1. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    Rules about monsterous sentences?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Alesia, Jun 2, 2013.

    What are your thoughts on using what seem (in my mind anyway) to be monstrously long sentences? The opening of John Fowles Mantissa comes to mind:

    Reading that, I was asking myself "will there ever be a period?" I know the semi colon kind of breaks it up, but it still felt exhausting to read.:rolleyes:
     
  2. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there is a rule that prohibits long sentences. They just have to make sense on the syntax level. Then it just depends on the writer whether s/he wants to write long sentences or not. They are pretty difficult to follow, so I avoid them. Edgar Allan Poe gets away with it. In fact, some of his longer sentences are pretty quite amazing 8)
     
  3. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    When I was in school, my English teachers used to bemoan the "run on sentence" and stress periods. That's probably where I get my short sentence structure from.
     
  4. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    It IS exhausting to read, and, in my opinion, yields insufficient reward to the reader for completing it. Many years ago, I decided to go back and read various literary works that had been assigned reading in my student days and that I had either not read or not appreciated. I later expanded that to literary works I hadn't read but thought I should. One of these was Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. Soon after I started it, I began to have the sense that I needed to assign myself a certain number of pages to read each day, as if I were back in high school, in order to get through it. I had never seen so many sentences so long, paragraphs that took up a page or more, prose so dense I felt as if I needed a machete to cut through it. By the time I was 50 pages in, I felt as if Mr. James were almost daring me to continue reading.

    So, I stopped. I have better things to do with my time.
     
  5. blackstar21595
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    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

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    Dependa on what you're trying to achieve. Some people use long sentences for info dumps because of its speed. I read a flash fiction story before that was one sentence long(and took up two pages). It's also good for simulating a character who's thinking very fast.
     
  6. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    It's a style rule particular to English, not a syntax rule, so if the author has that certain flair, it's a rule not always observed. It's not unlike the proscription against the passive voice in English. There is a perfectly valid syntactic construction for the passive, but it's frowned upon because of overuse and misuse.
     
  7. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    as noted by others above, there's no such 'rule'... but too-long, overcrammed sentences are annoying as bleep to read and usually take three times or more as long to figure out as it does to read them...

    so, my best advice is to avoid writing any...
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    A sentence isn't "monstrous" just because it's long. I love long sentences if the writer has a good ear. Recently, here in this forum's short story club, we read Kafka's "The Hunger Artist," and it contains a sentence of over 200 words. It wasn't dull or confusing at all.
     
  9. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I'm fine with them as long as I can follow what the writer is saying (in most cases I can). The trick is to use commas, semicolons, etc. to break it up into readable chunks. If you want an example of an insanely long sentence done right, check out Proust's 958-word sentence in In Search of Lost Time.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A sentence should express a single idea, event, activity, action, etc. Sometimes a longer sentence tightens the focus on that idea.

    If a sentence is trying to do the work of a paragraph, or an entire scene, it is probably too long and unwieldy.
     
  11. Alesia
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    Alesia Pen names: AJ Connor, Carey Connolly Contributor

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    Like I said, I probably cringed when I saw it because in my education, if I would have turned in a sentence that long the whole paper would have been marked up with red pen "WHERE'S THE PERIOD!, RUN ON SENTENCE! SEE ME!"
     
  12. gwilson
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    gwilson Member

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    Personally, long sentences are fascinating, and I've written a few doozies myself - elaborate, conversational, real-life stuff - after all, we're not cavemen. (In a verbal conversation, if you're only using short sentences then your conversations are probably dull.) Long paragraphs? they bother me (don't let me fall asleep during the middle of a paragraph, please,) but long sentences are useful when unexpected. They're fast for one thing, like a road without stop signs. A paragraph peppered with a lot of short sentences then a real long one (or vice versa) adds subtext - it makes you pay attention to the odd ball. But, when they're real long, (I'll admit,) they can also be annoying, like the author is saying, "Hey look at me! I'm a writer!" Looking for something to read, I picked up Faulkner's Absalom Absalom! and the first paragraph of has two sentences: 121 words, and 156. Consequently, I'll save that book until later.

    All in all, long sentences are another tool. When used sparingly they can be a real treat.
     
  13. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, I figured it was a style "rule" like any style rule, since basically one could build infinitely long sentences. Run-on sentences have always been a fuzzy concept to me, but I feel like when a sentence leaves me breathless after I've reached the end, it may have been too long for my taste. But I do like tongue-in-cheek stuff -- and Edgar Allan Poe -- so it's not a huge no-no in my book. No pun intended.

