November 01, 2003

What’s Wrong with Long Sentences? (2003, 17:06)

What’s Wrong with Long Sentences?

Probate and Property, November/December 2003, Volume 17, Number 6

By Howard Darmstadter
Howard Darmstadter is an assistant general counsel with Citigroup in New York City.
This article previously appeared in Business Law Today, May/June 2003 .

A few weeks ago, I began reading Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada to my younger son. A 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Armada is a riveting account of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, set against the background of the great-power diplomacy of the period. I first read it in my twenties, in a single sitting, and I’ve reread it several times since. My older boy read it with tremendous enjoyment in his early teens. I have occasionally wished that all of history could be so engagingly written.


But reading aloud is different from reading to one’s self, and within a few pages I found myself stumbling through great expanses of prose. Here’s a sample, describing the limitations Elizabeth Tudor had to contend with:

She never had any standing army except a handful of ornamental guards, or any police beyond what was furnished by her practically independent magistrates, and though in the years of her greatest danger her secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, built up for her protection what some historians have described with awe as “an omnipresent network of spies,” this impressive system of counterespionage in England dwindles on inspection to a few underpaid agents of varying ability whose efforts were supplemented by casual informers and correlated by a single clerk who also handled much of Walsingham’s ordinary correspondence, a system hardly larger or more efficient, except for the intelligence of its direction and the zeal of its volunteer aids, than that which every first-rate ambassador was expected to maintain for his own information, one which the governments of Florence or Venice would have smiled at as inadequate for the police of a single city.

That’s a single sentence, folks!

Is Mattingly overrated as a writer? Or is the advice we repeatedly hear to keep our sentences short mistaken? Before we rush to answer these questions, let’s take a closer look at the Mattingly monster.

The first 24 words (through “magistrates”) offer no barriers to comprehension—it’s a straightforward “she didn’t have this and she didn’t have that” construction.

The remaining 127 words begin with “and though.” The “and” tells you that more limitations will be discussed, the “though” that there will be at least two more statements, the second of which will undercut the first.

The first statement, immediately following the “and though,” is that “in the years of her greatest danger her secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, built up for her protection what some historians have described with awe as ‘an omnipresent network of spies’.” By qualifying historians with “some,” and by using the slightly overblown “awe” and “omnipresent,” Mattingly reinforces the “and though” to signal what’s coming: The spy network will turn out to be as inadequate as the army and the police.

This still leaves 95 words to negotiate before the oasis of a period, but at least you have a good idea what’s coming. And there’s more help: Mattingly begins the second statement with “this impressive system . . . dwindles on inspection,” followed immediately by “a system,” which tells you that there will be more information about this system, and concludes with “one [the system] which the governments of Florence or Venice...,” which adds a last fact about the system. (The referent of the “one” might leave you confused for a moment, but by then you are a mere 21 words from the finish.)

What makes this long journey possible, and even enjoyable, are the many signposts Mattingly scatters along the way. But just because it’s doable doesn’t mean it should be done. Would Mattingly have been better advised to break up the sentence? It would have been easy, for example, to place a period between “magistrates” and “though,” and another after “correspondence,” with the next sentence starting with “It was a system.” This would have replaced the example sentence with three sentences of 24, 70, and 58 words.

Prose style requires an appreciation of rhythm, and in particular the counterpoint of long and short sentences. Many writers (and readers) enjoy the interweaving of long sinuous sentences and short staccato bursts. For example, Mattingly’s supersized sentence is the third in a five-sentence paragraph. It is preceded by two substantial sentences of 64 and 30 words. Then comes our example sentence, undulating its languorous way forward, until it is stopped by the pop, pop of a two-sentence 26-word coda:

There was no way Elizabeth Tudor could govern the English by force. She ruled them by the arts by which a clever woman rules a lover.

The rhythm is: long, medium, super long, short, short.

Was Mattingly thinking of any of this as he wrote the paragraph? Good writers don’t follow recipes, for there are none: they feel the rhythms, and the words flow. Mattingly no doubt foresaw the effect and wrote the words to achieve it, just as Barry Bonds might foresee the home run’s arching trajectory even as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. Mattingly doesn’t have to understand the principles involved (which are little understood in any case) any more than Bonds has to understand Newton’s laws. The gap between conception and result isn’t bridged by textbook principles, but by talent.

What does all this have to do with legal writing? Well, experts on legal writing constantly urge you to shorten your sentences. And it’s good advice. Long sentences can be confusing. But the reason they’re confusing isn’t because they’re long, but because writers often forget to mark crucial turnings, or to take other steps to prevent the reader from wandering off the path. Consider:

Upon (i) any payment being required to be made by the obligor under the junior indebtedness upon any declaration of acceleration of the principal amount thereof or (ii) any payment or distribution of assets of the obligor of any kind or character, whether in cash, property or securities, to creditors upon any dissolution or winding up or total or partial liquidation or reorganization of the obligor, whether voluntary or involuntary or in bankruptcy, insolvency, receivership or other proceedings, all principal, premium, if any, and interest due or to become due upon all the superior indebtedness of the obligor shall first be paid in full, or payment thereof provided for in money, before any payment is made under junior indebtedness.

The sentence starts off promisingly with the word “upon,” which tells you that the sentence will have the form “upon a first event happening, a second event will happen.” The first event turns out to be a “(i) or (ii)” type of event, and the drafter has helpfully used romanettes to signal its disjunctive structure.

From this point, things go rapidly downhill. The drafter chose to break the complicated “(ii)” event—“payment or distribution of assets of the obligor . . . to creditors upon any dissolution or winding up or total or partial liquidation or reorganization of the obligor”—into two halves. He then enveloped each half in a dense swirl of qualifiers—“of any kind or character,” “whether in cash, property or securities,” “whether voluntary or involuntary or in bankruptcy, insolvency, receivership or other proceedings.” The result is that, rather than firmly pushing you in the right direction, the drafter has spun you around in a dizzy whirl to the point where you miss the crucial turning—the “all principal,” which begins the description of the second event. Finally, the drafter has separated the “all” from the verb “shall,” which definitively signals the longed-for second event, by 20 words.

One way to fix this sentence is by shortening it, most obviously by moving all the qualifiers to a separate sentence. As we saw with Mattingly’s long sentence, it is relatively easy to break up long sentences. And with this sentence, we need not worry that the drafter’s artistry will be seriously compromised.

But breaking up the sentence into smaller pieces isn’t the only way to aid the reader’s understanding. In my book (shameless plug ahead), Hereof, Thereof and Everywhereof: A Contrarian Guide to Legal Drafting, I explained how this sentence could be made more comprehensible without shortening it. So the moral is that comprehensibility is the end, and short sentences merely a means to that end—frequently the best means, but not always.