On the Art of the Long Sentence

Guest post by Randal Eldon Greene

The Long Sentence’s Bad Rap

As schoolchildren, we are taught that long sentences are bad, ugly. We are given the notion early on that multiple ideas expressed in writing without a formalized break (usually the period; sometimes an exclamation point or question mark) is a poorly constructed sentence. The pejorative term given this type of prose is the run-on sentence. While this term is useful for certain sentences that are in fact poorly written, it can also stunt the aesthetic growth of a reader who applies this term to every sentence that happens to go on for an extended length. Not all long sentences are run-on sentences, as run-on has a pejorative connotation, and while beautiful, long sentences certainly can go on and on, they aren’t poorly constructed like the run-on sentence is; rather, the long sentence is elegantly constructed with design and purpose. Those who see multiple conjunctions and devices being used to continue a sentence into extended existed and simply lump it without examination in under the cognitive category of “run-on sentence” are missing an opportunity to see a unique and artful form of literary beauty.

Just and Unjust Sentiments

While one cannot blame a student in contemporary times for holding an opinion into adulthood that was inculcated in their early life, it doesn’t mean that the sentiment that all long sentences are bad should be allowed without challenge. It must be noted here that a sentiment cannot be wrong. But, as David Hume points out in his essay Of the Standard of Taste, we can use our knowledge of “the general rules of art” to judge the rightness of our sentiments, which are founded “on experience and on observation of the common sentiments”, when we have the prerequisites of “perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, [and] a due attention to the of the object,” (237) and lacking any of these things, our judgment can only be believed to be a personal sentiment, rather than a sentiment that points to the truth of beauty.

One can look more closely at his essay to understand Hume’s full argument. For the purposes and space limitations of this essay, let’s assume that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the verification of just sentiments is knowable through familiarity with the rules art and composition when one has the necessary prerequisites (and, in that regard, so too are unjustified sentiments knowable based upon a knowledge of the rules of composition and art when one has the necessary prerequisites). It is through such familiarity and the assurance of establishing the needed prerequisites that allows us to discern the justness of a sentiment when comparing two objects of beauty to determine which is the better. Hume does allow that two people may disagree about the better composition or art object  “where two objects seem near an equality” but  that such a disagreement “appears an extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity, where objects so disproportioned are compared together.” One is of course better and it is just to “pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous” (236) when, say, someone believes their sentiment that a book like Harry Potter or Twilight is better than the works of Homer or a masterpiece like Moby Dick. The compositions are so dissimilar that a comparison cannot be made, or rather, is made ridiculous by the obvious superiority of the masterpiece; one cannot rightly be justified in believing their sentiment points to the truth when that sentiment declares that the beauty of a pop-culture art object (a pot-boiler or a children’s book) to be on par or better than a masterwork. Comparing Harry Potter to Twilight—and keeping in mind this genre’s aesthetic goals—would be completely acceptable as far as young readers’ literature goes, and it would be absurd to consider the latter better than the former, Harry Potter being the superior of the two. Comparing Moby Dick to Mrs. Dalloway, too, would be an acceptable comparison.  The difference here is that the two are masterworks, and determining the correct preference between two people who acknowledge the greatness of both but have differing opinions as to which is superior can be accounted for by disposition—a mutable thing based on age and experience. Disposition, it must be noted, is a slight variance of opinion but still requires a foundation of the general rules of artistic experience and the prerequisites to experience a composition.

Delicacy of Taste

So if one simply has a good idea of the rules of art and composition, and has prepared for the experience of art with serenity, openness to thoughts and recollections, and is ready for pure attention (put those smart phones away!), does that make one an expert, make their sentiment just? Well, no.

That’s the problem with the long sentence. It’s one of the more complicated, subtle art forms of literary writing and it requires what Hume calls “delicacy of taste.” One needs all that other stuff to develop a delicacy of taste, but it’s not something that comes naturally. Think of it like wine tasting. To develop a good delicate palate for wine, one doesn’t drink one or two bottles of the wine and declare themselves an oenophilist; one must drink a lot of wine—maybe a couple hundred bottles or more before a delicacy of taste is developed for wine. And not just any wine, but fine wines. So too one must experience a lot of literature, and not just any literature, but fine literature. One can’t read James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks novels all day every day and be expected to develop a delicacy of taste. It takes years to develop, but like anything mastered, it’s the journey that counts, and as Hume writes, “nothing tends further to increase and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty” (239). Well said, Hume.

