Social Question

6rant6's avatar

What English language author uses the longest sentences?

Asked by 6rant6 (13649 points ) April 12th, 2012

I’m trying to find something to compare writing to.

I belong to a writing group; sometimes submissions are intentionally florid. I don’t think these authors realize how their work compares to real, published, famous prose. So I want to find an English language author with long sentences. Preferably, it will be fiction. Then I can say, your sentences are as long as so-and-so’s__and they need to be as good.__

As a jumping off point, I can take David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural religion and run them through an online readability machine and find that his average sentence length is about 28 words.

But certainly, there’s got to be a modern writer who can beat this. I’m not looking for the longest sentence, but a relentlessly abstruse writing style.

Whom would you nominate?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

42 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

Well, it’s not abstruse but the first sentence of Faulkner’s “Light in August” (wait one minute while I verify this) is the entire first section of the novel, I think.

And again, not entirely on point, at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly’ Soliloquy is only three official sentences.

I never got beyond the first page of “Finnigan’s Wake,” but I bet there are yards of gibberish in there.

Trillian's avatar

James Joyce was my first thought also. I keep trying but I just can’t.

digitalimpression's avatar

J.D. Salinger.

Bellatrix's avatar

Charles Dickens. Great Expectations extract supplied by Google Books. Some very long sentences here.

elbanditoroso's avatar

Does he/she have to be alive?

As someone else mentioned, Faulkner wrote dreadfully long sentences. Pick up a copy of The Bear and prepare to gag. (If you don’t fall asleep by the end of the paragraph)

bea2345's avatar

For abstruseness, I would have thought Henry James a hot contender.

Jeruba's avatar

Saul Bellow has some doozies in The Adventures of Augie March, but I don’t know if he’s in the top ranks. He wore me down, and I’m no slouch myself when it comes to protractedly vocabulous strings that will, when you have sorted through all the introductory phrases, subordinate clauses, phrasal modifiers, adjective clusters, auxiliary verbs, and asides (not to mention the parentheticals), turn out to parse correctly.

Sunny2's avatar

Faulkner. I picked up a book of his (The Village) without knowing who he was because I thought the story sounded interesting. I started reading it and my mind got distracted by the second page. I started over. Again the same thing happened. I scolded myself and said, “Go back to the first page and read until the first sentence ends.” That sentence was 3 pages long. I put the book back and the next summer took a course in the novel that included Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. After I learned how to read it, I went back and read all his books up to that one. I never went beyond that. My ADHD interfered too much with my ability to concentrate that hard.
But, I have to say, reading As I Lay Dying was something I’d never faced before. It was like bamboo blinds were kind of wafting over the images that the words produced. These blinds would reveal and then obscure mys vision. When the final image was revealed, it was stunning, partly because of what it took to read the book. I was exhausted and appalled at the story’s end.

janbb's avatar

My vote is for Joyce.

gailcalled's avatar

@janbb: yes I said yes.

janbb's avatar

I said Yes I will Yes!

Sunny2's avatar

The problem with Joyce is not just sentence length, but his use of other languages in the middle of English. I think I’d have to have a guide to read it. How far into it do you have to get to be able to read the “Yes, I said. Yes.” stuff and is it worth the journey??

gailcalled's avatar

@Sunny2: Funny you should ask. Those are almost the last words of Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

The complete phrase (a famous one and worth committing to memory) is “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

And a guide is very useful. Any honest reader of Joyce will admit to using any help he can get. When i read it the first time, it was pre-comuter and I used dictionaries, history texts, books about the Catholic mass, etc. Today with Google at your fingertips, doing the research is quick and easy.

Personally, I consider “Ulysses” the greatest novel of the twentieth century.

anartist's avatar

Joyce definitely wins. Faulkner and maybe Thomas Hardy are in there too.
Hemingway is most definitely a no-show.

gailcalled's avatar

edit: pre-computers

Seek's avatar

H. P. Fucking Lovecraft. He has paragraphs that go on for pages, and sentences that one almost needs a GPS to navigate.

gailcalled's avatar

@Seek Kolinahr: Does anyone actually read his books? Technically, according to the OP’s wording of the question, I guess so.

Seek's avatar

Ha ha. Well, I read his books.

You’re right, though. I’d wager about 90% of the people who claim to be fans of Lovecraft only know what they’ve heard in Metallica songs. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who think the Necronomicon is a real book, and not something Lovecraft simply made up for his mythos.

gailcalled's avatar

So, who’s Metallica? (j/k)

6rant6's avatar

@Jeruba I looked at Bellow’s Ravelstein at Amazon. The first few pages were disappointingly readable. I’m going to guess average sentence length of about 20, which is pretty mainstream. I imagine he has some exceptional sentences but I’m looking for a consistently oppressive writing style.

I’d still like to find a modern champion. Someone who didn’t die before I was born, say. That eliminates Dickens, Joyce and Lovecraft.

Guess I’ll take a look at Faulkner.

6rant6's avatar

From Bergson, Eliot & American Literature

The first chapter of Absalom, which is about 8,400 words long, has twenty-four sentences of 100 words or more. Four of them exceed 200 words. The average sentence length is 40 words long. Yet that is a little misleading. Almost a quarter of the sentences are 5 words or less. You can’t easily define a Faulkner sentence since most of the long ones are probably a series of shorter sentences connected my semicolons or commas that ought to be periods. At the same time, there are instances of four or five substantial sentence fragments in a row, fragments which would, if connected by commas, colons, dashes, or semicolons make grammatically complete sentences.

