The meter-tall stone that has come to be called the Mesha Stele, its smooth, black basalt carved some sixteen centuries before it was unearthed from the packed, red sand of Dhiban, Jordan in 1868, is arguably most important for what comes at the conclusion of all of its sentences: a period. “I am Mesha, son of Kemoshyat,” reads the inscription, “the king of Moab.”
Now displayed at the Louvre, pieced back together after a group of Bedouins protesting the Ottoman occupation smashed the stele, a visitor can see the characteristic dot of an end-stop after each word of the inscription. Though the anonymous scribe who chiseled this message nine centuries before the Common Era used the period in a way that we’d find idiosyncratic—the marks separating every individual word rather than ending individual syntactical units—it’s still clearly and obviously the same punctuation mark with which you’ll see at the end of this line. The Mesha Stele is, as such, the oldest example of writing to contain punctuation. No doubt the Moabite’s periods were used to interrupt the so-called scriptio continua of ancient writing wherebywordswouldbemergedtogetherinamannerthat’sdifficulttoread.
Profundity is often the daughter of convenience. Though this simple bit of punctuation had much the same purpose as the whole bevy of descendants who’ve since emerged—commas, semicolons, my beloved em-dashes—namely, to make the sense of reading easier, there were also a host of ancillary effects. With punctuation, a sense of the rhythm of language could be imparted, an artfulness, a lyricism, a poetry. For that matter, just as distinguishing day from night creates both, so was the first period the mother of the first sentence. A. Very. Different. Type. Of. Sentence. From. The. Ones. We. Read. Today.
Unlike the rather cumbersome and labyrinthine sentence with which I began this essay, by definition every sentence in the Mesha Stele was but a single word, and if you’re to adhere to contemporary style mavens who are nothing but partisans of parsimony, perhaps the mono-worded sentences of the Moabite stone are to be preferred. But I don’t think so.
With punctuation, a sense of the rhythm of language could be imparted, an artfulness, a lyricism, a poetry.
Within a long sentence—clause upon clause, the commas and semicolons, em-dashes and colons, parentheticals and appositions piling up—there can be a veritable maze of imagery, a labyrinth of connotation, a factory of concepts; the baroque and purple sentence is simultaneously an archive of consciousness at its most caffeinated and a dream of new worlds from words alone. No doubt my proffered example of a long sentence, with which I began this paragraph, will not appeal to every reader, which is fine, but to those who hold as inviolate that the only good sentence is a short one, I’m happy to offer an interjection that’s simply two words, the first a scatological curse and the second a pronoun.
The tyranny of the “short sentences only” set can be traced back to any number of style guides that have long proliferated in composition classrooms and editors’ offices. George Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language” offers among his commandments the injunction that “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Meanwhile, journalist William Zinsser in his classic Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction advises that the “secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction… these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”
Finally, the seemingly most iconic, most canonical, and downright scriptural of style guides—E.B. White and William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, of course—demands that a “sentence should contain no unnecessary words.” I’d suggest that Orwell, Zinsser, Strunk, and White—great authors all—are not just enraptured to an arbitrary definition of good style which consists in saying the most with the least, but that they’re very much creatures of their time, chained to the material conditions of paper margin inches and allergic to anything which seems too affected, too rococo, too aesthetic, too unmasculine.
The Grub Street Modernists who revolutionized literature according to the strictures of journalism tended towards style advice which was tellingly violent—recall the F. Scott Fitzgerald bromide about editing being the murder of one’s darlings. There is, of course, an elision of what different types of writings are trying to do. When Orwell says that we must always cut a word out, when Zinsser says that we must strip the sentence and valorize function above all else, when Strunk and White demand that all words must be necessary, they are making a philosophical argument about what matters and what doesn’t.
For the authors of such style guides, good composition is an exercise in the literal, the straightforward, the utilitarian. Certainly, there are some forms of writing for which that’s nothing but good advice, but taken to the extreme of dictate handed down from Sinai, it eliminates much of which is lush and fecund in long sentences, what is ecstatic, incantatory, and sublime about literature. At their most excessive (which is to say their least excessive), the partisans of parsimony can be Puritans, white-washing the church walls and smashing the stained-glass windows; the militants of minimalism are managers of language concerned only with the bottom line.
