Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Now, this is a sentence

This weekend, my mother pressed on me a copy of Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages. I’m sure you all know Jackson as the author of The Lottery. That was one of the many classics I read, dutifully but far from enthusiastically, in school, and have sense forgotten completely, except for the central conceit of the story.

So, fine, I read Life Among the Savages. It’s kind of fun to read. Let me see. Looks like this book was first published in 1948. Seventy-one years ago. Wow. Well, as they say, the past is a foreign country. This little memoir is old enough to count as pretty foreign from modern experience.

But that isn’t the point of this post. The point is, I want to show you the first paragraph so that we can all pause in admiration of Jackson’s literary style. Here, take a look:

Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books. I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks. This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind; even though this is our way of life, and the only one we know, it is occasionally bewildering, and perhaps even inexplicable to the sort of person who does not have that swift, accurate conviction that he is going to step on a broken celluloid doll in the dark. I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and – as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I have had to make a good many compromises, all told.

That first sentence is eight words long. The second is fourteen. The third is fifty-two, but then there are all those items in the list, so it doesn’t read as though it’s extremely long. The fourth sentence is one hundred words long exactly, which causes me to entertain amusing thoughts about whether Jackson did that on purpose. The last sentence in the paragraph is seventy-two words long, so I gather that no, she just liked long sentences. Well, so do I, and artistic writing in general, not that I recall noticing artistry in The Lottery, as I was both much younger then and also distracted by the revolting situation described in the story.

Unlike The Lottery, I could hardly miss the artistry in the construction of this paragraph, beginning with the short, punchy sentence and then immediately slipping into these very long sentences, and ending with that entertaining non sequitur. In fact, I particularly like the last sentence, which certainly does set up expectations for the stories of family life that follow.

I also found myself thinking, Wow, people just can’t write like that anymore, which is probably both unfair and untrue, though when I read a book like this, I do see why my mother continually cycles back around to re-read old titles she’s had on her shelves for half a century and complains that she can’t find any modern mystery authors who can begin to match the old classics.

There were only sixty-nine words in the above sentence. Did it feel unusually long to anybody? I’d probably have broken it up into two sentences if I hadn’t been specifically playing with long sentences in this post.

Have you picked up anything lately in which the sentences as sentences immediately leaped out at you? When’s the last time that happened, if you can recall? Out of curiosity, was it for a book over fifty years old, or something more recent?

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14 Comments Now, this is a sentence

  1. Robert

    Lord Dunsany!

    This is the first couple of paragraphs of Idle Days on the Yann from A Dreamer’s Tales. It was published in 1910, so yeah, way older than fifty years.

    So I came down through the wood on the bank of Yann and found, as had been prophesied, the ship Bird of the River about to loose her cable.
    The captain sat cross-legged upon the white deck with his scimitar lying beside him in its jeweled scabbard, and the sailors toiled to spread the nimble sails to bring the ship into the central stream of Yann, and all the while sang ancient soothing songs. And the wind of the evening descending cool from the snowfields of some mountainous abode of distant gods came suddenly, like glad tidings to an anxious city, into the wing-like sails.

  2. Pete Mack

    The long sentence in Winnie the Pooh is a classic:

    In after-years he liked to think that he had been in Very Great Danger during the Terrible Flood, but the only danger he had really been in was in the last half-hour of his imprisonment, when Owl, who had just flown up, sat on a branch of his tree to comfort him, and told him a very long story about an aunt who had once laid a seagull’s egg by mistake, and the story went on and on, rather like this sentence, until Piglet who was listening out of his window without much hope, went to sleep quietly and naturally, slipping slowly out of the window towards the water until he was only hanging on by his toes, at which moment luckily, a sudden loud squawk from Owl, which was really part of the story, being what his aunt said, woke the Piglet up and just gave him time to jerk himself back into safety and say, “How interesting, and did she?” when—well, you can imagine his joy when at last he saw the good ship, The Brain of Pooh (Captain, C. Robin; Ist Mate, P. Bear) coming over the sea to rescue him.

  3. Rachel

    Robert, that’s lovely. Also, available on Amazon. I have never read anything by Lord Dunsany, so I picked it up!

    Pete, deservedly a classic.