6rant6's avatar

Maybe I need to refine my quest. How about picking living authors in of the following genres who have the greatest words per sentence average:


Thanks for the help.

gailcalled's avatar

@6rant6 : So, is there any genre you haven’t covered?

How do you define “literary”?

I wonder whether any gas bag would actually be published today?

6rant6's avatar

@gailcalled My stab at it: “Literary” is somewhat of a remainder category. But I think it’s recognizable by the greater use of literary devices. More descriptive prose, less action. Chick literature that needs a college education to read.

janbb's avatar

I don’t know him personally but I believe Thomas Pynchon may write long sentences.

Jeruba's avatar

@6rant6, did you look at the title I mentioned? I have it still sitting on the coffee table, where it landed when I abandoned it, and will go look presently.

There are some fairly prodigious sentences in older English literature. I’ve just finished Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, and I recall some pretty impressive strings there.

gailcalled's avatar

@Jeruba: You read the Scott voluntarily?

6rant6's avatar

@Jeruba I can’t look on line. Am off to B&N shortly to check out Augie and this Doctorow guy.

6rant6's avatar

@Jeruba B&N had only some collected stories by Bellow (apparently books are giving way to puzzle magazines and exercise equipment). I flipped through a few. Sentences were not long, but they were challenging in other ways.

Jeruba's avatar

@gailcalled, yes, I did. My last prior Scott reading was Ivanhoe in ninth grade. My, what a dull plod that was. Recently I watched a BBC miniseries of Ivanhoe and thought, “How could we as kids not have loved all that action, intrigue, interlocking romantic triangles, humor, battle scenes, loyalty, betrayal, suspense, indomitable maidens, last-second rescues, and all the rest?” Well, of course you can kill anything by requiring chapter summaries and posing pop quizzes. So I concluded that our educations had given us an unjust view of Scott (exactly as they did of Hawthorne, Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, and other worthies).

So I got The Heart of Midlothian out of the library because when I was in Edinburgh I took a nice picture of the Heart of Midlothian set in the brickwork of the High Street where the old prison called by that name used to stand. It seemed as good a basis for choice as any.

And I really loved the book, all 562 small-print pages, long sentences, thick dialect, exhaustive descriptions, cardboard characters, obscure religious controversies, author intrusion, and all.

I was defeated by Augie March within just a few chapters. @6rant6, if you go to Amazon and look inside the Penguin paperback version, the same one I bought, you won’t have to go far before you meet some gasping examples. Look on page 3, middle, sentence beginning “The daughters-in-law”; or page 6, paragraph beginning “The rest of us.” These I just happened to find at a glance; there are far more impressive instances ahead.

But it wasn’t the long sentences per se that killed me. Rather, it was the heaped-up density of go-nowhere minutiae that seemed to obscure the faintest promise of a plot. It was sort of like looking out across a vast crowd and thinking, “My gosh, before I leave here I have to shake hands with all of them…”

So I sneaked out the back.

janbb's avatar

@Jeruba May I just say I love the way you write?

gailcalled's avatar

@Jeruba: I do remember Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine (as a languishing blond) in the 1952 movie.

Funny that you should include Eliot in your litany. We plodded through “Silas Marner” in 11th grade; I have probably recovered by now, but I still am haunted by “Eppie in de toal-hole!”

janbb's avatar

Eliot (George, not T.S.) is overrated in my book. Too verbose even by 19th century standards.

Jeruba's avatar

And I admire her knowledge of the human heart and her depiction of its tender hidden places. Silas Marner, which I reread just a few years ago, is deeply rich and compassionate, in my estimation. And it’s much shorter than it seemed in high school.

To be sure, she goes on a bit too much with her portrayals of country folk and their mores, conventions, and petty snobberies. There is rather a great deal of that, in dialect to boot, in The Mill on the Floss, which I read last year. Still, I enjoyed it. I loved Daniel Deronda too. I now have my late mother’s entire collection of Eliot works and intend to read all those I’ve missed.

But I don’t see her as a contender in the longest-sentence class.

6rant6's avatar

@Jeruba Yeah, I agree with your handshaking analogy. Where I picked it up, I kept thinking, “Well that’s an interesting turn of phrase. Wonder what it means?” over and over amid nothing much happening.

Jeruba's avatar

So, @6rant6, whom have you chosen as your exemplar of verbosity?

6rant6's avatar

@jeruba I think the futility of my question has become apparent. Because there are authors like Faulner and James who make sport of punctuation, the metrics don’t mean very much. Writers like Bellow seem to delight in making a read difficult due to the incidentals they pull in constantly.

At our meeting this weekend, I told the writer whose sentences average upwards of 25 words that such length carries a burden for the writer equal to what he imposes on the reader. They should be constructed painstakingly. And if a sentence gets to 40 words, it had damn well better be exquisite.

anartist's avatar

@gailcalled I read all of the Lovecraft books. A very long time ago. When I was in college. Some of them are set in Rhode Island, I think in the city where the Rhode Island School of Design is. If I had gone to RISD I would have explored the sites, but I went to Pratt.

janbb's avatar

@anartist It’s Providence: my son went to school there and there are Lovecroft walking tours.

anartist's avatar

@janbb and did he read Lovecraft?

janbb's avatar

I’m not really sure.

Answer this question




to answer.
Your answer will be saved while you login or join.

Have a question? Ask Fluther!

What do you know more about?
Knowledge Networking @ Fluther