Most ironically, many of the authors populating the cannon are those who never cut unnecessary words, who had no particular affection for the short, staccato sentence, and shared not the rancor for adjective and adverb evidenced by the most ruthless of red pen wielding editors. Where would Don Quixote be without Miquel de Cervantes’ loquacious Castilian prose, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels without its Brobdingnagian syntax, James Joyce’s Ulysses without its ambulatory diction? In the seventeenth-century, when some of the greatest English prose was written, readers were elevated by the serpentine sentences of Lancelot Andrews’ sermons and the baroque grandeur of John Donne’s labyrinthine lines, moved by the unspooling flow of Robert Burton’s observations and the complex rhythms of that cracked archangel Thomas Browne.
“The world that I regard is my self,” writes Browne in his 1643 Religio Medici, “it is the microcosm of mine own frame, that I cast mine eye on; for the other, I use it but like my Globe, and turn it round sometimes for my recreation.” A philosophy not unlike his approach to writing, emphasizing the ways in which so much can be packed even into the relatively small world of the long sentence, and even more importantly, the sense of high-wire playfulness that can attend writing and reading such prose. Three centuries later, the cult of the short sentence would tell students and writers to disregard everything that is moving, effective, and most of all frivolously playful in the work of writers such as those.
As part of a parallel process, Michael Chabon (no slouch at long sentences) noted in his introduction to the anthology McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales that canonical literature written before the 1950s includes “the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, or the macabre; the sea adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story.” The eclipse of genre fiction’s respectability in the mid-century as it was supplanted by the Iowa MFA/The New Yorker-style literary “moment of truth” story is not dissimilar to the ways in which the baroque became disdained in “good” writing. Chabon argues that by the literary standards of the last few decades, much of our canonical literature would be consigned to the genre shelf, including “Poe, Balzac, Wharton, James, Conrad, Graves, Maugham, Faulkner, Twain, Cheever.”
Something similar, but in many ways more insidious, accompanies the advice that the best sentence is always a short sentence, for if that were really true, we’d have to abandon Andrews, Donne, Burton, and Browne, not to speak of Cervantes, Swift, Joyce, and so on.
For the authors of such style guides, good composition is an exercise in the literal, the straightforward, the utilitarian.
Despite the orthodoxy which elevates the short sentence above the long, there are no shortage of authors who did and do remain committed masters of the baroque form. Cosmopolitan Vladimir Nabokov with a 99-word sentence in Lolita, learned W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn composing a 107-word line, prophetic Margaret Atwood with a sentence of 111 words in The Handmaid’s Tale, incandescent Virginia Woolf’s 116-word sentence in Mrs. Dalloway, elegant Salman Rushdie, whose The Satanic Verses has a 165-word sentence that still feels as light as if you were falling from the sky. Then there are the purposefully contrarian long sentences, the avant-garde writers who push at the extremes of prose like an athlete seeing how far she can run or a mountaineer pushing herself to climb higher.
Irish novelist Mick McCormick’s 2016 Goldsmith Award-winning Solar Bones, a first-person narrative about a spirit returned on All Soul’s Day and written as a single sentence which pulses like cosmic background radiation, or Lucy Ellman’s gargantuan 2019 novel Ducks, Newburyport consisting of the stream-of-consciousness ruminations of an adjunct history professor and composed of a single undulating sentence that goes on for a stunning thousand pages. More conventional literature has its own share of gorgeous long sentences as well, of course.
Examine a characteristic sentence from the British novelist Zadie Smith’s appropriately named On Beauty. Describing the liturgy of the year’s final season, Smith writes that “This, after all, was the month in which families began tightening and closing and sealing; from Thanksgiving to the New Year, everybody’s world contracted, day by day, into the microcosmic single festive household, each with its own rituals and obsessions, rules and dreams.” 43-words, nine clauses, a single semicolon. Not a massive sentence per se, but one which violates much of the common-sense advice about simply getting to the point.
