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The Sentence Sleuth: In Search of Lost Readers

Keep your readers with sentences that are the perfect length.

My dad has a memorable poster in his bathroom: a diagram of a ridiculously long sentence by Marcel Proust. It’s from his masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost Time), and it starts thus: “Their honor precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable … .” I’ve examined it numerous times over the last two decades, but I’ve yet to finish wading through all 958 words. At 150 words longer than this entire column, the sentence is just unreadable. Believe me, I’ve tried to stick with it until the end, but it’s impossible.

I have to applaud Proust for being able to keep everything straight in that sentence—because he sure used a lot of semicolons, commas, clauses and other tricks to lengthen it. I suppose French literary geniuses didn’t take advantage of copy editors back then. Well, I’m going to suck it up and be the first to trim that monstrous sentence: “Their honor precarious, their sentence too long.” Oh no! Now my honor is precarious. My crime has been discovered: Those seven words are an incomplete sentence, also known as a sentence fragment.

Hey, do you think Proust ever wrote one of those? Nah. Bet not.

All of this Proust talk is making me hungry for a madeleine, a small shell-shaped cake that starred in À la recherche du temps perdu. I think we should go “à la recherche du” (in search of) the perfect length for a sentence. The long and the short of it is this: If you stuff in too many things, you’ve got an overly long sentence; if you leave out a subject, verb and/or object, you’re stuck with a fragment.

Proust’s enormous sentence is an anomaly, but long sentences certainly haven’t disappeared. These days, plenty of meandering sentences roam through manuscripts. These behemoths suffer from too many “which,” “that” and “who” clauses; an overabundance of commas and semicolons; at least a few cases of “and” or “but”; and several sets of em dashes. When your readers try to wade through such a sentence, they become lost amidst clauses and commas, and they give up before the sentence is done.

Your readers are following a path you’ve laid out for them. Don’t try to be a turbo tour guide and make readers traipse along too many side streets. They’ll become exhausted and collapse. On the other hand, you don’t want to whisk readers along with too many incomplete sentences. They’ll feel as if they’ve missed something. Fragments call attention to themselves; if you overdo them, you’ll annoy your readers.

Your tour group doesn’t like feeling fatigued and frustrated, so you must morph into a better tour guide. Plan your excursion carefully and plot out a manageable route. Your trip’s core should consist mostly of medium-sized sentences. Budget for a few windy detours that point out fascinating facts, and make a couple quick stops in the sentence fragment department to keep participants alert. Whatever you do, don’t fall into a monotonous medium-sized rhythm that anesthetizes your tour group.

“Medium-sized” means minuscule by Proust’s standards. Most sentences should contain no more than 40 words. Your readers don’t have a very long attention span. Back in Proust’s day, e-mail and TV didn’t exist to distract the public, so I guess readers were a hardier bunch. They probably perambulated around town a bit more, too.

I hope you’ve resolved to tame your inner Proust. It’s actually quite easy to spot long sentences (and fragments). Even Microsoft Word’s grammar checker notices them and places a squiggly line under both kinds of imperfect sentences. The program isn’t very helpful, though; it says, “Long Sentence (no suggestions)” or “Fragment (no suggestions).”

Well, I have a couple of suggestions. First, if the grammar checker has filled your screen with squiggly lines, your sentences are too long. Pay attention to the computer. It won’t fix your long sentences but it will help you identify them. Second, if you read your sentence but can’t remember the beginning, the sentence is too long. Have a madeleine while you rest and refresh your memory. After your tummy is full, you can chop up your sentence into manageable bits.

The best way to cut down a super-long sentence is to figure out your main points. (You’ve probably crammed two or three main points into your long sentence.) Once you remember what they are, highlight each one with its own medium-sized sentence. Then deal with your leftover crumbs. Once you’ve allotted everything to its proper location on your tour, make sure everything fits together seamlessly. Then you can rest. Your feet are probably pretty tired.

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