Punctuation: Sentence Length

Want an argument?  Grab old-school high school English teachers and ask them how many words should be in a sentence.  For that matter, ask high school English teachers with a minimum of five years of grading essays under their belts.  Listen.

Those veteran teachers will talk about essay length and paragraph length, but they won’t dictate a sentence length.

They know that only sentence variety and sentence maturity matter.  Sentence length should be like the waves on the shore.

Sentence Length

20 words long.  That’s what a past grammarian once said about the perfect length of a sentence.  That person added that sentences of less than 12 words were never well-considered.

Dictating sentence length, however, only creates problems.  Sometimes short, choppy sentences are necessary.  At other times, sentences flow with the will of the mind, lengthening and exploring, accumulating new ideas that will elucidate a point.

The only rule that I will reiterate is the one that says length does not determine the variety of sentence type.

Simple sentences can be short or extremely long.
  • I came.
  • Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go.
Compound Sentences can be short or extremely long.
  • I came, and I conquered.
  • Wellington defeated Napoleon in their only martial meeting at the Battle of Waterloo, and he received in acknowledgement of his service the noble rank of Duke of Wellington from the Prince Regent on behalf of his father, King George III.
    • Subject = Wellington, he
    • Verb = defeated, received
Compound and Compound/Complex sentences can also be short or long.  Length does not affect classification.

As noted at the beginning of the Sentence Variety section in this chapter, we want a rhythm of sentences.  Some should be short.  Others can be long and involved, as the Wellington sentence is.  More can be of medium length.  That rhythm helps the reader understand what we are communicating.

A Fascination with Length

Occasionally, writers will pull out of their whoopsie-daisies extremely long sentences.  Those sentences, while grammatically correct and giving us a complete thought, seem to run on and on, adding detail after detail.

Authors choose such sentences as stylistic devices to represent a train of thoughts.

This longer, stylized sentence comes in two forms:  cumulative and periodic.

In the Cumulative Sentence, the writer gives the complete thought (base noun and base verb) then adds on a series of phrases intended to clarify the completed thought.  The point of the cumulative is to elucidate, to explain very clearly, by adding detail after detail, exhibiting the point through the weight of the whole.

  • Annie Dillard, from “Living like Weasels” ~ “And I suspect that for the me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.

Notice that Dillard presents her main thought then adds details through opposition (unceasing time/ceasing death, everything/nothing, choosing/given).  The cumulative effect builds to the entirety.

The Periodic Sentence is designed for suspense rather than clarity through accumulation.  The base noun is given, followed by a series of details, with the base verb and the rest of the predicate at the end.

The periodic sentence may be considered more persuasive since supporting reasons are provided before the base verb begins shutting off the sentence.  With the concluding thought delayed, the idea is “suspended” or held back from the audience.

  • P.G. Wodehouse, from Something Fresh ~ “In the almost incredibly brief time it took the small but sturdy porter to roll a milk-can across the platform and bump it, with a clang, against the other milk-cans similarly treated a moment before, Ashe fell in love.”

Grammarians consider the periodic sentence “tight” or “closed” while they view the cumulative as “loose” or “open”.  Scholars called the cumulative more spontaneous, free-r, welcoming to more ideas.  The periodic seems more planned, with its last thought already decided.

This is an explanation about properly using long sentences–which the writer calls a delight.

Here’s a downloadable practice for sentence variety which requires longer sentences (without answers).  However, if you use virtually every word AND the sentence reads aloud well, then you have completed the exercise correctly.  When stumped, check with someone else and brainstorm together.

And here’s an aggregated list of links on thoughtco that provides a look at length and variety.

Closing

It’s not long sentences and big words that matter.  That meandering “high road” prefers obsfucation to clarity.

Only communication matters.  Smooth, flowing writing, rhythmic as the waves on the shore, entice our readers to remain with us until they reach our point.

Join us in March as we continue our talk about sentence enders, specifically two special marks that “end” sentences while leading us somewhere else.

In March, we also launch into Function 3 of our Punctuation Blogs:  Links that Separate.