We've all had neighbors who, through years of practice, have learned to spout without pause, and they love yammering at us, never letting us get a word in edgewise. In speech we may be these bores' defenseless victims, but in writing we have a stout defender in the sentence, which, by its nature, demands that from time to time the word flow will come to a full stop. Thank God for sentences!

The sentence is "a group of words expressing a complete thought or feeling," according to Foerster and Steadman's fine 1931 book, Writing and Thinking. What makes up a complete thought or feeling is, of course, something of a mystery, but we all know the sentence as the root structure of grammar: from sentences grow paragraphs, from paragraphs grow chapters, and from chapters grow books. Anyone who enjoys reading and writing develops a feel for the shape and rhythm of sentences, the ebb and flow of their parts and pauses as they wend their way toward their end which, if the sentence be well-written, can be heard coming long before it arrives.

Periods end most sentences:

I guess that's all there is to it.

—but many end with an exclamation mark's snare drum snap:

I'll be damned!

—or with a question mark's rising quaver of doubt:

What am I going to do?         

Because ending is essential to sentences, sentences that end chapters and books have added whammy. Dreiser ends the last sentence of Jennie Gerhardt with a dash and a question mark to keep Jennie alive long after the final page:

Before her was the stretching of lonely years down which she was steadily gazing. Now what? She was not so old yet. There were those two orphan children to raise. They would marry and leave after a while, and then what? Days and days in endless reiteration, and then—?

"Yes," "No," and "Maybe" can be full sentences, but most sentences combine a noun and a verb in dynamic unity:

THING DOES

—or:

THING IS

In some sentences a thing does something by itself—"The clock ticks"; at others what the thing does affects another thing—"The fire burns the wood."

Sentences can describe things and actions with great exactitude. In Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain uses a 236-word sentence, the longest I know, to describe a one-horse cotton plantation — here's an excerpt:

A rail fence round a two-acre yard; a stile made out of logs sawed off and upended in steps, like barrels of a different length, to climb over the fence with, and for the women to stand on when they are going to jump on to a horse; some sickly grass patches in the big yard, but mostly it was bare and smooth, like an old hat with the nap rubbed off;...bench by the kitchen door with bucket of water and a gourd; hound asleep there in the sun; more hounds asleep round about;...outside of the fence a garden and a watermelon patch; then the cotton fields begin, and after the fields the woods.

By packing nouns into and leaving verbs out of his sentence, Twain keeps his prose still as the hot Southern afternoon. In contrast, Dickens' many verbs ( and active nouns and adjectives) animate a blustery English night in these sentences from Martin Chuzzlewit:

An evening wind uprose too, and the slighter branches cracked and rattled as they moved, in skeleton dances, to its moaning music. The withering leaves no longer quiet, hurried to and fro in search of shelter from its chill pursuit; the laborer unyoked his horses, and with head bent down, trudged briskly home beside them; and from the cottage windows lights began to lance and wink upon the darkening fields.

Some stops in the word flow come to us from nature: even yammerers must breathe sometime! The question is: how often and when to stop? We can easily say a dozen or more words on a single breath, so if we keep stopping after three, four, or five words, our prose becomes choppy. Yet if we connect endless word coils with commas and semicolons as Twain does, we'll come panting to each period, glad for the breather.

Good prose mixes long and short sentences into an agreeable blend, short sentences standing beside long sentences as a matter of course. Here Henry Fielding in Tom Jones:

Hushed be every ruder breath.  May the heathen ruler of the winds confine in iron chains the boisterous limbs of noisy Boreas, and the sharp-pointed nose of bitter biting Eurus.  Do thou, oh sweet Zephyrus, rising from thy fragrant bed, mount the western sky, and lead on those delicious gales, the charms of which call forth the lovely Flora from her chamber, perfumed with pearly dews, when on the first of June, her birthday, the blooming maid, in loose attire, gently trips it over the verdant mead, where every flower rises to do her homage, 'till the whole field becomes enamelled, and colors contend with sweets which shall ravish her most.

Fielding opens with a quick five-worder, goes on to a long twenty-five worder, then on to an eighty-one word monster, creating an effect of accumulating grandiosity: short-Longer-LONGEST! At first Dashiell Hammett's sentences in The Glass Key look different from Fielding's:

The room had two windows. He went to the nearer window and tried to raise it. It was locked. He unfastened the lock and raised the window.  Outside was night. He put a leg over the sill, then the other, turned so that he was lying belly-down across the sill, lowered himself until he was hanging by his hands, felt with his feet for some support, found none, and let himself drop. 

—but Hammett too moves from short sentences to long, here by staggered steps: short-longer-short-Longer-short-LONGEST, creating a similar cumulative climax.

A long sentence after a short sentence smooths out a staccato burst:

The baby was coming. Each morning she was nauseated, chilly, bedraggled, and certain she would never be attractive again; each twilight she was afraid.
—Sinclair Lewis, Main Street

A short sentence after a long sentence chops off a legato curve:

Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
—Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

Modern writers favor an informal blend of short and long sentences. In his masterpiece, Whistle, James Jones mixes fluid medium-lengthers:

They passed a large green park with a golf course in it, where men in shirtsleeves moved on the fairways followed by Negro caddies.

—with flurries of shorties:

We were somehow unclean. We were tainted. And we ourselves accepted this. We felt it too.

—and the occasional cowabunga:

Somewhere down in the deepest part of his mind, in some place he wished neither to investigate or explore, but consciously knew was there, was a strong feeling, a superstition, that if he could bring Strange and Prell and Landers through, without them dying or going crazy, and make them come out the other side intact, he might himself come through.

