The Red Pen: Sentences…the long and the short of it

I sentence you to better control of your syntax.


Perhaps you’ve seen this brilliant syntax exercise before from Gary Provost, sometimes called the “writer’s writer”:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

Today we’re going to look at 2 different sentence types and the effect they can have on your writing.

The Telegraphic Sentence

It doesn’t get much shorter than this. The telegraphic sentence, like a tweet (or a telegraph—hence the name), conveys everything it needs to say in a 5-word (or less) package.

Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick, by Herman Melville)

One of the most famous telegraphic sentences, Melville’s opening to his whale of a tale is memorable for its brevity. Not only does it subvert typical Victorian verbosity (have you seen how many words Dickens can throw into a single sentence?), it gives an air of mystery to his speaker. Why “Call me Ishmael” instead of “My name is Ishmael”? What’s unsaid is just as important as what’s said here.

Telegraphic sentences can withhold, as Melville does, or they can pack a sucker punch of sarcasm, like this gem from Tobias Wolff’s “Civilian”:

Microphone feedback kept blaring out of the speaker’s words, but I got the outline. Withdrawal of our troops from Vietnam.  Recognition of Cuba.  Immediate commutation of student loans.  Until all these demands were met, the speaker said he considered himself in a state of unconditional war with the United States government.

I laughed out loud.

The throwaway disregard of the fragments (“Recognition of Cuba”) and the “beat” before the final four words create a tone of undeniable derision…without coming out and SAYING it. Show, don’t tell—that maxim applies to syntax, too.


Ready to go long? Polysyndeton is a literary trick that can do that for you. Polysyndeton occurs when a writer strings together a long sequence of coordinating conjunctions** for artistic effect. Be careful not to use it too often—as you can read, it’s a mouthful:

I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said ‘I don’t know who killed him, but he’s dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water. (“After the Storm,” by Ernest Hemingway)

Here’s another one, this time from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It’s impossible to not get caught up in the frenzy that is the Jazz Age when reading syntax that moves like this:

The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.

It’s as though the sentence itself can’t be bothered to stop—just like Jay Gatsby, moving from party to party at breakneck pace towards that matchless green light at the end of the dock.

The bottom line

Vary your sentence structure. Think about not only what you write, but how you write it. The right sentences can create an effective cadence—one that will showcase your point, not bury it.

**coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so (Remember the acronym FANBOYS from 3rd grade?)



Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and junior college level.


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