For someone who has yet to develop a delicacy of taste, the long sentence can be hard to swallow. Like coffee, it could be considered an acquired taste, though a better analogy would be curry. A cup of coffee—fine or not—has a single flavor based upon the roast and brew. But a long sentence can have a complex flavor; sweet, savory, and spicy. Curry (for most) isn’t hard to swallow so much as hard to discern all the palatal complexity. There’s a lot going on. And certain curries require certain meats and vegetables—not just any will do. For someone who isn’t yet familiar with the art of the long sentence, it can be overwhelming or the subtleties, rhythms and flows, can be lost on them. And if they’re like a lot of readers and dismiss all long sentences as run-on, they’ll swallow it like medicine and not even attempt to taste what’s there and thus miss out on practice that could help refine one’s ability to become an expert in this particular species of beauty. Put another way, they are lacking the prerequisites necessary to experience beauty and are keeping the experience and knowledge necessary for this particular artistic sentiment from themselves.

What Does the Long Sentence Do?

The long sentence challenges us. As Hume writes: “A good palate is not tried by strong flavors; but by mixture of small ingredients, where we are still sensible of each part, notwithstanding its minuteness and it’s confusion with the rest” (239). A delicate reading palate is tried—challenged—by the many small parts and changes found in a long sentence. The long sentence forces us to slow down our reading in order to grasp the meaning of its many parts. In this way, it challenges us and exercises our intellectual abilities.

The long sentence gives us extended pleasure. Through both its length and the slowness with which one must read the long sentence, it extends our pleasure at the beauty of a particular passage. Like all compositions, variety of sentence length throughout a book is more pleasurable than sentences of uniform length; this is why a book like Beckett’s The Unnameable, with its multi-page sentences, is challenging but would not be considered delicate and beautiful in its use of long (run-on) sentences. However, the occasion of a particularly long sentence can bring moments of enormous pleasure to those who have a delicacy of taste.  For connoisseurs of the long sentence, it’s a pleasure that one wants to last. As Elaine Scarry writes, “our desire for beauty is likely to outlast its object because, as Kant once observed, unlike all other pleasures, the pleasure we take in beauty is inexhaustible. No matter how long beautiful things endure, they cannot out-endure our longing for them” (50, On Beauty and Being Just). The long sentence gives us extended pleasure because by the very nature of its complexity the act of reading the sentence lets the object last longer in our mind, extending the time we have to savor a well-written and flavorful passage that requires the full faculties of our intellect.

The Art of the Long Sentence

There are many different ways of constructing a long sentence; there are certain tools at an author’s disposal. I’ll give several examples below, highlighting the various ways the respective authors ingeniously kept their sentences going and point out some of the many things each accomplishes with his or her long sentence. I’ve taken passages from several major novels in contemporary literature  (mostly passages from the first pages of these novels) in hopes that you’ll be enticed by these long sentences and read these books yourself if you’re not yet familiar with these important and aesthetically gorgeous novels.

As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion and garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.  ( 3, White Noise, Don DeLillo)

DeLillo employs the use of a list to create a long sentence as the opening line to his novel. The list is one of the simplest ways of creating a long sentence. As readers, we’re used to seeing lists of objects, even long ones. Before DeLillo begins listing objects, he creates a momentum and action with the first part of his long sentence: “students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside,” and he follows this with the list of objects, but he doesn’t just list objects using commas, he creates a pattern and rhythm through listing related objects together, separating these objects with commas while separating dissimilar sets of objects with semicolons.  Second to the last set of items is “junk food still in shopping bags” which he follows up with a sublist of this junk food, set off by an em dash.

What DeLillo’s list does is give us a sense of the time and nature of the people he’s observing. Though they are students, they aren’t entering this scene as scholars; entertainment, fashion, and what’s consumable are the only types of items listed for the college students. DeLillo wraps up his list with a two-item list that arguably hints at the themes that will be teased out in the book: Dum-Dum’s (as a homophone dumb, incapable of transcendence) and mints branded Mystic (mystical, ritual).

The list—being a more familiar form of the long sentence—is fairly easy to read. But rather than just allowing us to read through a long list, DeLillo slows us down by way of his semicolons and the items he vividly describes.  In slowing us down and providing descriptive data, he allows us the time to contemplate the subjects and their meaning, their connections and connotations, rather than just reading this as an arbitrary list, giving no more information than the literal items brought by the college students to their dorms.

The next selection is from László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango.

