Apparently, the sentences that writers use in fiction (or perhaps that should be ‘the sentences that readers are prepared to read’) are getting shorter.
This comes from research into fiction by British authors, as reported in the media last month. These writers are, evidently, are using fewer words per sentence. Related to this, they are also, the research suggests, forsaking the semicolon (disappointing – I do love a semicolon; they’re so useful), presumably in favour of the full stop (or period). Since the early 1990s, the average sentence in fiction has fallen, the research says, from 12.73 words to 11.87.
Shorter, pithier sentences have been advised practice in factual business and political documentation for some time – the UK Government has a stipulation on sentences no longer than 25 words, for example. The idea is that keeping sentences short, and the sentence structure simple, will make documents easier to follow.
In fiction, though?
It is suggested that social media has been a key influence here. That we, as readers, have become accustomed to brevity – Twitter has a character limit of 280 (though, interestingly, a limit that increased a couple of years ago); Facebook and Instagram have character limits; we are advised to practise concision in our various texts and online posts…
Our attention spans have fallen, we are often told. But have they? An often-cited study by Microsoft in Canada found average concentration spans to have fallen from 12 to eight seconds between the turn of the century and 2015. That astonishes me. But this figure has been questioned, not least because the amount of attention we pay to a piece of text is task-dependent, i.e. we are differently motivated and put in different degrees of effort depending on what we are reading – and why. Similarly, looking at text and sentence length is not necessarily a reliable indicator of our tolerance for length and complexity.
So I wonder, too, whether this apparent trend relates to popularity of certain genre fiction, short sentences often being used to convey fast pace, urgency, and tension, as in thrillers, detective novels, or horror (though the most popular genre for 2021, we are told, remains – you guessed it, Romance).
Fiction has generally changed, true – in pace, amount of description, and yes, in sentence length. Of the famously long sentences in literature (from Dickens, Victor Hugo, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Updike, Pynchon…) few will be from beyond the 1970s or 80s, unless the writing is specifically experimental.
Anyway, is this a good thing? It depends what you want from your fiction, I guess. Personally, I can see the value in ‘getting to the point’ and ‘keeping it simple’ in factual writing. However, as many writers and critics have noted, literature isn’t necessarily meant to be ‘easy’ or fast. It’s supposed to make you think, to feel, to enjoy.
Would most readers today tolerate a sentence such as the one below, wherein Thomas Hardy, in his short story The Distracted Preacher (1879), conveys a large amount of complex information, employing a large number of clauses, in a single sentence of 129 words in order to describe a character?
“But when those of the inhabitants who styled themselves of his connection became acquainted with him, they were rather pleased with the substitute than otherwise, though he had scarcely as yet acquired ballast of character sufficient to steady the consciences of the hundred-and-forty Methodists of pure blood who, at this time, lived in Nether-Moynton, and to give in addition supplementary support to the mixed race which went to church in the morning and chapel in the evening, or when there was a tea–as many as a hundred-and-ten people more, all told, and including the parish-clerk in the winter-time, when it was too dark for the vicar to observe who passed up the street at seven o’clock–which, to be just to him, he was never anxious to do.”
So if you’ve read this far, a text of around 500 words (minus quote) – what do you think?
A Preference for short sentences? Or does it depend?