What makes Smith’s prose so impactful is precisely the not-getting-to-the-point, especially considering her subject about how time both contracts and expands during the doldrums of the holidays. Smith is a writer who deploys an admirable sense of almost-biblical parallelism; the sentence is a sterling example of how symmetrically balanced clauses (“rituals and obsessions, rules and dreams”—note the alliteration between the first word of each clause) has an innately pleasing sense to the ear. Infamously maligned by The New Yorker book critic James Wood as a “hysterical maximalist,” part of what makes Smith’s sentences so pleasing is this sense of her lines being a repository of so-much-of-a-good-thing, of being filled to the brim with delight.
Not that delight need be the only the emotion engendered by a long sentence, for as Kiran Desai shows in this example from The Inheritance of Loss (which is itself an absurdly beautiful novel), the frenzied piling up of words and imagery can be a convenient mimesis for the anxious mind in process. Here she describes how one character:
…knew what his father thought: that immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easily be the opposite; that it was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after your child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous.
Every semicolon in Desai’s sentence could be replaced by a period, but how much would be lost in that transformation? The semicolons linking all these clauses together into one long sentence encourage a breathless narration in the mind, a character quickly thinking through the implications of their train of thought. By the time the reader gets to the fifth and sixth clause, there is the overwhelming sense of the character (as represented through the narrative vantage of free indirect discourse) at odds with himself, all of those “nevers” in the penultimate clause, and then in the final one the rushed smooshing together of nouns in “child-dog-yard,” a damning contrast of the difference in concerns between suburban Americans and those in Desai’s native India, a concern which at least in this excerpt never needs to be didactically stated.
The Turkish Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk is a master of the Byzantine approach to prose, as in his novel My Name is Red, where in 127 glorious unspooling words he writes of how:
We were two men in love with the same woman; he was in front of me and completely unaware of my presence as we walked through the turning and twisting streets of Istanbul, climbing and descending, we traveled like brethren through deserted streets given over to battling packs of stray dogs, passed burnt ruins where jinns loitered, mosque courtyards where angels reclined on domes to sleep, beside cypress trees murmuring to the souls of the dead, beyond the edges of snow-covered cemeteries crowded with ghosts, just out of sight of brigands strangling their victims, passed endless shops, stables, dervish houses, candle works, leathers works and stone walls; and as we made ground, I felt I wasn’t following him at all, but rather, that I was imitating him.
True to the sentence’s conclusion, this is a sentence which takes command, which directs its reader by virtue of its own twisting logic into not just a description of a similarly zig-zagging perambulation, but indeed almost the experience of it as well. There are many mansions in this house, each clause seemingly a window into a strange fabulism, a portal into multiple parallel universes. Genies in ruins and angels on mosques, ghosts, highwaymen, dervishes. Each clause could be a novel unto itself, the very Arabesque narrative structure of the sentence almost a frame tale for an anthology of stories never told but only gestured at. In its maximalist decadence, Pamuk’s sentence is more than an assemblage of clauses linked by comma and semicolon—it’s a universe.
A profoundly spatial sentence, for the rhythm of the sentence itself seems to mimic the steps of the character following his rival, the jingle-jangle of one foot after another echoing how a word always follows its immediate partner. Annie Proulx, among America’s most adept long-sentence writers (yet also a honed minimalist) does something similar in this sentence from “The Mud Below,” collected in Close Range: Wyoming Stories:
But Pake knew a hundred dirt road shortcuts, steering them through scabland and slope country, in and out of the tiger shits, over the tawny plain still grooved with pilgrim wagon ruts, into early darkness and the first storm laying down black ice, hard orange dawn, the world smoking, snaking dust devils on bare dirt, heat boiling out of the sun until the pain on the truck hood curled, ragged webs of dry rain that never hit the ground, through small-town traffic and stock on the road, band of horses in morning fog, two redheaded cowboys moving a house that filled the roadway and Mexican cafes behind, turning into midnight motel entrances with RING OFFICE BELL signs or steering onto the black prairie for a stunned hour of sleep.