    Fun fact about the English passive: it's super-hard to learn for a Finn. Its construction is like a math problem.


    Whatever teachers say... take 'em with a grain of salt. You'll have to swallow the teachings when at school if you wanna get good grades, but when you're out, you can start thinking with your own brains. Our teacher would automatically give F to students who wrote a story that'd end with "and then s/he woke up. It had all been a dream."

    Then again, I'd recommend challenging teachers. Nowadays it shouldn't lead to detention or expulsion.
     
  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Just an opinion, but if a sentence feels too long, it probably is. I don't think there is any must-follow rule here. Just use the noodle, and pay attention to what your ear and eye are telling you.
     
  15. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Strange nobody remembers the first sentence of "Oliver Twist"!!!
    and if that wasn't enough, he goes on with the second sentence
    Isn't that a lovely first two paragraphs, to make the reader instantly "hooked" on the story? :D
     
  16. ithestargazer
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    ithestargazer Active Member

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    I know a lot of the older classics have a descriptive and flowery way of delivering sentences which often make them very long. It can be a really dense read if sentences are strung together that have a lot of ideas, actions and images crammed into them. I don't mind a long sentence every now and then but it should be broken up with shorter, more succinct moments of action.
     
  17. ProsonicLive
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    ProsonicLive Senior Member

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    a sentence is a tool like no other. The length can subconsciously convey time or sense of urgency. What your true complaint seems to be more about is too much description. That is just a preference; if a sentence is long it is usually trying to convey pacing or articulate the speaking pattern of a character. There are times where it is needed, Sometimes not. If I personally finding myself wondering where a sentence is going to end, I usually have a bigger problem with the book overall.
     
  18. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    readers were used to that style of writing back then... the most respected contemporary fiction would have been riduculed if it had been published in dickens' time...
     
  19. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Yep. And vice-versa.
     
  20. Thomas Kitchen
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    Thomas Kitchen Proofreader in the Making Contributor

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    Read Ping by Samuel Beckett - that's a weird-ass story (not even a story, really) that uses quite long sentences. Yet he got it published, so long sentences can be used, if necessary.
     
  21. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Some languages tolerate long sentences better than others. English doesn't. You can get away with them, but they need to be full of content, otherwise they can be a pain to read.
     
  22. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    the main trouble with long sentences is that they are full of too much content for one sentence to handle and be readable or make good sense...
     
  23. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    ^-- This, right here. As Jazzabel mentions, some languages are fine with single sentences going full juggernaut. My native Spanish is one. English is not. Is there going to be a cornucopia of examples to the contrary in English? Of course. But away from authors who play with language the way Picasso played with form, they are generally the result of poor form and the writer having set a rhythm of reading to the sentence for which the reader will not be so blessed.
     
  24. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    There's nothing wrong with a long, compound sentence unless, as in the case of Fowles' faux pas, the creator of the sentence loses sight of the content.

    I was taken by - stumbled over - the second half of this compound sentence.

    Structured as it was, with a semi-colon to set it off from the first part of the sentence, the second part should be an independent clause and, therefore, able to stand on its own as a complete sentence. It does not.
     
  25. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not sure it's a matter of English (or, more specifically American) not tolerating the longer sentence structure. I thinks it's more an issue of the American educational system not impressing any higher degree of standards on students and most systems are simply glad to get kids through the system getting shot. The expectations are not to educate to any degree of heightened literacy. In some cases teachers are happy if their students can even spell their own names. The general standard in too many public school systems in America is to simply infuse the minimal degree of knowledge and then get them out the door.


    I don't know that I can agree with that as a blanket condemnation. I think there are two issues at point. First: most people, particularly those with an American public high school education, do not understand the proper way to construct a coherent compound sentence; Second: most people, note the aforementioned people with an American public high school education, do not know how to read such a sentence even if it is properly constructed.

    Now, as far as using complex, compound sentences in fiction? I would say there is rarely a good excuse for the use of such structure. In most cases it turns out to be an instance of a writer in love with his or her own brilliance and the story would, in all likelihood, be better served by using shorter, more to the point sentences.

    (NOTE: If you understood the above rant, you can safely exclude yourself from the above-mentioned poorly educated of the American educational system.)
     

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