The ideology of short sentences, part 1

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Karla Adam and William Booth, "What next for Boris Johnson? Books, columns, speeches, comeback?", WaPo 7/9/2022:

Many assume Johnson will eventually return to his former profession of journalism. Writing a weekly note for the Daily Telegraph was lucrative, \$330,000 a year, which fellow hacks calculated to garner him over \$2,750 an hour. […]

He also owes a publisher a biography on William Shakespeare, which he has not completed. He did finish a biography of his idol, Winston Churchill, which some critics panned as a worthless retread, lacking in insight, scholarship or new material, but which the reviewer in the Financial Times called “crisp, punchy, full of the kind of wham-bam short sentences that keep the reader moving down the page.”

In fact that quote is Johnson's description of Churchill's prose style, from the cited biography, The Churchill Factor (2014). True, the Financial Times review of that biography does apply it to BoJo's style as well:

The comments of academic historians are dismissed as “snooty”, and critics such as Evelyn Waugh are “a teensy bit jealous”, just because Churchill was “a funky Gibbon”. Instead, like its characterisation of some of Churchill’s own writings, this book is “crisp, punchy, full of the kind of wham-bam short sentences that keep the reader moving down the page”.

But my topic isn't journalistic quotation practices. Neither is it Boris Johnson's past, present, and future actions and words. Rather, I'm interested in the origins and progress of the idea that short sentences are a Good Thing.

As discussed in many earlier LLOG posts, sentences in English-language publications have been getting generally shorter for at least 400 years:

This observation side-steps several issues, including the question of how text should be divided up into "sentences", and the difference between embedding and concatenation as sources of sentence length — "hypotaxis" vs. "parataxis" in the classical terminology. (See my slides from SHEL12 for further discussion…)

But the short-sentence ideology also ignores these questions. So let's also pretend that we know what sentences are, and that there's just one relevant dimension of length, and go on with a bit more context from Boris Johnson's The Churchill Factor:

Why did Evelyn Waugh sneer at Churchill’s writings? Notice that he — Waugh — had actually tried to emulate Churchill in the 1930s, and got himself sent out to cover a war in Abyssinia. He produced Scoop , of course, one of the great stylistic landmarks of the twentieth century. But his reporting had nothing like the same journalistic impact as Churchill’s.

Is it that Waugh was a teensy bit jealous? I think so; and the reason was not just that Churchill had become so much more famous than Waugh had been, by the time he was twenty-five, but that he had made such stupendous sums from writing. And that, for most journalists, alas, is the truly sensitive point of comparison.

By 1900 he had not only written five books — some of which had been best-sellers — but he had become just about the highest-paid journalist in Britain. For his Boer War coverage he was paid £250 per month — the equivalent of £10,000 a month today. He was commissioned to write the life of his father in 1903, and given a staggering payment of £8,000. To give you the scale of those riches, consider that there were then only a million people in the country who had the privilege of paying income tax, and that was because they earned £160 per year.

These publishers didn’t pay him this kind of money because they liked his blue eyes. They paid him handsomely because he was popular with the public, and helped boost circulation, and the reason he was popular was that he wrote so well, with a rich and rollicking readability. He was a superb reporter. Try this account from the Morning Post of April 1900.

[602 words from Chapter V of Churchill's 1900 book Ian Hamilton's March]

This isn’t Gibbon. This isn’t sham-Augustanism. It is more like something from the pages of Victorian adventure novelist H. Rider Haggard: crisp, punchy, full of the kind of wham-bam short sentences that keep the reader moving down the page. Churchill could do action reporting better than many of the greatest modern exponents — and he had the inestimable advantage of being able to use the first person.

The short-sentence ideology seems to have roots in the early 20th century, with the aesthetic movement(s) documented in Adolf Loos's 1910 essay Ornament und Verbrechen (French Ornement et Crime, English Ornament and Crime), and exemplified in William Strunk's 1918 pamphlet The Elements of Style.

By the middle of the 20th century, Rudolf Flesch (The Art of Plain Talk, 1946) added a moral and political dimension: the idea that "democracy could be defined as government by plain talk". As his American National Biography entry put it,

Flesch offered what he thought to be a scientific method for achieving a plain, understandable prose. He advocated an unadorned style, with shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, fewer prefixes and suffixes, and greater use of colloquial American English. He equated such plain talk with progressive politics, especially with the New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But as of 1900, sentences in published English text had been getting shorter on average for at least 300 years. So we can't attribute the (first few hundred years of the) trend to modernist aesthetics, or populist politics. How and why did it happen?

I'll offer some observations and speculations in later posts.



