I’ve been reading Verlyn Klinkenborg’s excellent book, Several Short Sentences about Writing. The whole book is a paean, you might say, to the short sentence (though, as we will see in a minute, Kinkenborg isn’t opposed to long sentences, as long as they’re the right kind of long sentence).
Klinkenborg articulates a lot of reasons to love the short sentence; here is one of my favorites:
Knowing what you’re trying to say is always important. But knowing what you’ve actually said is crucial. It’s easier to tell what you’re saying in a short sentence.
The “curse of knowledge” is a major barrier to good writing. You know what you’re trying to say, so when you look back over what you’ve written, that’s what you see: what you meant to write. The reader, of course, doesn’t have the same advantages as the writer.
In a short sentence, the meaning has nowhere to hide. We see at a glance who did what to whom—subject, verb, object. Such clarity is a benefit to the reader, of course, but it is also a benefit to the writer, who, as Klinkenborg says, can better see if he said what he thought he said.
Still, you don’t want to write short sentences all the time, and your reader doesn’t want to read them all the time. You need long sentences in your prose, and plenty of them. But, as Klinkenborg says, “Strong, lengthy sentences are just strong, short sentences joined in various ways.” If it sounds like he’s being overly clever, maybe I can help. In a strong short sentence, the reader moves confidently from subject to verb to object—who did what to whom. The relationships between and among the parts of the sentence are clear: subject is close to verb, verb is close to object, modifiers are close to the words they modify. There aren’t so many words and phrases intervening between the fundamental parts of the sentence. If there were, it wouldn’t be a short sentence.
Let’s compare a bad long sentence to some good long sentences in order to test out Klinkenborg’s idea that a good long sentence is just a combination of good short sentences.
Here’s an atrocious sentence from a book by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts called The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy. (I encountered this sentence a 2015 piece titled “The Five Worst Sentences I Read in January” by the Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada). Prepare yourself:
Setting aside the fact that the Army’s Concept Analysis Agency that first developed the WEI/WUV scoring system discounted its utility as a valid means for assessing the relative effectiveness of opposing forces in actual combat, Posen adjusted the theaterwide force ratio by assigning a multiplier of 1.5 — an increase of 50 percent — to NATO ADEs because NATO allocated ‘1.2 to 2 times the personnel as the Pact to generate a given unit of firepower.’
My original plan was to fix this bad long sentence by transforming it into a series of good short sentences joined together in various ways. But it defeated me. My relative effectiveness as an opposing force in actual combat with this sentence apparently had the wrong multiplier.
Instead, I decided to present you with this passage of good long sentences from Alan Jacobs’s book How to Think.
If we are willing to grant, at the outset, that the people we’re debating agree about ends—that they want a healthy and prosperous society in which all people can flourish—then we can converse with them, we can see ourselves as genuine members of a community. And even if at the end of the day we have to conclude that we do not want the same goods (which can, alas, happen), it is better that we learn it at the end of the day than decide it before sunrise. Along that path we can learn from one another in a great many ways—and we have a chance of discovering unexpected opportunities for membership: for there can be more genuine fellowship among those who share the same disposition than among those who share the same belief, especially if that disposition is toward kindness and generosity.
Those three sentences average fifty words apiece. They’re complex sentences; they communicate complicated ideas. But you were able to follow the meaning, even though I gave you these sentences out of context.
Why are the sentences from Alan Jacobs so much more easily deciphered than the sentences from Krepinevich and Watts? The jargon and acronyms in the Krepinevich/Watts sentence is part of the problem, but even when I found out what the individual words meant, I still couldn’t make them resolve into meaning. I didn’t know how the parts connected to one another.
Jacobs’s prose has quite a few subordinate clauses, which are supposedly a no-no for clear, straightforward prose. That first sentence is made up of four subordinate clauses (one adverb clause, two noun clauses, one adjective clause) and two independent clauses. Let’s look at them one at a time:
- If we are willing to grant, at the outset
- that the people we’re debating agree about ends
- that they really want a healthy and prosperous society
- in which all people can flourish
- we can converse with them
- we can see ourselves as genuine members of a community
If you take away those marker words at the beginning of each of those subordinating clauses (if, that, in which), you see that these are six very clear short sentences. Subject-verb-(object), with a few helpful modifiers sprinkled in. And, crucially, the relationships among these parts are perfectly clear because Jacobs doesn’t let connected parts stray too far from one another.
Clause 2, a noun clause, is the direct object of the noun grant in Clause 1. The three-word phrase “at the outset” intervenes between the verb and the object, but that’s not a big enough gap to cause any reader any heartache.
Clause 3, another noun clause, is also a direct object of grant. There are eight words between the verb and the beginning of this noun clause. Isn’t that a lot to ask of the reader? Well, no. Because those intervening eight words are Clause 2, and Clause 3 is essentially an appositive restating Clause 2. The grammar is leaving us a very clear trail to follow.
Clause 4 is just an adjective clause spang up against society, the noun it modifies.
We’re thirty-two into this sentence before we finally get to the main clause (Clause 5) the then part of the if-then set up by Clause 1. How is this ok? It’s ok because Jacobs has walked us so easily from Clause 1 through Clause 5.
Clause 6 isn’t technically an appositive, but it behaves a whole lot like one, restating Clause 5. Again, the relationship is clear because it is immediately next to the clause it restates.
The same principles apply in the other two sentences in the Jacobs passage. Feel free to analyze them according to these principles:
- The clauses are clear and direct (both subordinate and independent).
- The relationships among the parts are made obvious by the fact that the parts that belong together are close to one another.
- Appositives and similar parallel structures further clarify the relationships between the pieces of the sentences.
The Jacobs passage shows what Klinkenborg means when he says that good long sentences are just good short sentences combined in various ways. Jacobs’s sentences are long and elegant. There’s nothing remotely choppy about them. Furthermore, they add up to something that is at least as complex as the sentence from Krepinevich and Watts (I’m giving Krepinevich and Watts the benefit of the doubt…I think their ideas are complex, though I don’t understand them well enough to be sure.)