Besetting Sentences

In St. Jago, der Hauptstadt des Königreichs Chili, stand gerade in dem Augenblicke der großen Erderschütterung vom Jahre 1647, bei welcher viele tausend Menschen ihren Untergang fanden, ein junger, auf ein Verbrechen angeklagter Spanier, namens Jeronimo Rugera, an einem Pfeiler des Gefängnisses, in welches man ihn eingesperrt hatte, und wollte sich erhenken.

Clear as mud? Allow me to provide a first-draft translation, the kind of thing you hack out before normalizing the word order and all:

In St. Jago, the capital of the Kingdom of Chili, stood just at the moment of the great earthquake of 1647, in which many thousands of people their downfall found, a young, of a crime accused Spaniard, on a pillar of the prison, in which one him locked-up had, and wanted to hang himself. 

Yeah, any serious translator would do major surgery on that version to make it more like actual English, but I want to convey the experience of hacking through Kleist’s prose with machete and dictionary. See, I still have the mental scars from being plunged directly from high school level German into a university literature course where the first assignment  opened with that sentence and continued with more in the same vein. For most of that semester I groused to anybody who would listen that Kleist’s sentences were so long, I’d forgotten how they started by the time I’d looked up all the unfamiliar words they contained.

I think maybe I should put that nightmarish opening sentence on a sticky note attached to the laptop screen, as an Awful Warning. You see, I’ve just finished re-reading the 90% of Tangled Magic that I’d finished before falling off a cliff and into the Slough of Despond, and it was a bit of a surprise. The book reads better than I’d thought when I was depressed, but it wasn’t nearly as clean a draft as I’d thought. Unlike Blake and the rest of you who chimed in on the post immediately preceding this, I am kind of a boring, one-book-at-a-time writer.So it was a new experience for me to read through a first draft that I hadn’t looked at in many weeks. Since I normally edit each day’s work for readability and consistency each evening, I hadn’t expected to find much that needed fixing on this run-through.


One of my besetting sins as a writer is a tendency towards excessively long sentences; they may be technically syntactically correct, but they do stretch on and on in the style of Heinrich von Kleist until the entire sentence could serve as a stress test of short term memory for the unfortunate reader (if, indeed, the reader had not walled the book halfway through one of those stream-of-consciousness sentences).

Yep. Like that one.

If the manuscript were paper, it would have been littered with sticky notes marking all the places where I needed to convert one sentence into two. Or three. Or maybe four. I really had thought I’d cleaned up all of those during earlier edits! Now I’m wondering if I should make a habit of putting each completed first draft aside for two months before the final edit. Just wondering. I probably won’t, because that could so easily turn into an infinite loop: leave manuscript to rest for two months, re-read and mark things to fix, fix them, leave edited manuscript to rest for two months…

Still. I’d have to run out of extended sentences at some point. Wouldn’t I?

Maybe I should try disabling the semicolon key.




  1. I’m a German writing fiction in English and I love the semicolon key. For a time, I tried to fight it, but I’ve come to think that this is a part of my personal style which flows better if I keep those long-ish sentences.

    At least I’ve never tried to compete with Thomas Mann for sentence length. In either language. 😀

    1. Other than Bulwer-Lytton, I don’t think any English speaker has a prayer of competing with Thomas Mann in that category. (I read _Der Schimmelreiter_ and then _Buddenbrooks_ back to back. Oof – style shock!)

      1. I can see that. 😀 Though I love both.

        Compared to some of Mann’s other work, _Die Buddenbrooks_ are rather harmless. Try _Der Zauberberg_ if you want sentences meandering over an entire page.

        1. Oh, I would’ve died if we’d had to read Thomas Mann at that time. Fortunately I didn’t encounter him until the subsequent year, when my vocabulary was much improved.

          And I think you’re right that Zauberberg has more lethal sentences than Buddenbrooks, but Buddenbrooks is so dull that the sentences seem longer! I actually kind of liked Zauberberg.

      2. I don’t know Mann, but in the preface to The Scarlet Letter there is a sentence which is three PAGES long (in very small type)… and still grammatically correct. I know this because as a bored 7th grader, I took a notion to diagram it.

        Sentence diagramming; now there’s a lost art…

        1. Ah, a kindred spirit. Seventh grade was the year when I diagrammed the first sentence of Lancelot and Elaine for a homework assignment – you know, “Elaine the fair, Elaine the loveable, Elaine the lily maid of Astolat who had an amazing number of thoughts about Lancelot’s shield before she ran out of breath…”
          I did it on yellow legal pad sheets turned sideways and taped it along the length of the hall.

      3. Hmmm, what about James Joyce, especially in Ulysses? (Then again, I’m open to claims to Ulysses isn’t written in English….)