  4. Robert

    Never read Lord Dunsany? You’re in for a treat! The man could write some of the most beautiful, lyrical prose. Amazon also has a single book that collects most of his fantasy short stories: The Lord Dunsany Compendium. Some of the earlier stuff is rather dry, but it’s interesting to see his evolution as a writer. I just wish the ebook formatting was better.

  5. Louise

    Pete, that line from Winnie the Pooh is my go-to line whenever I need to explain to someone A) long sentences *can* be well-done and grammatically correct, or B) authorial insertion, particularly when the author is poking fun at him/herself, can, in the right context, be funnier than any in-story humor could possibly manage.

  6. Rachel

    Ha ha ha! You might have tried at some point. I remember you mentioning the name. But no, if you pressed one of his into my hands, I fear I didn’t read it, or really don’t remember it at all.

  7. Elaine T

    well, don’t read King of Elfland’s Daughter . Everyone in it is stupid. The writing, however, is gorgeous.

    Dunsany was better at short stuff.

    I haven’t come up with really good sentence examples.

  8. Lace

    It’s no Winnie-the-Pooh, but I was surprised when I looked up Anne of Green Gables for a first-sentence thing:

    Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.

  9. Pete Mack

    I remembered that sentence from over 40 years ago; and lo, when i thought of it, i found, unsurprisingly, that others had too: there was no need to find Milne on my shelves, or laboriously transcribe his famous words, but only to copy his words from quotations amongst the fond memories of other readers.

  10. Hanneke

    I know the Anne of Green Gables series is the most famous set of L.M. Montgomery’s books, and I like them well enough, but I tend to get vicariously embarrassed by Anne’s heedless escapades and exaggerations in the first book, though I like the writing and love Matthew; and dislike the last book (Rilla of Ingleside) because of the depressing effect of the World War and people we’ve grown to love being killed.
    That’s why I tend to prefer the Emily trilogy when choosing which to reread.

  11. Elaine T

    Random choice from n old book, Lud-in-the-Mist:
    It was the hour when night-watchers begin to idealize their bed, and, with Sancho Panza, to bless the man who invented it. They shuddered, and drew their cloaks closer round their shoulders.
    Then, something happened. It was not so much a modification of the darkness, as a sigh of relief, a slight relaxing of tension, so that one felt, rather than saw, that the night had suddenly lost a shade of its density … ah! yes; there! between these two shoulders of the hills she is bleeding to death.
    At first the spot was merely a degree less black than the rest of the sky. Then it turned grey, then yellow, then red. And the earth was undergoing the same transformation. Here and there patches of greyness broke out in the blackness of the grass, and after a few seconds one saw that they were clumps of flowerIt was the hour when night-watchers begin to idealize their bed, and, with Sancho Panza, to bless the man who invented it. They shuddered, and drew their cloaks closer round their shoulders.
    Then, something happened. It was not so much a modification of the darkness, as a sigh of relief, a slight relaxing of tension, so that one felt, rather than saw, that the night had suddenly lost a shade of its density … ah! yes; there! between these two shoulders of the hills she is bleeding to death.
    At first the spot was merely a degree less black than the rest of the sky. Then it turned grey, then yellow, then red. And the earth was undergoing the same transformation. Here and there patches of greyness broke out in the blackness of the grass, and after a few seconds one saw that they were clumps of flowers. Then the greyness became filtered with a delicate sea-green; and next, one realized that the grey-green belonged to the foliage, against which the petals were beginning to show white — and then pink, or yellow, or blue; but a yellow like that of primroses, a blue like that of certain wild periwinkles, colors so elusive that one suspects them to be due to some passing accident of light, and that, were one to pick the flower, it would prove to be pure white.
    Ah, there can be no doubt of it now! The blues and yellows are real and perdurable. Color is steadily flowing through the veins of the earth, and we may take heart, for she will soon be restored to life again. But had we kept one eye on the sky we should have noticed that a star was quenched with every flower that reappeared on earth.
    Ah, there can be no doubt of it now! The blues and yellows are real and perdurable. Color is steadily flowing through the veins of the earth, and we may take heart, for she will soon be restored to life again. But had we kept one eye on the sky we should have noticed that a star was quenched with every flower that reappeared on earth.

    A very interesting blend of positive and negative. And you can feel the sigh in the writing in the second paragraph.

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