Monday, September 6, 2010

Sentence length

This is about sentences.  One-word sentences.  Two-word sentences.  Short, punchy declarative sentences.  Sentences that through no fault of their own slip gears from active to passive voice.  Sentences that go on and about for upward of fifty words.  Sentences as filled with as much sinuous mystery as a labyrinth.

You grew into your teens and twenties concerned about the length of your sentences because of your belief that your chosen work mandated short sentences.  Twelve or fifteen words for a sentence.  For a change of pace, the occasional twenty- or twenty-five-word sentence with a sprinkling of five- and six-word ventures.

Your core beliefs at that time had you visualizing a career as a journalist.  These same beliefs also held forth as a reward to be earned a column in which you expressed beliefs but as well ideas in sentences longer than fifteen words.

So much for journalism, which you respect when you encounter it as practiced by dedicated professionals who produce inquiry and stature in their investigations.  Had you more a taste for the academic life (not to mention ability), you might well have considered history, although it is more probable anthropology would have had its way with you.

Instead, evolution has had its way; you began to prefer longer sentences after years of having edited them down in other writers and seen the dangers of such length, growing vaguely uneasy about the use of shorter, punchier sentences in your own short stories, then come to terms with a natural-sounding sentence that was long but its intent clear and its path follow-able without cookie crumbs.

Lest you be misunderstood, you hasten to aver your admiration for the punchy vigor of short, declarative sentences or even those rendered in the passive voice.  You do not hesitate to use either when they come your way.  

You herewith sign on to the longer sentence, although it is to be watched with rigor for digression and incidents which may cause readers a sense of confusion or disorientation.  Long sentences have come to you as your voice has come to you, via practice, consideration, and examination of the longer sentences you write, particularly those in reviews or essays intended for use in newspapers or magazines.

Voice is a natural progression, away from the imitation of the many writers you have admired since the approximate age of fourteen.  Although practice and repetition can be helpful things, they are not ends in themselves.  Your voice may very well change, just as your preferential vocabulary--those words you reach for with the most confidence and ease--comes to you.  Just as well, things may change--in voice and vocabulary.  And so you may find yourself back to the simplicity of a shorter sentence, and yet word length of sentences is not a meaningful statistic or anything to be watched as other things in writing are watched.  It is the clarity and evocative power of a word choice, a sentence, and that delightful combination of sentences, the paragraph, are concerned.

A writer whose ideas have been stolen may write stinging letters of protest to the editors of op-ed pages; a writer whose teeth have been stolen can only grunt and gesture inchoately.

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