March 1, 2017

Quotes about sentence length

What writers & others say

“There was a Monty Python sketch that showed Thomas Hardy writing in front of a live audience, and when he’d finish a sentence, they’d all cheer. Then he’d cross out a sentence, and they’d all boo or sigh. That’s about as exciting a life as it is for a writer: You write sentences, and you cross out sentences.”
— Paul Auster, postmodernist novelist

“It is a great privilege to make one’s living from writing sentences. The sentence is the greatest invention of civilization.”
— John Banville, Irish novelist and screenwriter

“The argument is sometimes advanced, ‘What difference does the length of the sentence make so long as it is clear?’ But clarity is not the sole criterion; the important thing is ease of comprehension. And small blocks of meaning are more easily comprehended than large ones. After all, a quart of gin is perfectly clear, but you wouldn’t try to drink it all in one draught.”
— Theodore M. Bernstein, late assistant managing editor of The New York Times

“Writing long sentences is like adding water to tea; the more words, the weaker the message.”
— Dianna Booher, author and writing expert

“There are no absolute rules of good writing — generalizations are instantly riddled with exceptions — but the principle of the 16-word average sentence comes closest. No other single step you can take will show such quick results in clarity and vigor.”
— Jack Cappon, longtime Associated Press editor and writing ace

“What vulgar hysterical sentences, what over-blown chrysanthemums he put in the nation’s vase. I could smell them now like the wreaths left too long inside a church.”
— Peter Carey, Mann Booker Award-winning novelist, in Parrot and Olivier in America

“Times readers are sophisticated and don’t expect ‘Run, Spot, run’ syntax. But news is read in a hurry, and we should strive for clear, sharp prose that aids rapid comprehension. Long, complex sentences slow readers down and can lead our syntax astray.”
— Philip B. Corbett, deputy news editor for the Times, who’s in charge of revising the newsroom’s style manual

“There’s no formula to determine when a sentence is overloaded or threatening to run off the rails. But there are warning signs. Sentences of 40, 50 or 60 words are awfully hard to make readable. When you get up to four or five commas, think again. A half-dozen verbs usually mean trouble. And when a reader’s mind has to move back and forth and back again, all before hitting a period, it’s time to take another look.”
— Philip B. Corbett, deputy news editor who oversees language issues for The New York Times

“We’re not writing for third graders. But we are writing for harried readers who value sharp, lucid prose. The more stuffed the sentence, the harder it is to unpack the thoughts — and the greater the danger of grammatical problems, too.”
— Philip B. Corbett, deputy news editor who oversees language issues for The New York Times

“Writers who demand attention seldom average more than 17 words a sentence.”
— Jack Hart, editor at large of The Oregonian and author of A Writer’s Coach

“If you bring that sentence in for a fitting, I can have it shortened by Wednesday.”
— Hawkeye, a character in M.A.S.H.

“‘Whatever you call them, they look like someone smashed a fly over the comma,’ Ketchum said to Danny, about all the semicolons. ‘The only writing I do are letters to you and your dad, but I’ve written rather a lot of them, and in all those letters, I don’t believe I’ve ever used as many of those damn things as you use on any one fucking page of this novel.’ ‘They’re called semicolons, Ketchum,’ the writer said. ‘I don’t care what they’re called, Danny,’ the old woodsman said. ‘I’m just telling you that you use too damn many of them!’”
— John Irving, Last Night in Twisted River: A Novel

“By the time Penhaligon staggers to the end of one sentence, its beginning has receded into fog.”
— David Mitchell, novelist, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

“Imagine a clock that starts ticking after the 10th word. With each additional word, the ticking gets louder. After the 20th word, the ticking is VERY loud. After the 40th, it’s stadium-crowd loud. After 45, deafening.”
— Tom Silvestri, president of Media General Community Newspapers

“We are often struck by the force and precision of style to which hard-working men, unpracticed in writing, easily attain when required to make the effort. As if plainness and vigor and sincerity, the ornaments of style, were better learned on the farm and in the workshop than in the schools. The sentences written by such rude hands are nervous and tough, like hardened thongs, the sinews of the deer or the roots of the pine.”
— Henry David Thoreau, American author

“Readers will have to whip out the GPS to find their way out of that sentence.”
— Rob Vance, Regional Sales Director, North America West, General Dynamics SATCOM Technologies

“The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement.”
— Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace
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