  1. Y said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 12:31 pm

    I'm not quite convinced from the graph (and previous graphs) that the trend started "at least 300 years" ago. Up to about 1800 it's hard to discern any downward trend. Can you get some objective statistical estimate for when that trend started?

  2. DF said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 2:37 pm

    Not sure what the consensus is on it, but there’s some kind of notion that’s been around for a while that trade languages / languages with large numbers of speakers become grammatically less complex and geographically isolated languages / languages with small numbers of speakers become more grammatically complex. Could we be seeing sentence length shortening as another aspect of this phenomenon? Global use of english has certainly changed in the past three hundred years. Also, the domain of journalism seems especially apt, since the goal is to “circulate” and reach as large and broad an audience as possible including readers with possibly low levels of fluency and/or literacy. Are there any historical estimates that would allow for a plot of “sentence length” vs “# speakers of language”? Could this be plotted for any other languages?

  3. David Marjanović said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 2:42 pm

    For better and (!) worse, the idea that sentences should be short is more or less an English phenomenon; it hasn't made it to German (or, it seems to me, French or Russian among others). I'm sure the sentences in German novels, memoirs, essays and speeches are on average shorter today than in 1900 (or 1800 or 1700), but short sentences are not something advocated by style guides the way it happens in English. One style guide (well, the only one I've read) even pointed this out explicitly and said the ideal German sentence was not just a subject, a verb and an object, but one main clause and one dependent clause.

  4. Bloix said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 2:57 pm

    The Gettysburg Address is 272 words long and contains 10 sentences. The last of these, which is by far the longest in the Address at 80 words, has four double dashes. These set off phrases that operate more like sentences than clauses when the Address is heard. Without doing more checking, I would guess that Lincoln's sentences were usually shorter and simpler than those than the typical orator of his day.

  5. JPL said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 4:40 pm

    I would expect that for journalists and purveyors of pulp fiction, and anybody who aims to make money off their sentences, there would be tremendous and relentless pressure on sentences to get shorter and simpler in structure, but for practitioners of the art of the sentence, non-popular novelists, poets, academics in non-hard-science fields, like philosophy and history, such as, e.g., the philosopher George Dawes Hicks, artistes who are primarily interested, not in making money off their sentences, but in exploring the resources the language has for unifying complex thoughts, the open-ended possibilities for internal differentiation of the sentence would provide a promising medium for creativity. So, I would also be interested in the long term trends in the art of the sentence, as opposed to popular usage, and what sorts of innovations have been introduced, and when (and by whom).

  6. AntC said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 6:25 pm

    the resources the language has for unifying complex thoughts,

    What about short sentences prevents them unifying complex thoughts? Just start a sentence with a conjunction to link the thought. Or with a prepositional phrase, for internal differentiation.

    I've read a lot of Philosophy. Long sentences aren't essential: take Wittgenstein's Tractatus; or the Investigations. Daniel Dennett seems perfectly capable of concise sentences.

    The contemporary 'stylist' (if that's the word) who seems to me least capable of a short sentence, because he has to qualify everything that comes close to making a testable assertion, such that whatever claim he might be making has evaporated into prevarications and cloaking in side-conditions, is Chomsky.

    Writing short sentences is hard work. Much harder than letting a sentence dribble on as you struggle to complete a thought. What is @JPL trying to impute with that "make money"? A journalist's job is to communicate. It's hard work. The art that conceals art. The most consummate at that art — for example James Cameron or Alistair Cook — seem to disappear behind the ideas they've presented. I'm unconvinced Chomsky is trying to communicate. Indeed, I believe he's on record as saying the primary purpose of language — as human artefact — is not about communicating.

    One other desideratum for journalism that BoJo seems to have conveniently forgotten (as with so many of his responsibilities) is to not make stuff up. He had to enter Politics because he got sacked from so many journalism posts. So curious to say "his former profession of journalism". There was nothing professional about his journalism.

  7. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 7:02 pm

    Is there any correlation between sentence length and the percentage of individuals in a country who are literate in a particular language?

    Regarding English sentence lengths, I would be interested in examining educational trends in reading and writing in addition to literacy rates. It is my opinion that using limited vocabulary lists and assigned “reading levels” for books for elementary students has probably helped reduce the range of vocabulary introduced to those young readers and writers — and likely affected sentence length in those books and textbooks, since the “reading level” calculations I am familiar with are set up to equate longer sentences with more challenging reading levels. It may be that education trends favoring shorter sentences bias learners toward a lifetime preference for shorter sentences. The decline of instruction in some subjects (notably, geography and social studies in the U.S.) has also decreased student exposure to topics that broaden vocabulary development — which makes me wonder if there is any relationship between the size of a working vocabulary and the sentence length of that person’s writing. If so, Churchill might be ab exception to that rule — or perhaps vocabulary size is.not a relevant variable.

