VII: SENTENCE LENGTH

How long can a decent sentence be? It depends on the amount of information, the coherence of its grammatical elements, and the capacity of the reader's attention and memory span. As to the latter, the writer can only guess. And as to coherence, the structure of the language provides many elements of coherence the writer may not be aware of and thus are out of his control. Yet, the writer knows the various places where he can put a period, where his thought seems complete.

Whenever I glance through the immense Grammar of Contemporary English  (1972) by Randolph Quirk and his associates, I am impressed by the dozens of lively examples of grammatical constructions that bind together the words in a sentence, that create coherence. I assume that the more tightly bound the words are, the longer the sentence can be and still remain one complete thought. For instance, a sentence containing dozens of items in a series separated by commas may be too long for any reader to comprehend, unless the items are organized in some simplifying way to reduce the separateness of the parts and thus give it coherence. Human perception can see wholeness quite easily in seven parts, but beyond seven coherence weakens. Quirk's Grammar refers to parts of the sentence as "tone units," units of information signalled by intonation. A very simple short sentence may have only one tone unit. The focus of the unit is a stressed word. (He bought a new CAR.) Quirk writes, "If the length of the sentence goes beyond a certain point (very roughly, ten words) it is difficult to avoid splitting the clause into two, or even more, information units." Thus, "The man told us we could park it HERE" becomes "The man TOLD us | we could PARK it | in the street over THERE. " Easy enough to comprehend three tone units. I don't know whether the "rule of seven" holds with tone units. Maybe readers' attention can tolerate more.

Nevertheless, the language provides cohesive linkages that simplify the coherence of the sentence. Without identifying the grammatical parts, I give you some of Quirk's examples to illustrate how words are linked together whether the writer strives for coherence or not. Quirk illustrates ways that two sentences are linked; I have revised his examples to show linkages within single sentences. Quirk says the single sentence form is optional. The linking elements are in bold face:

The death of the president was reported this afternoon on Cairo radio, and a simultaneous announcement was broadcast from Baghdad.

I saw him on Friday and he seemed in perfect health but the following day he died.

The building was heavily guarded by the police, and the windows on the top story were covered by boards.

The children read the play, and they acted it too.

Mary has several close friends and, as for John, he is always surrounded by friends.

They don't use it over the weekend, so you can borrow it if you want to.

Doctor Solway took the student's blood pressure that day and he also examined his heart and lungs.

Bob, George, and Geoffrey go to the same school, and all want to be doctors.

He'll arrive here just before six and that should be early enough.

The old man fell on his way to church, and I'm afraid he did the same last Sunday.

There were two thousand people in the theatre, but I didn't expect it to be so full.

I am impressed by the many ways the language enables--almost forces--us to bind words together when we compose sentences. We would never say, for example, "Joe thought Joe owed it to Joe." We have to say, "Joe thought he owed it to himself." The pronouns create connections.

When Annie Dillard was a young adolescent, putting together the chaotic world of her perceptions, she composed and memorized sentences to make the connections. Playing detective, she tried to draw the face of the "suspicious" man who had a case of beer in his car. "I sat up to play back in my head certain memorized sentences: he has a wide mouth; his mouth corners fall directly beneath eyes' outer corners. . .It was easier to remember a sentence than a sight, and the sentences suggested sights new or skewed." She discovered, of course, that the world of her perceptions would not sit still nailed down by sentences, but reading her An American Childhood  convinces me that her sentences reinforced her memory of childish images.

E-mail and comments to:   Arnold Nelson

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