He gazed sadly at the threatening sky, at the burned-out remnants of a locust-plagued summer, and suddenly saw on the twig of an acacia, as in a vision, the progress of spring, summer, fall and winter, as if the whole of time were a frivolous interlude in the much greater spaces of eternity, a brilliant conjuring trick to produce something apparently orderly out of chaos, to establish a vantage point from which chance might begin to look like necessity…and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin, painfully trying to tear his body away, only, eventually, to deliver himself—utterly naked, without identifying mark, stripped down to essentials—into the care of the people whose duty it was to wash the corpses, people obeying an order snapped out in the dry air against a background loud with torturers and flayers of skin, where he was obliged to regard the human condition without a trace of pity, without a single possibility of any way back to life, because by then he would know for certain that all his life he had been playing with cheaters who had marked the cards and who would, in the end, strip him even of his last means of defense, of that hope of someday finding his way back home.  (4-5, Satantango)

In this early sentence from Satantango, we are given an extremely long but beautiful sentence. If any extended sentence does not deserve the pejorative term run-on it is this one. The author gives us a beautiful depiction that takes us from the reality of a twig to the darkest corners of human self-knowing. Krasznahorkai could have written this sentence more simply, but he turns it into a long sentence using ellipsis, conjunction, and the em dash. The main conjunction is an and which follows a set of ellipsis. Why? Why did he choose to extend this sentence in this peculiar manner? On the most basic level, Krasznahorkai’s choice follows the character’s pattern of thought—from what’s outside himself to a vision of himself. The long sentence allows the reader to follow in the same unbroken progression from outside to inside, from a progression of seasons seen in a moment to a whole life seen in a moment. If the sentence were broken into two or more parts, yes, meaning would still be conveyed, but not as artfully—not as meaningfully. Krasznahorkai allows the construction of the sentence to reflect the very meaning contained therein.

The sentence is constructed with well-chosen words that keep it going, allowing us to enjoy an extended aesthetic moment. There are a variety of images and moods contained in this long sentence. By not breaking this thought up into shorter pieces, Krasznahorkai  is not only able to make the sentence reflect the character’s train of thought, but he also slows us down in our reading, making us reflect on the meaning of the words—we aren’t allowed to swallow one sentence after another, instead we must dissect this long sentence, which gives those who have or are working toward a discernment of taste a chance to experience the aesthetic brilliance of all the subtle images and emotions that this one sentence contains.

The next selection is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

It is some vast, very old and dark hotel, an iron extension of the track and switchery by which they have come here. . . . Globular lights, painted a dark green, hang from under the fancy iron eaves, unlit for centuries . . . the crowd moves without murmurs or coughing down corridors straight and functional as warehouse aisles . . . velvet black surfaces contain the movement: the smell is of old wood, of remote wings empty all this time just reopened to accommodate the rush of souls, of cold plaster where all the rats have died, only their ghosts, still as cave-paintings, fixed stubborn and luminous in the walls . . . the evacuees are taken in lots, by elevator—a moving wood scaffold open on all sides, hoisted by old tarry ropes and cast-iron pulleys whose spokes are shaped like Ss. (4, Gravity’s Rainbow)

Pynchon is a notoriously difficult author. He is considered difficult for a number of reasons (length of his major novels, complicated plots, esoteric references) including his frequent use of the long sentence.

In this selection, Pynchon uses ellipses (both three dot and four dot ellipses), em dashes, and commas to create a complex sentence that slows the reader down—perhaps even requiring re-reading for clarity—and provides throughout his intricate long sentence many varieties of flavors that can only be tasted slowly as reading is slowed down.

In this sentence, the main conjunctive device is the ellipses. In the first section of the sentence, he gives us a place—a “very old and dark hotel”, but also give us a vague sense of who he is talking about—“they.” Then there is a set of ellipsis with four dots, followed by a section that gives us some descriptive detail about the hotel. Then there is another set of ellipses, and Pynchon gives us a better idea of who the “they” is, and it is not one or two people, but a “crowd.” Another set of ellipses is followed by more descriptive details of the hotel. A final set of ellipses in this sentence is followed by a definitive definition of who this crowd is—“evacuees”—and that section ends with the word “elevator,” and then Pynchon uses an em dash to further this sentence with an exact description of this elevator. The “they” at the beginning of this sentence could have been gleaned from the two paragraphs before this, though his prose is dense enough that it is arguably not apparent. In either case, Pynchon—like all the authors who have mastered the long sentence—has a very specific reason for the long sentence and how he has constructed it.

