Sunday, 21 June 2009

the elegance of long sentences

I've been listening to a series of lectures by Brooks Landon on how to compose long sentences rich in meaning and yet easy to understand, and I'm loving the lectures, with their analysis of language and the great examples included in each session.

I've always loved grammar, but tended to see it as the analysis of written words rather than a means of constructing beautiful sentences. Now I'm seeing it in a different light, as a tool for the writer. Which makes me think of a comment about Hegel's Science of Logic in a novel I'm reading (Freedom and Necessity, by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. One of the characters writes about Hegel,
And, still in the introduction, he talks about how dry and empty are the forms of grammar when studied by themselves, but how full of meaning they are to one who has studied languages.
I'm also reading a book by Virginia Tufte, Artful Sentences; Syntax as Style. To quote the blurb,
In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte presents-and comments on-more than a thousand excellent sentences chosen from the works of authors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The sentences come from an extensive search to identify some of the ways professional writers use the generous resources of the English language.

The book displays the sentences in fourteen chapters, each one organized around a syntactic concept-short sentences, noun phrases, verb phrases, appositives, parallelism, for example. It thus provides a systematic, comprehensive range of models for aspiring writers.
As an aspiring writer, I'm loving the book!

Here are a few of my attempts at long sentences. The first two are based on actual sentences quoted in Tufte's book and the third is my attempt to write a 500-word sentence. (As you will see, I couldn't do it!)

She tried to call the dog, at ease before the fire, his great serrated jaws looming like a cavern, his rough fur lying tufted and spiky along his spine, his enormous tongue and teeth in a gaping, panting yawn, and his sharp curved claws extended and stabbing into the rug.

By night-time, the dogs’ main exercise was undertaken restfully in the lounge-room, lying about on rugs or covering the distance to the couch, all vying with masterful Fido to drag themselves up by paws, claws and teeth like wolves conquering a mountain cliff, while the human woman, a grubby thickly-waisted little person, told them how to behave and yelled angry commands in a beer- soaked growl punctuated by occasional abrupt sneezing, as a result of which she was eventually taken to a hospital in the City.

Dreaming of the past, longing for a chance to make things right, to show Ronald, the man who now despised her, that she wasn’t as evil as he thought, Susan walked along the path in the sunshine, ignoring the songs of birds, the rustle of leaves and the chirping of sparrows; nevertheless, she noticed the mud underfoot, the dirty, stinking mud that coated her shoes and clung to the hems of her jeans, the very jeans she had worn when she betrayed Ronald, giving way to her temper (that temper having caused her enough trouble in the past that you'd think she'd have learned her lesson long ago) and set herself on the path to loss and suffering, not a path that she had taken consciously - she had lost the opportunity to choose when she drove her vehicle into the car park, saw Ronald with the woman, and jumped to such a hasty conclusion, one that she now regretted, and knew she might regret to her dying day.

These awful sentences make it rather obvious I've still got a lot to learn, but I'm having fun.


Hackpacker said...

Are long sentences an endangered species on the ever busy web? I think not given your excellent examples.
I wonder if as writers though we need to be concious of their use. I sometimes think it's like breakfast cereal where I sugar (short attention grabbing sentences) the fibre (long meaningful sentences) to keep my readers there. This can create a slightly disjointed meal though.

parlance said...

Hackkpacker, I think people might want short sentences at times , but I'm hopeful the long sentence still has a place.

That meal you described sounds delicious, if somewhat sweet and fibrous, with just a touch of brevity to make it stand out in the memory.
(Just having a try at a long sentence with phrases added on.)