Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

The long-winded ‘journey’ sentence, often punctuated with too many stops and starts can be excruciating. It can lose readers in its wordiness. Some readers may end up wishing they could sentence the author to the depths of Dante’s Inferno. But I’m rather partial to the occasional well-constructed long sentence—it can be intoxicating.

I am glad others agree. In a recent review of Laszlo Krasnahorkai’s latest novel, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, Shaun Prescott wrote:

It is the fear of long sentences that seems to scare most potential readers of Krasznahorkai, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2015, but they are why his novels are so vivid and immersive. . . . The mood and textures of a space, and the meandering internal monologue of character and narrator alike, indeed all of the novel’s components, are spliced in a hypnotic flow, so that the eventual full stop can sometimes feel like a violent extraction.

As we know, the word ‘sentence’ has two meanings: a set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate [what is said about the subject], conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command, and consisting of a main clause and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses; and the punishment assigned to someone found guilty of an offence. Some grammarians may figuratively sentence a writer to years of hard (writing) labour for not formatting sentences with the traditional subject, verb and object (The girl ate toast). But, in reality, just about anything goes in the way of sentence construction. As grammar watcher, Simon Heffer, admits, “even the most educated people’s definition of what constitutes a sentence has become what the dictionary now says it is: the matter between full stops.” (‘Simply English’ 2014) And so he quotes ‘sentences’ such as ‘Yes!’

Kevin Brophy has a more poetic approach to sentences. “A writer must read—and write—a sentence with the ear. . . Prose lies on a page before us as the sea lies under a great bird flying from continent to continent. The sentence is no more a distinct unit of language than the wave is distinct from the sea.” (‘The Writer’s Reader’ 2011)

On 16 March 1926, Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to Vita Sackville-West about an instinctive rhythm that creates a wave in her mind when she writes.

A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. 

George Beresford, Virginia Woolf, July 1902 (aged 20), platinum print, National Portrait Gallery, London

One of my all-time favourite opening sentences is the mesmerising, rhythmic opening of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, written by Charles Dickens in 1859:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Punctuated with commas, the long sentence pulsates with confusion, contrast and fear—the bloody revolt by French peasants in 1789 during the Age of Enlightenment is foreshadowed, and the British are fearful. The repetition of “it was” vibrates like the beat of a drum.

The aim of the first sentence of any written work is to motivate the reader to read on; it can be decisive and declare the theme or argument of the main body of academic writing, or it can be a teaser in fiction. The following is the first sentence (with the name changed) of a chapter from an unpublished novel that I recently assessed. This is what the author wrote:

It was a warm morning and Mike was sprawled across his bed with blinds drawn to keep the sun out, his bedroom a mess, clothes covered the floor, a thin layer of dust coated used cups and empty chip packets sat atop the bedside draw.

There is nothing wrong with this long first sentence apart from a few errors that needed correcting—there is a spelling mistake: the bedside draw (drawers? cabinet? chest of drawers?); curtains are drawn/blinds are pulled down. I pointed out a few ways to increase drama and intrigue by removing unnecessary information (the writer tells the reader that the bedroom is a mess, which is unnecessary, as this is shown in the rest of the sentence) and by dividing the sentence into three shorter sentences. Here is my suggested edit that sets a different tempo:

Mike was sprawled across his bed, blinds pulled down to keep the morning sun out. Clothes covered the floor. A thin layer of dust coated used cups. Empty chip packets sat on the bedside cabinet.

A sentence in which the subject performs the action of the verb creates an active voice and packs an immediate punch (e.g. dust coated used cups). In a sentence or clause that uses the passive voice there is some form of the helping verb ‘to be’ (am, is, are, was, were, being, been), which attaches itself to an otherwise strong verb (was sprawled).

In fiction writing, if a scene requires suspense and mystery, then the passive voice can be useful.

Mike pushed the bathroom door open. Water was running in the basin, red lipstick had been smeared on the smashed mirror, and blood was splashed across the white tiles. He fainted amid the chaos. 

The first and last sentences are written in the active voice and the middle sentence is in the passive voice (was running, had been smeared, was splashed). There is tension and colour in this writing as the author ‘paints’ a vivid picture, but withholds knowledge of who caused the carnage.

 

Academic writing tends to be more mechanical, with information and arguments set out neatly, so grammar rules are adhered to quite rigidly. Although the passive voice is quite common, it can create sluggish sentences.

The symmetry of the cathedral’s façade is created by the evenly spaced Ionic columns.

This wordy passive sentence could be converted to an active sentence by placing the subject and the verb at the front of the sentence (below). In doing so, the relationship between the key terms in the sentence is established more swiftly.

Evenly spaced Ionic columns create symmetry across the cathedral’s façade.

By limiting the passive voice sentences will be less flabby!

A scathing review of Samuel Booth’s new painting was written by Ben Smith. (passive)

Ben Smith wrote a scathing review of Samuel Booth’s new painting. (active)

There are other examples of flabby sentences that could be rewritten more economically. For example, when beginning sentences, beware of using ‘There is/are’.

There is evidence to prove that intelligence tests are worthless.

Revised:

Evidence proves that intelligence tests are worthless.

And:

There are a few blurry details in the painting that give it a mysterious quality.

Revised:

A few blurry details create mystery in the painting.

 

A successful writer is across every detail, making sure every word is the right word, that every phrase adds meaning in the most economical way, and that the length and rhythm of sentences suit the mood of the narrative or the content of non-fiction writing.

 

Featured Image: Tristram Hillier, La Route des Alpes, 1937, © Tate

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