (doesn’t he look a fearsome chap?) in his thousand-page History of the Church of God, published in 1886. You’ll be thrilled to know that I am not publishing that sentence here, especially as it is more than 3,100 words long – but if you want to have a look check out this amusing tribute to it by “Savage” on TheBlogmocracy.

Writing sentences - the long and the short of it

Iconic author Virginia Woolf, who was fond of penning very long sentences from time to time … but they didn’t detract from her literary brilliance.

Victor Hugo was pretty keen on long sentences (although his were in French so they don’t count…) as was one of my favorite British authors, Virginia Woolf with exquisite, if rather shorter examples like this – shared thanks to Rebecca on Paperback Writer:

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the water of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the Mouth —- rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us – when we think of this, as we are frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” A mere 182 words.

James Joyce was fond of the odd whopper, too, as seen from one sentence in his iconic Ulysses which ran to nearly 4,400 words. And Jonathan Coe in his novel The Rotters’ Club managed one sentence in a tad under 14,000  words. Not a book you would want to read as a bedtime story to your son or daughter, if for that reason alone.

Long sentences in social media in blogging – a different story

I think we all know what reaction we would get from our readers if we were to write long sentences like this in our blog posts and articles. For most readers, especially business readers, the last time they would have a read a sentence longer than 100 words or so would have been in English literature classes at school or in academic writings at university.

In our disposable plastic business world there is no room for literary extravagance and in all fairness we shouldn’t complain. Business writing is not about literary ornamentation; it’s about communicating information in the most effective and fastest way. Usually, the fastest and most effective way is in a straight line, with no unnecessary detours.

So are long sentences verboten  in business writing?

No. What’s verboten  is using them too often and too close together. Obviously you won’t want to write a 14,000 word sentence in a blog post à la  Jonathan Coe. That’s akin to writing an entire eBook without a full stop/period in it. But the occasional long sentence, as long as it’s broken into digestible clauses, can give quite a useful sense of importance and gravitas to a piece of business writing. It acts almost like a key feature or centerpiece.

Naturally this centerpiece must be supported by much crisper, shorter sentences on either side if you don’t want dilute the centerpiece’s power. It shouldn’t occur at the start of a piece of writing, either, because the first paragraph or two need to be sharp and inviting to get the reader involved with the subject matter.

Not just long, not just short sentences, but a mixture for variety

If you eat the same things for breakfast every day for months or years, you’re likely to become very bored with them. And you don’t always feel like eating the same quantity every day, do you? Some days you might just want a piece of fruit, whereas once in a while you’ll devour a pile of eggs, pancakes, maple syrup, bacon, sausages, hash browns etc. on a platter the size of Nebraska. The same principle applies to the length of sentences.

What makes readers sit up and take notice, and holds their attention, is a variation in sentence length. Use (very few!) long sentences to make central important points. Use short sentences to break up the longer ones, to reinforce a point, to flag up a change in topic or angle, or to link.

You can even be bold and brave and use one or two word sentences, with or without a verb. There. Like that. (See these 10 Quick Tips for more on grammar etc.)

In a nutshell, the idea of varying sentence length is to keep readers on their toes, and keep them interested. Use variation in sentence length like you use spices and condiments in cooking; it’s the combination of contrasting flavors – or in this case, length of sentences – that makes a delicious, readable and retainable blog, article or other piece of online writing.

How do you feel long sentences fit into business writing? Please share your views!

photo credit: Christiaan Tonnis via photopin cc

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  1. I find I struggle with grammar as I wrote for my blog. My struggle is often the feeling that I need to stay true to my English studies and true grammar, whereas my gut tells me to vary sentence length, be clever and surprise my audience. I guess it is imperative that I keep my goal in mind and not worry about what grammar grade I might receive from Mrs Kohuch. 😉

    • Hi Sandra – your Mrs Kohuch sounds like she might have been a bit of a dragon! And you’re right about keeping your goal in mind. Writing for business communication is not the same as academic writing and the two should never be confused. Varying your sentence length, being clever and surprising your audience are exactly what you need to do. If Mrs Kohuch complains, tell her to give me a call! 😉

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  2. […] writing, but the key point to remember is to make text as easy and pleasant as possible to read. Sentences need to vary in length, paragraphs need to be short, and there are various other techniques you […]

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