Showing posts with label brevity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label brevity. Show all posts

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A remarkable instance of long-windedness: sprawling sentences

Essays often fall into two categories: the short and the long. While there is often a virtue in brevity there is more often a vice in prolixity. Writing should avoid repetition and restatement. On the whole, a concise but well thought out response will score higher marks than a sprawling and rambling composition.

More specifically, sentences which are too long, or too complex, often prove to be confusing. On the surface, these kinds of sentence may look impressive, but they often come in for critical censure. In his book, Composition and Punctuation familiarly explained, (1865), Justin Brenan discussed a classic example of the long-winded style of writing.


I Thought that I had exhausted this subject. Yes, I believed that I had furnished the most glaring examples, but here is one that eclipses them all, and I give it because you cannot have a better lesson. It is from the History of England (Cabinet Cyclopaedia), by Sir James Mackintosh, and I copy from a critique in the Monthly Review of August, 1830 :—

The king, with angry murmurs, turned aside, and Robert, whose spirit was awakened by this unbrotherly repulse, returned to the duchy to try his fortune, whither Henry pursued him, and after an obstinate conflict at Tinchebrai, on the 27th of September, 1106, in which Robert made the last display of his brilliant qualities as a commander and a soldier, he was completely routed, and sent prisoner to England; where his imprisonment appears first to have been mild, but having yielded to the impulse of nature in attempting to escape from prison, by the command of his unrelenting brother, his eyes were put out, and after passing near thirty years of blindness in several fortresses, he died in 1135, at Cardiff Castle, in Glamorganshire, at the age of eighty, when all the other chiefs who had shared the glory of rescuing Jerusalem had been laid low.

The Editor of the Review comments, in strong terms, on the numerous faults of this sentence, and thus concludes his strictures, "Finally we would ask whether 'all the other chiefs' had been laid low in the year 1135, or at the age of eighty, or both? We have seldom seen a worse piece of writing than this, in whatever way it be contemplated." It, is certainly a reproach to Sir James, for, supposing him in a hurry when writing, it is to be presumed that he corrected his own proof sheets, and then he had an opportunity of seeing this unwieldy sentence in all its deformity. Such an exhibition is calculated to injure even a respectable author like him, because it might prejudice the public against his .style, while it would probably ruin one who was struggling for fame. Now I shall offer no amendment. Study my directions for correcting long-windedness, and you can make this crude mass of confused relatives perfectly intelligible, and pleasing to read, by a proper distribution of the members, and a little exercise of judgment in connection. This, I say over again, is the best way to improve your own style.

(Justin Brenan, Composition and Punctuation familiarly explained, 1865, pp. 110-111)

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)