The first section of this long sentence gives us the two main ideas—the hotel and the people—and it is offset as different by his use of a four dot ellipses. After this, each section of the long sentence deals with the evacuees or the hotel, and in each section the descriptions become more specific (they to crowd to evacuees and sight to sight and smell to a specific description of a single thing). Through chopping up the sentence into an alternation of evacuees and hotel, Pynchon lets us linger on both and puts the two together (that is, the evacuees and their environment) in an inextricable way in our minds through this artful long sentence. This is an extremely flavorful sentence with many intricate ingredients, and his particular way of slowing down the action through closer and more specific descriptions allows these flavors to bloom on the palate in a measured, almost time-released way, letting the reader taste more fully—more exactly—with each successive section of the long sentence.

This next long sentence is from the opening lines of part II of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

Gibreel when he submits to the inevitable, when he slides heavy-lidded towards visions of his angeling, passes his loving mother who has a different name for him, Shaitan, she calls him, just like Shaitan, same to same, because he has been fooling around with the tiffins to be carried into the city for the office workers’ lunch, mischeevious imp, she slices the air with her hand, rascal has been putting Muslim meat compartments into Hindu non-veg tiffin-carriers, customers are up in arms.   (93, The Satanic Verses)

In this long sentence, Rushdie chooses the simple comma to keep his long sentence going. The commas lets us slide from one topic to the next, perhaps more quickly than in our previous examples. Even so, the sentence still prolongs our experience of pleasure at the rhythmic cadence of the sentence—a cadence disrupted with the words “customers are up in arms,” using the structure of the long sentence to show us that in this vision there is discord.

Rushdie’s long sentence allows the mingling of both pleasure and discord. The long sentence works both aesthetically and sets the tone through its structure. While it may not only be the long sentence which could accomplish such feats, the artfulness of it precludes any close relation to the run-on sentence, making it—in fact—a closer cousin to the artful fragment than the run-on. The fragment, too, hasn’t always been looked upon kindly by the grammarians of early education, though it is forgiven in dialogue in the name of realism and also in the name of postmodernism, which adopted the fragment as a sort of thematic mirror for the fragmented postmodern experience. But with talented authors like Rushdie, the fragment and the long sentence are both used to reflect tone, meaning, and beauty.

For the last piece, we will look at the opening line of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. (3, Gilead)

Like Rushdie, Robinson chooses to use the simple comma to extend her sentence, though she also allows the convention of dialogue and conjunction into her long sentence. One could argue that it’s really several sentences (one could argue this with any long sentence that uses conjunctive devices of any sort—comma, semicolon, ellipses, capital letters), but the fact is, even with obvious I said / you said statements, the various pieces are held together with commas and the repeated word and—not periods. It is a masterful long sentence.

Right away, Robinson’s sentence gives us the narrator’s tone, his way of speaking and thinking. The idea of the whole conversation is conveyed in one sentence because the whole conversation is a single idea. By presenting the idea as a single, long sentence, we readers are forced to contemplate it as such, perhaps re-read it for the various meanings being conveyed in this one sentence. Robinson is able to create a relationship, display tone, slow us down, and provide a beautiful opening line—making us wish for more. This long sentence—though shorter than the other examples provided—perhaps does more work than any we’ve looked at. The only missing element is probably scene, though even in the tone of voice we glimpse the first hints of location.

Conclusion

While the long sentence is not necessary for good writing, it is an art form that one can learn to appreciate by honing their delicacy of taste. Practice this by experiencing works of literature that use the long sentence frequently and well and you’ll find a whole new and deeply rich aesthetic experience that will help you discover deeper meaning in the well-written long sentences you come across.


Works Cited


Descriptions of Heaven

by Randal Eldon Greene

A linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death—news of an unknown creature in the New Bedford Lake coincides with news that Natalia’s cancer has returned.

On the shores of the lake in a strange house with many secret doors, Robert and his family must face the fact that Natalia is dying, and there is no hope this time. But they continue on; their son plays by the lakeside, Natalia paints, Robert writes, and all the while the air is thick with dust from a worldwide drought that threatens to come down and coat their little corner of green.

A lament for what is already lost and what is yet to be lost, Descriptions of Heaven leaves only one question to be asked: What’s next?

About the Author

Scott Mullins is a freelance writer and digital content manager. When he’s not finding ways to distract himself from writing his novel he writes killer copy for companies all over the world. Connect with Scott on Twitter @ScottMullins86 or LinkedIn. He’s always looking to connect with other writers.