I came across this lovely little essay today, by Odell Shepard, professor of English at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, and later, Lieutenant Governor of the State. It is taken from a book of essays, The Joys of Forgetting: A Book of Bagatalles (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1928), pp211-217.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
SOME people prefer the short sentence.
They think it sounds more honest than a long one.
Their ideal is a sentence blunt, direct, explosive.
A book appeared recently which contains nothing but short sentences. It was written by a famous American.
Reading this book is like jolting in a spring-less wagon over a corduroy road.
Some people like this kind of reading. It seems to wake them up.
Others do not like it at all. They would rather sleep than read that famous American. They think the short sentence too elementary. They say that it exaggerates, and also eliminates, too much.
They complain that it has no rhythm.
They prefer long sentences.
Whether it be that the prevailing practicality of the times in which we are now living has a tendency to make us somewhat impatient of and insensitive to those more delicate and more difficult graces of style which are attainable only when writers approach their work in the mood of cultivated leisure and when readers also, in their turn, are not only able but willing to take time for enjoyment, to linger with delight upon the deft turning of this phrase and that as a connoisseur of wines pauses to savour each and every sip of an ancient Sauterne, and to listen for that total harmony of style which is to be heard only when a clause is finally closed and its reverberations die away like the hum of some rich instrument, or whether it be that the prevailing and all but lethal influence of daily journalism has tended to abbreviate our periods and cut short our cadences so that he who commutes may read and the travelling salesman, though a fool, may not err therein, or whether, finally, the reading public of our time—immensely greater in size than any other reading public that authors have ever before been called upon to address, and therefore, as we may surmise, somewhat less intelligent as a whole than the public of less democratic days—is no longer capable of understanding those elaborate patterns of words in which many divisions and sub-divisions mutually depend upon a single primary statement and all are closely knit together in one grammatical nexus, certain it is in any case that we may look far and wide, long and patiently, with the eyes of Argus or with the presbyopic vision of a professional proofreader, in what passes for the literature of the last ten lustrums without encountering any single congregation of words brought together between capital letter and period that can stand for a moment in comparison with those intricate, enormous, sesquipedalian sentences that pour so voluminously down the pages of the younger Ruskin, gathering might and majesty and magniloquence as they flow, winding almost interminably on and downward with neither haste nor rest round many a comma, semi-colon, dash, and asterisk as though such a superfluous mark as a full stop had not yet been invented among the devices of punctuation, as though Time had been annulled and we were sitting down to read in some quiet ingle of Eternity, and as though the author had intended when he wrote them down that they should be read forth in the voice of Boanerges, son of thunder, or intoned by the lungs of Titans; for although those ample sentences of the leisurely old days give the reader some reason to expect, or at least to hope, now and then, that they are at last coming to an end, yet they never do quite come to an end, or almost never, but rather they delight in disappointing such premature expectations and in going on again with renewed vigour, just as Antxus of old was wont to double his strength whenever he touched with foot or hand or shoulder the reviving soil of his mother Earth, so that, having just grazed a full stop by the fraction of a hair as a skater does a hole in the ice, they move serenely on and out again past colons and semi-colons and dashes and asterisks and commas into a solemn grandeur of entirely unpunctuated print wherein the devoted reader loses for a season all notion of locality and all thought of time and merely floats in a blessed trance on and on from line to line with nothing whatever to guide him except the confident assurance that he is in the keeping of an excellent pilot who knows the channel and all its soundings by heart and who will bring him safely into port when he decides that the time has finally arrived for doing so but not a moment before that time arrives, he being a most leisurely and easy-going pilot who enjoys the river scenery far more than he, does the harbour that waits at the end of all, who loves to hear the knocking of little waves against the prow of his craft and the rustle of ,the wake behind, who takes a keen pleasure in the dip and sway of the deck beneath his tread and in all the subtle rhythms of a ship that answers to the swing of broken water, so that those who embark with him upon a sentence might almost be advised to bid farewell to their friends and to wind up all their affairs, seeing that for a long time they must entrust themselves unreservedly to his guidance if they are to have a prosperous voyage, never offering to snatch the tiller from his experienced hand or betraying the slightest desire to land at any of the numberless piers and wharves he passes calmly by, contenting themselves with admiration of the consummate skill he shows in his steering, content with the knowledge that however bewildered they may grow on the lower reaches and widespreading estuaries of a sentence that widens slowly towards the close in masterly rallentando, he, their pilot, is never bewildered at all because he has clearly foreseen the end of his sentence in its beginning, has looked quite through from capital letter to period, from Alpha to Omega, and is keeping his alert and expert eye steadily fixed not only upon the channel ahead but also upon the chart of that channel which he has prepared afresh for this particular voyage—a fact which any patient reader may readily deduce from the certainty with which he steers his way among the multitude of shoals and bars that obstruct the current as well as from the observation that however interminable the sentence may seem to him, the reader, and however numerous or even wearying may seem its detours and ramifications and serpentine meanders, yet the meaning of that sentence is at every moment pellucidly clear so that a grammarian could parse it and a child could paraphrase its thought in a few words, although the grammarian might possibly wish to break it up into a hundred or so of its component parts and the child might innocently wonder whether perhaps the printer whose ill-fortune it had been to set it up in print had not found at the last moment that his stock of periods was temporarily exhausted, the truth of the matter being, however, that the printer to whom that evil lot has fallen has still an adequate supply of periods in his font and that one of them will certainly be forthcoming when the younger Ruskin feels that the proper time for it has been reached, but until that time arrives—if we may now return to our metaphor—he, the pilot, must ask us to keep our metaphorical seats, to exercise a little patience, to remember how much more blessed it is to travel hopefully than to have arrived, to observe the excellent landscape through which we are passing all the time, and not to expect of an author that he do the work of a painter and a musician and an architect and a solo dancer all at once, as he, the younger Ruskin, is cheerfully prepared to do under the proper conditions, unless we are willing to give him a certain elbow-room, reposing in him meanwhile an unquestioning faith that the same man who has dared to lead us out upon this Odyssey of words will know how to get us home again and will bring us in due season, after wide and various wanderings, after showing us the wonders of the sky and earth and sea, after delighting our ears with volumed harmonies and blessing our eyes with deep expanses, will bring us, I say, at last—oh, at long last !—somewhat surprised and perhaps a little breathless, not hastily or abruptly, to be sure, but by gradual and easy approaches, like those of a yachtsman who prides himself as much upon his skill in landing as he does upon his sailorship on the open sea, to the end, the goal, the conclusion of his sentence, that is to say, to the full stop—in short, to the period.
Some people prefer short sentences.
Others prefer long ones.
On the whole, I prefer them neither very short nor very long.
Incidentally, the essay collection as one of the books August Courtauld had with him in his ice cap station, and he listed it as one of the books worth reading in his New Year Resolutions for 1931. Deliciously, given the title of the volume, he misremembered it as “The Art of Forgetting.”