Live sentences

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?

Image thanks
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

23 thoughts on “Live sentences

  1. Hello. I know that my attention span for the written word has decreased. This began 15 or more years ago. I stay away, generally speaking, from long articles and long books. But I still read quite a lot overall. Neil S.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Having just questioned whether attention spans really are decreasing, I must admit that, anecdotally, mine seems to be, too! longer books are okay, but I read long factual articles by skimming or scanning (a work habit that spills over?). And I am so spoiled for media, that I don’t give things a proper chance before I look for something new. Sure I am missing a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael Graeme Dec 7, 2021 — 9:01 pm

    I’ve also noticed the trend towards shorter sentences, shorter chapters too. I am influenced by it, to a degree, I think, writing fiction for electronic consumption. We’ve so much else competing for attention. If the reader is using a smartphone for reading, it only takes one notification, and we’ve lost them. Reading that Hardy quote, though, it reminds me we also lose so much else by not braving the longer and more complex construction. I love Hardy; he’s in my blood. He could write an entire page without a full stop, and it would still be beautiful to me.

    I sometimes test my prose with the Hemingway Editor, (https://hemingwayapp.com) which tells you off for overly complicating things. Sometimes I agree with it, but it also annoys me, makes me break things up mid-breath, and have paragraphs sounding choppy. I think we should write in the voice that most suits us at the time, and suits what we’re writing, otherwise we’ll all end up sounding the same, like a machine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the link to the – aptly named – Hemingway Editor. I agree that a variety of sentences lengths is often key, with some awareness of the impact of different lengths and their impact.
      Hardy is such a good example for me (and I am a fan too), the complex diction, the lengthy description and scene-setting, such as the famous Egdon Heath section in Return of the Native. Would he get published today? people ask. All we can say is, thank goodness he did then.

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      1. Michael Graeme Dec 8, 2021 — 3:32 pm

        It’s time I re-read that one.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. My pleasure! 😀

        Like

  3. I didn’t read Hardy’s sentence. I started it, but didn’t care what he had to say. The language, the never ending words falling from his pen, the subject matter. Nope. Talk about a run-on. I read an entire book today and enjoyed it very much. I think you have to care about what’s being said to make yourself read anything. That’s why kids learn to hate reading in school. Forced to read things they don’t care about, so many of them never get passionate about reading. They assume that books are boring, dull, or just bad. Perfect way to dumb down the masses. Force them to read things they hate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 🙂 I struggled through it, too. If this was handed in on an academic programme, it would certainly come back with ‘run-on sentence’! in red pen. I guess the questions is whether it’s worth the effort, in literature – and of course there isn’t a single answer. I agree that kids need to be turned on to literature with care, with less prescription on what they read and what ‘good’ literature is or is not.

      Like

  4. A succession of short, choppy sentences is wearying. But so is trying to follow a long, convoluted one, like the Hardy example. Aside from that, I don’t worry about sentence length. If a sentence expresses what I intend to say, it’s done its job.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points. Generally, a variety of sentences lengths will make for a more fluid. And I agree – in the end, sentences are as long as they need to be the communicate – whether that’s a factual point, character sketch, an image, or what.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sentence length is never a problem if we enjoy what we are reading…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Expertly summarised in one neat sentence – I agree!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I blame SEO and Readability stats. I’m told so often that my blog pieces (including short stories) have too many sentences more than 20 words long. I think it’s ridiculous, which is why my readability stats are iffy.
    But I draw the line at Hardy-esque sentences. A full stop after ‘Methodists of pure blood’ would have been perfect 🙂
    I’m reading Valente’s Space Opera at present. That has long sentences with compounded words (not just compound, but pushed together words). It’s hard work. I hope it’s worth pressing on with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 20 words doesn’t sound particularly long, I agree. I think there’s so much more to consider than word count – such as the length of the words themselves, number of syllables in the words, number of clauses in the sentence… Having said that, the Hardy sentence challenged me, too 🙂
      The Valente sounds intriguing. I have a bad track record with books that experiment with language, haven’t been able to get through A Clockwork Orange or a lot of James Joyce, for example.

      Like

  7. I guess my brain reads quickly so I don’t typically notice sentence length. I have noticed, however, that when I’m writing drafts my brain/keyboard rarely produce short sentences. I like to read back my work out loud when I edit. Some of my sentences are WAY too long. Pausing is good. But it’s not what my over-active brain remembers to do until the editing phase.

    I have noticed that shorter blog posts seem to get a lot more clicks. There’s a place for long form, but perhaps we long for more simplicity in a complex world.

    Be well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I notive either, for the most part – unless their are a large number of either long or short ones. The short blog posts getting more clicks appears to align with the view that people, in general, don’t want to read long text, particularly online.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve never liked lengthy paragraphs/novels. I’m a Steinbeck fan. Short, simple, and to the point 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I admire spare prose, too – and love Steinbeck’s clear, sparse style. I am afraid, though, I am also a sucker for a bit of lush, purple prose, too…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. In my writing, there are times when I will use short sentences to highlight the urgency and to punch straight to the point. However, shorter sentences are not things that I aim for in my writing. I find that Grammarly more and more often shortens my sentences in the name of ‘clarity.’ Sometimes I agree, but most of the time – I refuse to comply. Yes, sentences that are 7 lines long can be annoying, but each sentence being three words long isn’t the way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find Grammarly has limits, too – same for Pro Writing Aid, which I have also tried. Even in the ‘creative writing’ settings, the text seems to be checked in accordance with guidance for factual writing, rather than fiction. I would continue to use these tools, but make my own final judgements.

      Liked by 1 person

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