Category Archives: faulkner

Ode to Sentences

Why are we so averse to long sentences? Is there some inherent property rendering them anathema to our natural mode of communication? There is certainly no grammatical rule excluding their use. In fact, some of the most gorgeous sentences in all of English prose are those which might be labeled run-on! Consider the following lead sentence from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!:

“From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.”

Or the following from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake:

(To say nothing of course of the ends of either Wake or Ulysses, which descend into language completely lacking in punctuation.)

“His husband, poor old A’Hara (Okaroff?) crestfallen by things and down at heels at the time, they squeak, accepted the (Zassnoch!) ardree’s shilling at the conclusion of the Crimean war and, having flown his wild geese, alohned in crowds to warnder on like Shuley Luney, enlisted in Tyrone’s horse, the Irish whites, and soldiered a bit with Wolsey under the assumed name of Blanco Fusilovna Bucklovitch (spurious) after which the cawer and marble halls of Pump Court Columbarium, the home of the old seakings, looked upon each other and queth their haven ever more for it transpires that on the other side of the water it came about that on the field of Vasileff’s Cornix inauspiciously with his unit he perished, suying, this papal leafless to old chap give, rawl chawclates for mouther-in-louth.”

The former is perhaps a bit more intelligible at first blush than the latter, but both prove a point. Long sentences allow for a different kind of expressive hue.

Beyond their aesthetic appeal, the existence of (semi) meaningful long sentences serves another purpose: they speak to one goal of Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar.

In brief, linguistics prior to Chomsky was a taxonomic science, sure in the descriptive quality of its program to catalog the “corpus” of a language: all the phonemes (sounds) and morphemes (combinations of sounds). Amongst several issues Chomsky raised with this system was the fact that there are an infinite number of possible sentences, making any attempt to index them an impossible task, and generally pointing to the inadequacy of such a strategy. Beyond this, however, Chomsky was interested in exposing some sort of mentally internalized grammar, some system at work in each of us when we compose sentences.

The standard example cited to demonstrate that there are unending possibilities for sentence construction is an example of some iterative procedure such as: “The man whose house had a roof that sagged at the point where the ladder had fallen when the repairman lost his balance while looking at the woman who was passing because…” In my opinion, these examples don’t really go far towards characterizing such a lumenous system for building sentences because we do not use anything like them in speaking or writing. Though we are clearly capable of deducing the meaning of the instance cited above, the fact that we don’t employ them also speaks to the nature of whatever subconscious lingual machinery we’ve got.

I suppose I’ve not clarified the question of sentential length, but what I have tried to do is point to the fact that sentence length is somehow reflective of the possible modes of expression that one can achieve as defined by our personal grammars. Perhaps we will find that as we evolve, the need for ever more subtle communications will lead to long dense sentences like those above. Another possibility is that such objects will remain in their traditional home of stylized prose. In any case, none of us should be afraid of the dreaded run on.