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Author Topic: How long should a sentence be to effectively deliver an idea?  (Read 317 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 23, 2017, 08:52:27 PM »

I would like to share my reply to two intriguing questions about written and spoken English that were raised by Mwita Chacha, a Tanzania-based member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum.

His first question: How long should we make our sentences to effectively deliver our ideas?




My answer is that to clearly convey an idea in our mind, a sentence should only be as long as it needs to be. It could be as short as two or three words, as “That’s all” in that old Nat King Cole song or “Call me Ishmael” in the opening line of Herman Melville’s whaling novel Moby Dick. On the other hand, it could be all of 4,391 words, which is how long Molly Bloom’s soliloquy* (http://tinyurl.com/ccqygz) is in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses; this formidable wordage, however, pales in comparison with a 13,955-word sentence in British novelist Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club, which Wikipedia says appears to be the longest sentence in English literature.

My point in citing these highly disparate sentence lengths is that there really isn’t any rule as to how long a sentence should be. It all depends on how simple or complex the mind of the writer runs, on the personal writing style that he or she has developed, and on the kind of audience being addressed. For practical purposes as opposed to literary purposes, however, I would recommend brevity in sentence construction every time for clarity’s sake.

In particular, I do think that a newspaper reporter would be making a hateful imposition on the reader by habitually writing news-story sentences far in excess of, say, 20-25 words; that a TV news writer would cause consternation among news readers and TV audiences alike by even just occasionally foisting 30-word sentences on them; and that a lecture-circuit speaker would make audiences doze off by droning on and on with sentences way beyond 30-40 words.

Admittedly, though, the preceding 75-word sentence in the preceding paragraph above would seem to contradict my very own prescriptions for sentence length. Well, it does, but I suggest that we look at this contradiction as another important aspect of sentence word-counts. Punctuation does change the sentence-length paradigm altogether.** Indeed, the judicious use of punctuation—the comma, semicolon, colon, dash, ellipsis, and parenthesis—makes it possible for us to write high word-count, many-idea sentences without overwhelming our readers or listeners.

Now to the second question: Is the advice credible that too much focus on grammar can hamper learning how to speak fluently in English?

Yes, that advice makes a lot of sense. Focusing too much on grammar just makes the learner too self-conscious and too fearful of making mistakes to the point of being tongue-tied.

Let’s keep in mind that even without formal grammar lessons, the child learns to speak and become adequately fluent in a particular language simply by listening to members of the household using it. The child learns to speak a language primarily by imitation, and the more fluent the people around the child are in that language, the faster the learning process and the better will be the child’s command of it.

When it comes to writing, however, the situation becomes different: the learner should first learn enough of the vocabulary, grammar, semantics, and structure of the language to be able to put his ideas in clear, understandable writing. This is a longer and much more painstaking process than learning to speak the language, of course, so it’s no wonder that we sometimes meet professionals who speak English very fluently but whose English grammar is so atrociously faulty that they couldn’t even write a decent sentence longer than five or six words.

Every nonnative English speaker thus needs to undertake a continuing self-improvement program in English grammar and usage, for not to do so is to risk making do with faulty spoken and written English for life. (2013)

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its August 23, 2013 issue, © 2013 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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*Simply for the curious, here’s a link to the full text of “Molly Bloom monolog end James Joyce” (3,684 words, with absolutely no punctuation whatsoever).

**Here, for instance, is how Charles Dickens punctuated his 120-word opening paragraph for A Tale of Two Cities:
“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.”

« Last Edit: July 23, 2017, 08:55:24 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

Michael E. Galario
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« Reply #1 on: July 26, 2017, 12:41:19 PM »

Another example of a lengthy sentence is the Philippine Preamble:

"We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God, in order to build a just and humane society and establish a Government that shall embody our ideals and aspirations, promote the common good, conserve and develop our patrimony, and secure to ourselves and our posterity the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace, do ordain and promulgate this Constitution."

Stripping off all the modifiers that intervene between the simple subject and the predicate, we would come up with the sentence structure below.

"We  do ordain and promulgate this Constitution."




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"The only thing that's worse than not knowing how to do something is to do something wrong while believing that it's right."

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Joe Carillo
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« Reply #2 on: July 27, 2017, 05:25:29 PM »

Fine, Michael. That kind of editing is called "baklas" in the trade and you did it with a thoroughly ruthless hand. If you've been hired by the Constitutional Commission to edit or rewrite the draft of that preamble, however, you'd surely be obligated to restore all the ideas in those phrases that you had decided to knock just for the sake of brevity. You must understand that with the best of intentions, the members of that Commission must have wrangled over those phrases for so many hours or days just to get them into that single-paragraph sentence. How will you now reconstitute that paragraph to faithfully reflect all those ideas that you have ruthlessly eliminated?

Let's assume that the Commission members have given you four hours to do the restoration/recomposition job, or else... How will you do it?
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Michael E. Galario
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« Reply #3 on: July 28, 2017, 08:50:45 AM »

Well, the Philippine Preamble is perfectly written and is beyond refute. A recast is not necessary. I just stripped it off to show an example of a lenghty sentence and the possible grammatical elements contained therein that made it a lengthy one.

For me, To recast it would require one's complete knowledge of history and laws and a consensus of those who are in authority.  It can't just be changed at one's will because each individual views the existence of something relative to his or her own experience.  =)
« Last Edit: July 28, 2017, 09:01:51 AM by Michael E. Galario » Logged

"The only thing that's worse than not knowing how to do something is to do something wrong while believing that it's right."

Remember: We may know something but definitely not everything.
Joe Carillo
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« Reply #4 on: July 29, 2017, 12:50:42 AM »

An impressive answer, Michael! An editor should only edit what is editable and should never attempt to supersede or supplant the thoughts and ideas arrived upon by so many minds and voted upon after so much deliberation, and much less if the composition and its words, tone, and voice are already hallowed by time and tradition. The overriding goal in editing is to conserve those thoughts and refine them, never to eliminate them for the sake of conciseness or style.
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