Let’s start with the end – the full stop. There’s nothing worse than being led down the garden path with a long winding sentence, that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, that slowly starts to bore you to death with all of the commas, and don’t forget the conjunctions, that are trying to hold the terribly long sentence together. Now, wasn’t that boring? Didn’t it make you want to tear your hair out? Not a full stop to be seen.
When sentences are too long they tend to fall apart and become a burden to the reader. The reader has to try and make sense of what they just read. This can become frustrating if the reader has to mentally rewrite your words before they can understand them.
‘When in doubt, leave it out’ may be the old adage, but not in the case of the full stop. When in doubt, it is usually best to break the sentence in two. Strunk also recommends not joining two independent clauses with a comma. Though he also says if ‘two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.’
Generally there are three types of sentences: the simple, the compound and the complex. The simple sentence expresses only one idea. The compound sentence expresses at least two ideas that could also be shown as two separate sentences. The complex sentence has a primary idea that is supported by at least one secondary idea that is dependent on the primary idea.
On occasion you may come across an embedded sentence, or a complex compound. This type of sentence was very fashionable in the 1800s and early 1900s, from the likes of Johnston and Cocteau. A great example is the opening line from Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby:
There once lived, in a sequestered part of the country of Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason.
Dickens continues with this method throughout the novel. Perhaps his title of ‘world’s most prolific novelist’ should include ‘world’s longest complexly compounded sentence writer?’ Today though, the writer needs to keep the reader’s attention. And only occasionally can they get away with such verbosity.
Breaking your sentences down into ‘ideas’ is usually a good way to see if a long sentence can be shortened. If you can find two or more different trains of thought in your sentence, it could probably do with a second look.
Another method of shortening a sentence is to look for unnecessary beginnings. An example being ‘And in addition to that I would add …’ or ‘He eyed her curiously whilst looking at her face …’ In both examples you are essentially repeating yourself.
There are of course other uses for the full stop, such as ellipses (…), abbreviations, email and web addresses. And in other countries, like Canada and the United States of America, the full stop is sometimes referred to as a period, and occasionally as a suspension mark.
The amount of space left after a full stop to separate sentences in paragraphs has changed in recent years. With the advent of computer word processing programs it is no longer necessary to leave two blank spaces (sometimes called French spacing), as the programs will automatically adjust the spacing if a non fixed-width font is used. The Australian Style manual for authors, editors and printers suggests that the full stop should be followed by one space only.
And as the Macquarie Dictionary informs us that the full stop is ‘used to mark the end of a complete declarative sentence,’ so too shall we end our last sentence here with a full stop.
© Kristy Taylor 2006