Great Courses, Great Sentences 05 of 24

Notes on Lesson 5 from Great Sentences by Professor Brooks Landon from The Great Courses:

Long sentences are usually discouraged, but the problem with long sentences is usually not whether they are long, but how they are constructed.

Sentences that are longer than a thousand words almost certainly lack punctuation. In the instance where a sentence is a thousand words long and is properly punctuated, then it most likely is no longer a sentence but has become something we don’t really have a name for.

There’s a frequently-quoted guideline that a sentence should not be longer than 40 words, but that seems arbitrary and there are lots of effective sentences that are longer than 40 words.

The biggest problem with long sentences is they often use conjunctive phrases and bound modifiers. It makes for sentences that do not give a sense of moving and don’t have a clear sign of how the sentence is stepping through the information it is trying to convey.

In some cases, long sentences are already sunk because the “subject” is itself a multi-word jumble of bound modifiers and clusters of nouns.

To fix a long sentence and make it readable, or even a joy to read, start out with a pretty simple kernel sentence then add free modifiers to give more information about what is happening in the sentence.

For modifying phrases, look for ways to make them shorter and still convey information without adding the extra weights of that, who, whom or which to both the sentence’s structure and the reader’s attention span.

If a long sentence is constructed well, it can convey a sense of motion even when the topic of the sentence does not itself contain any action.

My own further thoughts, not discussed in the lecture but based on my own experience:

  • People are generally interested in other people. Keeping them interested in objects is harder, and keeping them interested in abstract concepts is harder yet.
  • Even if it is a technical subject and the reader likes that subject, the sentence will still hold their attention more if somehow the presence of another person is there in the sentence.
  • And even better yet is if the person in the sentence is themselves experiencing something definite, such as a definite emotion or a definite change from the past or experience with a definite thing.
  • “I was surprised” or “The researcher diligently searched” or “Machinists using this tool see it is an improvement” are all better than “The thing did the thing” or “The researcher found” or “The new item improves performance of the machine where it is installed”.


Questions to consider:

1. How many free modifiers can you find in this sentence?

The room was fragrant with the smell of punch, a tumbler of which grateful compound stood upon a small round table, convenient to the hand of Mr. Mould; so deftly mixed that as his eye looked down into the cool transparent drink, another eye, peering brightly from the behind the crisp lemon-peel, looked up at him, and twinkled like a star.

-Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit.

This exercise was a lot more difficult than I expected. Since free modifiers can go in different places in the sentence and still work, I came up with the following modifiers as being transportable free modifiers:

  • The room was fragrant
  • The tumbler was convenient to Mr. Mould’s hand
  • The punch was deftly mixed
  • The punch was cool
  • The punch was transparent

2. Find three bound modifiers in this sentence.

For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified

-William Wordsworth, “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads”

  • Our thoughts are the representatives of our past feelings.
  • The representatives are general, not specific.
  • The impulses are obeyed blindly and mechanically.

Again, took more thought and close attention than I expected.


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