Hardly allergic to adjectives, Proulx still isn’t a writer who is exactly languid with her descriptions; nobody would describe her prose as purple. Proulx’s excess in this sentence isn’t necessarily an accumulation of rich descriptions (though the description is rich) so much as the sonorous quality of words themselves. Close Range is poetry because Proulx is an author who doesn’t just love language, but can clearly choose an arrangement of words because they’re beautiful.
The sibilant alliteration of “steering them through scabland and slope,” those recurring guttural g-sounds in “grooved with pilgrim wagon ruts,” the slinking m’s and n’s of “midnight motel entrances” so melancholic that they sound like turning off the dusty backwoods road itself. If a short sentence is a snapshot than a long one can feel like a movie, Pamuk and Proulx writing a whole screenplay between the capital letter and the period, the reader welcomed to traverse that same landscape with the narrator. All beautiful prose is indistinguishable from poetry, enjambment is merely an issue of typography.
There is an ethical difference between the sentence which is easy to read and the one which demands your attention.
Examine another consummate and beautiful long sentence that exhibits the qualities which make the maximalist approach so appealing, which can imitate the feeling of being a person moving through space (though admittedly not from a contemporary author):
In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elm trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were busy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top towards the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drunk of sarsaparilla.
107 words and one period; six commas, and ten adjectives, all to say the equivalent of “In a nice town Stuart stopped for a drink.” And yet, obviously, the beautiful sentence and my anemic translation don’t at all say the same thing. What exactly makes the sentence beautiful? That within those 107 words the author has created not just an entire world, but an entire manner of feeling, precisely by pilling those clauses upon clauses and words upon words. So many of them are, from a strictly literal perspective, completely superfluous. But as with music, it’s the rhythm and melody of the thing which gives it its power.
Consider the incantatory repetition of words as the author lets the sentence ramble on as if you were viewing the very landscape which it describes from a car window, those transitions from lawns to orchards to fields to pastures to the sky, the way in which the geographic features themselves become bigger and bigger until terminating with the cosmos itself. Then there is the phrase “In the loveliest town of all” with both its initial fairy-tale evocation and the way its repetition recalls somebody losing their direction mid-thought only to wrangle it back again.
Finally, all that build up for the concluding clause, this vast descriptive tableau terminating in the main character stopping to enjoy that folksiest of carbonated beverages. There is charm and wit in a sentence like this that would be absent if every extraneous word were ruthlessly cut. Thank God the author didn’t follow their own advice about the preferability of short sentences; this excerpt is from E.B. White’s Stuart Little (unironically the greatest novel about love from the twentieth-century).
Within the long sentence then there are certain things which can be accomplished that are impossible with its shorter partner; admittedly, there is a difficulty in reading a long sentence sometimes—all of those twists and turns, the convoluted syntax and piling on of word and imagery, comma and semicolon, clause, clause, and clause—but in the wrestling with such prose there is the possibility of the reader as much as the writer working towards a conclusion, in finding the meaning within the sentence itself; for, it must be said, there is an ethical difference between the sentence which is easy to read and the one which demands your attention, which in fact forces you to pay attention lest you get lost; this difference shouldn’t necessarily be understood as a claim that the long sentence is innately morally superior, but in demanding that a reader really grapple with a line we catapult a volley against the gods of this world (or the algorithms of the internet, the same thing) who valorize the short and bullet pointed above all else; in elevating the occasional joys of the long sentence, there is a an acknowledgement that sometimes the short sentence is the easy one, the small one, the insignificant one, but it should not be said that the long sentence demands the capitulation of the short, for what makes writing enjoyable to read is often the contrast between the gargantuan and the miniscule, just as music is built upon notes and rests; perhaps what’s self-indulgent in the long sentence (and certainly it can be that) can also be passed along to the reader, so that such expansive prose is better understood as a gift, or better yet as a secret; then, of course, there are the things which only the long-sentence can convey, that sense of motion, of movement across a landscape, or of the interior mind making its own wafts and wavers; finally, if there is any radicalism in the long sentence it’s this—the embrace of artifice, ornament, decoration, and excess, is resistance against base utility and the razor-sharp scalpels of those obsessed with bottom-lines, whether executives or editors—it is to give oneself over to the immaculate daringness of superfluous beauty. That’s all.