—yet we barely notice the variety because each sentence is so naturally paced, its length so well suited to its thought.

Last word on sentences (for the moment!): don't make 'em all short, don't make 'em all long, and don't let any of 'em them wander on and on through the fertile meadows of your intoxicated imagination until you sound like that annoying neighbor who has always got to tell you just one more thing about her poor second cousin in Schenectady until you're ready to scream, "Shut up already!"


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 13th 2010, 1:26 AM
Comment by: Joan K. (North Adams, MA)
I need this.
Tuesday April 13th 2010, 9:37 AM
Comment by: Greenporter (Greenport, NY)
When a student reads a very long sentence, our Memoirs teacher's only comment is a gasp for breathe.
Tuesday April 13th 2010, 9:51 AM
Comment by: Anthony H.
Very good introduction/explication of a complicated subject. Particularly liked the explanations as to WHY different sentence lengths and structures worked for Twain, Dickens, Fielding and Hammett. Lincoln seems to me worthy of even more attention, managing to divide a sentence almost into sub-sentences (more than mere clauses) with his semi-colons to build a masterful rhetoric, so ringingly topped by that final four-word capstone.
Attractive as are these examples of the exemplary, I often wonder if it would be even more instructive to construct a bad alternative and thus to elucidate a principle by demonstrating what makes the difference: why for example a telegraphic rhythm conveys fast-paced action (like quick cuts in film editing) but is exactly wrong for the reflective mode. Is this just recognition of how a homely function like attention-span works as a default tendency in literary appreciation? By which I mean to ask: Can we expect the reader who is affected by the artistry so well exemplifed above to grasp instinctively how to work the same tricks when he turns to writing? Or do we need to better explain the mechanics of achieving these effects? I feel I learned what little I know almost by osmosis from a great deal of reading, and then trying to write; still it took some years of first the one and then the other to learn a few 'tricks of the trade'. I sometimes think writers when teaching their craft are predisposed to treat writing as artistry, which of course in exemplary hands it is, and thus to skirt such areas as sentence length and variation as too rarefied for the neophyte learner. Yet, as Mr Lydon demonstrates, the gains in effectiveness - and pure joy! - that are made possible by developing such capabilities in the learner surely argue that we should be exploring every pedagogical avenue to improve the teaching process.
Tuesday April 13th 2010, 3:49 PM
Comment by: Kimberly C. (Alameda, CA)
Mostly stuff I knew intuitively, but what I really enjoyed here was the sampling of excellent prose - thank you!
Tuesday April 13th 2010, 5:14 PM
Comment by: Rana Anuran (Silver Spring, MD)
In late antiquity, these effective techniques were not considered the result of luck or emulation or trial and error. They were taught in The The Trivium which consisted of analytic study of grammar, rhetoric and logic. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts and click the links for the Trivium, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. This is the tip of the iceberg for those who want to be able to describe how they think and why they choose a rhetorical device to have an effect on a reader or listener. It is not unknown. It is just a career that most (including writers) don't have time for: the aim of rhetorical analysis is not simply to describe the claims and arguments advanced within the disourse, but (more important) to identify the specific semiotic strategies employed by the speaker to accomplish specific persuasive goals. Therefore, after a rhetorical analyst discovers a use of language that is particularly important in achieving persuasion, she typically moves onto the question of "How does it work?" That is, what effects does this particular use of rhetoric have on an audience, and how does that effect provide more clues as to the speaker's (or writer's) objectives? from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric#Modern_rhetoric
Tuesday April 13th 2010, 11:32 PM
Comment by: paulette W. (Auburn, CA)
Sentence life or sentence death. Certain sentences can kill a listener, make them stop listening or reading. Thanks for the tips on how to keep a reader reading, or a listener listening. I plan meals and make a shopping list while my neighbor drones on. But mostly I hide from her. Perhaps writers of long sentences don't have a complete thought. My neighbor doesn't. Anyway, good article.
Wednesday April 14th 2010, 3:54 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you! Very interesting analysis. I thought that Dickens held the record for the longest sentence. Doesn't he have one that's a page long somewhere? I admit to having read most of his works without coming across it, though I thought I had read it somewhere.

Small point though, just for dithering.

I love CD for his characters as well as his sights and sounds.

But he was paid by the word, right?

I love Mark Twain, too. Master crafstman.
Wednesday April 14th 2010, 4:02 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
On the longest sentence: We reported here in Dec. 2008 on a French novel consisting of a single 150,000-word sentence. The English translation is supposed to be published this year.
Wednesday April 14th 2010, 8:54 PM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
Ah, those semicolons...
Friday April 16th 2010, 10:35 AM
Comment by: Diana K. (Nyack, NY)
Delightful. I especially loved the excerpt from Lincoln, which I had never seen or heard before. Thank you.
Friday April 16th 2010, 5:11 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ben, thanks for the link to that monster sentence; I'll await the translation!

I did look for the grammar bits at the editing conference in Philadelphia that you were a contributor to, but couldn't find them. What sort of grammar got discussed by editors.

Just asking. I came across a dreadful misuse of 'lie'/'lay' recently. Should have been caught by someone!

When will be join those two verbs? I guess when my sort stop complaining about their use! LOL
Friday April 16th 2010, 5:16 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Jane: The grammar panel will be held tomorrow morning (Saturday) -- I'll let you know how it goes! You can also check in on the ACES blog.

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