Sunday, January 24, 2016

Are Long Sentences "Bad"?

Are long sentences "bad?"

After hearing numerous friends and students complain about long sentences making a book hard to read or boring, I find myself pondering this question.

The first time I thought "Wow, this sentence is huge" was in middle school when I started reading Jane Austen's work. Even at twelve, I loved how long sentences kept me engaged. They made me feel like I was deep within the narrative itself, and Austen quickly became one of my favorite authors.

Flash forward to today. Austen is still one of my favorites, and I still love long sentences.

Here is a single sentence from her novel Northanger Abbey:
Her plan for the morning thus settled, she sat quietly down to her book after breakfast, resolving to remain in the same place and the same employment till the clock struck one; and from habitude very little incommoded by the remarks and ejaculations of Mrs. Allen, whose vacancy of mind and incapacity for thinking were such, that as she never talked a great deal, so she could never be entirely silent; and, therefore, while she sat at her work, if she lost her needle or broke her thread, if she heard a carriage in the street, or saw a speck upon her gown, she must observe it aloud, whether there were anyone at leisure to answer her or not. (119 words)
Clocking in at 119 words, I LOVE that sentence. It isn't exceptionally poetic or descriptive, but I am enamored with sentences like this one. I am also a big fan of descriptive language bordering on purple prose, so you may want to jump ship from this post now if you heartily disagree.

And I wouldn't blame you for disagreeing. I have discussed the subject of sentence lengths with many students, relatives, and friends, and I get mixed opinions. Some people are like me and enjoy long sentences, as though slugging through page-long statements makes us more connected with the text. Other people, however, are the complete and total opposite, with some choosing to skip paragraphs, pages, or entire chapters if they feel the writing style (because of sentence length, description, etc.) is boring. Most times, I have to hide my utter disgust at that type of mentality, but I get it. I had to push myself through chunks of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, refusing to skip even a page of over-described fields or PAGES of a person's facial expressions (to be fair: the scene with Levin in the field was emotionally moving). And don't even get me started on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath . . . I still want to burn the inner chapters from my memory.

But authors like Austen or George R. R. Martin? They seem to have mastered the perfect balance of sentence lengths and descriptions for me (and wit and irony, but that is material for a separate post).

For me, it is jarring to go from reading someone who uses long, detailed sentences like George R. R. Martin to reading someone who uses jarringly short sentences like Mercedes Lackey.

Though I love her language and the way she develops a plot (sometimes), going from reading Martin to reading Lackey makes it feel as though her brief, stunted sentences are bad writing. I am hesitant to say bad writing because, like I stated earlier, I love the way she builds her worlds (especially in her Elementals series) and how she uses language. Basically, reading Martin's long, juicy sentences feels like watching high-streamed Netflix  on my couch, whereas reading Lackey's short, stunted sentences feels like trying to watch HBOGo using McDonald's wifi: there is too much lag.

If I am really into a book, I don't want to lose the story by getting tangled in a stream of start/stop sentences.

Now, I do have some exceptions when it comes to tolerating and even enjoying shorter sentences. I loved Adam Sternbergh's Near Enemy, which is comprised of nothing but short, stream-of-consciousness sentences (read my review of this stellar book here).

In the spirit of honest, I haven't found many books to my liking which utilize this type of writing. If you have suggestions, I would be more than happy to hear them.

Now, just for fun, check out this BookFox post about long sentences in literature (Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a 2000+ word sentence?! What??).

Having some trouble figuring out if your sentences are short, long, or too long?

Ask several reader friends to give you feedback. Not everyone is going to have the same opinion, but it is good to know how several different types of readers will react to your work. And remember: If Microsoft Word underlines a sentence in green or a word in red, THIS DOESN'T MEAN YOU HAVE TO CHANGE THE SENTENCE OR WORD. You just need to go back and make sure everything is "correct" and the way you want it.

Final comment on this crazy and otherwise jumbled post: 

Long sentences aren't bad. They just are. Like them or hate them, use them or don't. Grammar and style will not always go hand in hand, and that is okay. Be aware of what makes a grammatically correct sentence, and understand why you are breaking grammar rules (if you are).

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