A writer friend recently tweeted that she had gone crazy and written a sentence with twelve commas in it. And she knows how to use commas correctly…
Last night, I was editing a research paper in which the majority of the sentences were at least five lines long, and it got to the point where I didn’t know what he was trying to say because there were simply too many ideas jumbled together…
Now, I know there are different writing styles. Nathaniel Hawthorne or Jonathan Swift could go on for paragraphs without taking a breath, whereas Ernest Hemingway often wrote in staccato phrases, barely long enough to find a noun and a verb.
As I’ve said before, language is a means to communicate an idea, and if the language is convoluted or misused, the idea will never come across.
A random, general rule of thumb that I’m making up as I type is that, if a sentence requires more than punctuation marks than you can count on one hand, it’s probably time to start a new sentence. Yeah. I think I’ll stick by that.
What are the culprits? What things make our sentences spill too far and too long?
Here are just a few of the pitfalls I see most often when I’m editing. The examples I include may or may not be grammatically sound, but they are samples of sentences that really contain too much information for one comfortable breath.
It’s easy to become addicted to semicolons and commas, but really, the former is very formal, and the latter is not a substitute for a period.
Example: Louisa was not an idiot, she was a creative genius, and she didn’t need anyone telling her how to write better; she knew perfectly well, despite what all of her teachers told her, that the longer her sentences were, the smarter she was, and therefore the more she should be admired by all the plebes who could barely spell in textese, like her brother or her Uncle Joe, who was an actual, certifiable idiot. (11 punctuation marks)
In an effort to show simultaneous action, some writers try to string together five minutes’ worth of visuals in one sentence. These are great “sometimes” words (like candy and fries are “sometimes foods”), but used on every line, they create too much movement. Readers may well trip.
Example: Louisa began every morning in the same way: as her mother prepared breakfast downstairs while watching the morning show, she would take her shower while she thought about what she wanted to write, and, as she dried off, she would scribble notes in the steamy mirror, while her mother told her to hurry up and eat her oatmeal. (7 punctuation marks)
Those are the -ing words. These most often show up in modifying clauses, and often begin to dangle in confusing directions.
Example: Transferring her steamy scribbles to her notebook and rehearsing aloud how she wanted to phrase everything, Louisa was dressing, without paying attention, and accidentally put on mismatched shoes, assuring that she’d be mocked again, walking the halls of her high school, hiding her face in shame. (7 punctuation marks)
Some lists are simple reads, but when each item on the list contains several words and its own punctuation, clarity can bog down because of all the commas required.
Example: Louisa groaned at all the things that made life among normal kids hard for her: they never looked you in the eye because they were busy texting each other or checking their Facebook statuses; they used stupid slang phrases, like “I know, right?” and “That was totally perpendicular!”, which annoyed her because she knew they didn’t actually know what the word meant; they knew more about the Kardashians and the latest Xbox games than they did about real people in history, like Lincoln, Luther, or Lindbergh; and, worst of all, they got good grades despite the fact that they wrote like teenagers instead of like 18th century English scholars. (15 punctuation marks)
These are obviously not the only offending sentence-extenders, and they are not always used fatally. However, until a writer has practiced the art of long-sentence coherence for years, it’s really best to opt for the coherence over the long-sentence. For the reader’s sake. Honestly, in a world of gnat-sized attention spans, no one is going to get really impressed by someone who strings a lot of words together without a period. Make each sentence be a bite worth chewing, good enough that the reader continues to the next mouthful.