    1. The moment the great earthquake of 1647 struck St. Jago, the capital of the kingdom of Chili, causing the downfall of thousands of people, Jeronimo Rugera, a young Spaniard accused of a crime, stood at a pillar of the prison where he was kept and wanted to hang himself.

      (Not perfect and still one sentence, but hopefully with better syntax. It _does_ work best as single sentence, though one might consider shortening ‘the prison where he was kept’ to ‘his prison’ and ‘accused of a crime’ to Spaniard and accused criminal’ – albeit the latter slightly changes the meaning.)

        1. Thank you! In all of these versions, it was the “Chili” part that threw me. *Chile* makes so much more sense.

      1. If I might suggest:

        At the moment that the great earthquake of 1647 struck Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, causing the downfall of thousands of people, a young Spaniard, accused of a crime, stood at a pillar of the prison where he was kept and wanted to hang himself. His name was Jeronimo Rugera.

        I kind of like pulling his name out into a separate sentence, just to emphasize it. Otherwise it gets lost in the crowd.

  2. You’re right, it doesn’t work so well if you forcibly break up the sentence. And I’m aware that I have the hell of a nerve threatening to rewrite Kleist. All the same, I think I would have felt that the title of the story already let the reader know that it was about a major natural disaster and was set in Chili, and maybe we didn’t really need “the capital of the kingdom of Chili, causing the downfall of thousands of people” right up front in the opening sentence. But that’s only my take after many years of surgically excising excess background material from first chapters, and modern readers are probably a lot more impatient than Kleist’s intended audience.

    1. 18th and 19th century prose was written for people with lots of time on their hands and not much else to do. (If they had a lot to do, they wouldn’t be spending hours reading novels!)

      When I’ve been reading a lot of German, my clauses, both adverbial and nominative, start getting clauses, all of which are most necessary to the meaning of the sentence, and my verbs to the end of the sentence move. And my alpha readers start asking me to write in English only, please. 😀

  3. Spanish writing uses semicolons as a matter of course. And begins sentences with conjunctions, along with many adjectival phrases packed on the end, thus ensuring that the reader gets all of the information in a go, as one should when one is deeply immersed in the story.

    I believe it was Garcia Marquez’s El general en su laberinto (The General in His Labyrinth) that had an entire page consisting of one sentence. I don’t know what the English translator did with that.

  4. I am all about the run-on sentences. Generally I just write them down. Then go back later. And cut them up into bite sized bits. Like I did with this one. ~:D

    1. You can overdo the “short declarative sentences thing, though. I’ve read some stuff that sounds like a “Dick and Jane” first-grade primer. It was a staple of many “how to be a writer” instructions for a long time.

      In spoken English, that kind of sentence structure tends to denote anger or condescension, which might not be the writer’s intent…

      1. To every thing, there is a season. And a time to every purpose under heaven.
        Terse sentences have value. They are a simple thought, sharpened, and rammed home. They are immediate. They are dramatic. They demand attention.
        But they do not invite the reader to invest themselves with a love of your dreamworld. The Hobbit is in the hole. But it is the wandering description of the hole where magic resides.
        Short sentences do not build suspense as the character hears soft, furtive sounds moving towards them down the dark corridor of blasted stone.

  5. We should start a support group. I love the semicolon, and my writing is tremendously prolix. I sometimes go back and chop sentences into bite-sized chunks, but also feel as if I am exorcising my “style.” Beta readers help.

  6. My recent favorite sentence was in an older (2013) decision by the Ohio Supreme Court (State v. Willan, 136 Ohio St.3d 222, 2013-Ohio-2405). Feel free to ignore the decision (unless you feel like it), but read the dissent starting on pg 7.

    1. That’s awesome. Forwarded to lawyers. It reminds me of a headline from yesterday: Larry Tesler, pioneer who invented ‘cut, copy and paste’ for computers, dies at 74. Larry Tesler, pioneer who invented ‘cut, copy and paste’ for computers, dies at 74. Larry Tesler, pioneer who invented ‘cut, copy and paste’ for computers, dies at 74.

  7. A bit late to the party, but I still remember this plot-synopsis-in-the-first-sentence from my high school Latin class. I loved reading the Latin verses out loud, but translation was often beyond me. 😉

    P. Vergilius Maro, “Aeneid”

    Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
    Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
    litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
    vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
    multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem,
    inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
    Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae.

    1 I sing of arms and a man, who first from the boundaries of Troy, exiled by fate, came to Italy and the Lavinian shores – he was tossed much both on land and on sea, by the power of the gods, on account of the mindful anger of savage Juno, he having suffered many (things) and also from war, until he could found a city, and was bringing in the gods to Latium, from whence [came] the race of Latins, and Alban fathers, and of the high city walls of Rome.

    (Translation from the website vergilregit dot blogspot dot com.)

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