    Are academic papers part of a shorter-sentence trend?

  8. JPL said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 7:55 pm

    "make money"

    That was mainly in response to the section of the BoJo excerpt beginning with, "… but that he had made such stupendous sums from writing. And that, for most journalists, alas, is the truly sensitive point of comparison." and down to, "They paid him handsomely because he was popular with the public, and helped boost circulation, and the reason ….".

    I have nothing against short sentences. The contrast I made was with regard to different reasons for writing. Some authors are perhaps more interested, and perhaps under the surface, with exploring the possibilities of expression, at the expense of worrying about whether what they express will be easily understood by a popular audience. The Tractatus is beautiful; but (e.g.) Michael Dummett's difficult prose I find is quite clear and interesting. What I want to celebrate as a remarkable human phenomenon is the sentence, and behind it the proposition.

  9. Chester Draws said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 8:33 pm

    Given that short sentences are a lot easier to read, the push to shorten them over time would seem inevitable.

    The counter-direction requires people to be deliberately difficult. Reading Henry James will always be a minority past time though. There's lots of academic writing about Joyce's Ulysses, but precious people ever finish it.

    @ David Marjanović. I have translated a bit of French writing from around 1920, including journalism. It is a nightmare to extract the multiple embedded clauses into modern English. I don't think modern French is anywhere near as awkward.

  10. Julian said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 11:09 pm

    Are we talking about grammatical sentences – a structure with a subject and predicate etc – or punctuational sentences – a string that ends with a full stop?
    How many sentences are there in these examples:
    1. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
    2. Read. My. Lips.

  11. Kaleberg said,

    July 10, 2022 @ 11:36 pm

    I know something like this happened around the early 20th century in Italy. Luigi Barzini the father, was noted for redoing Italian journalism. He moved from a rather ponderous 19th century style to a more fluid, more colloquial 20th century style. I believe he drove along the tracks of the Trans-Siberian railroad and produced a popular account of it.

    Another factor is the rise of general literacy, especially of journalism. When you only sell newspapers to a small fraction of the population, you don't need the same accessible style as when just about everyone is reading newspapers (or pulp fiction for that matter).

  12. cliff arroyo said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 5:36 am

    "What about short sentences prevents them unifying complex thoughts? "

    In theory nothing, in practice… very often clause boundaries are not very clear in English and a general lack of endings means many words are ambiguous, even in context. The result is that the longer a sentence continues in English the greater the chances for misinterpretation (or incomprehensibility).

    In more highly inflected languages that maintain clear boundaries between clauses (like Polish from which I translate at times) a sentence can go on for half a page or so and still be understandable. I often end up breaking up a single sentence in the source text into two or more sentences in the translation to maintain clarity.

  13. cliff arroyo said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 5:47 am

    " more or less an English phenomenon"

    I think it's also a thing in Scandinavia (at least the plain language movement is a thing there).

    Culturally (entering dangerous waters…) in Europe there seems to be a rough correlation between lower levels of uncertainty avoidance and respect for plain language while countries with higher levels of uncertainty avoidance are more likely to value intricate and elaborate language. The idea seems to be that writing that's easily understandable must not be very serious – that is important topics require important sounding (elaborate) language.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 10:27 am

    Are academic papers part of a shorter-sentence trend?

    I bet; less of course than journalism, but academic writing aimed for a literary style 150 years ago (indeed the historian Theodor Mommsen got a Nobel prize in literature for his history of Rome, in German) and has stopped doing that.

    This is actually starker in German than in English. German scientific writing up to at least WWI employed a huge vocabulary, exploited the farther reaches of grammar and was peppered with archaisms.

  15. mike said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 7:00 pm

    There's some research, not sure how rigorous, that the shorter the sentence, the better a reader's comprehension:

    I work in technical communications, and we understand that readers are not reading-reading the texts; they're skimming it, looking for the solution to whatever problem made them turn to the documentation in the first place. When they find information that seems appropriate, they want to extract the details as quickly and efficiently as possible. From that POV, long sentences are an anti-pattern. (We understand quite clearly that people are not reading this material for enjoyment, so literary merits are mostly irrelevant.)

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to more on this topic here on LL.

  16. Andreas Johansson said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 4:17 pm

    Proponents of short sentences nevertheless don't write, when addressing adults, in picture book style minimal sentences, so they concede in practice there's if not a happy medium then at least a Scylla to match Charybdis.

  17. Dave said,

    July 19, 2022 @ 7:24 pm

    1920 was 100 years ago. Short was rebellion. Now it's twee.

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