Skip to main content


The “superfluous beauty” of long sentences

James Joyce in 1930. Roger Viollet/Getty

There’s a marked intolerance for “cumbersome and labyrinthine” sentences in the style guides that litter editors’ offices, says Ed Simon in LitHub. George Orwell commands: “If possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” The “canonical” Elements of Style asserts: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words.” But this obsession with the concise is a relic from a time of “paper margin inches” and an allergy to anything that seemed “too affected, too rococo, too aesthetic”. Partisans of parsimony are much like Puritans “whitewashing the church walls and smashing the stained-glass windows”, leaving behind only the most basic of fragments.

Thankfully, the literary canon abounds with works that escaped the butchery of “red-pen-wielding editors”. Where would Don Quixote be without Miguel de Cervantes’ “loquacious Castilian prose”, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels without its Brobdingnagian syntax, or James Joyce’s Ulysses without its wandering diction? Works by English greats like John Donne show the high-wire art of packing reams of information into the “relatively small world of the long sentence”. Admittedly, spun-out syntax can seem intimidating: the piling on of word and imagery, comma and colon, “clause, clause, and clause”. But there’s something gratifying in wrestling with a sentence that “forces you to pay attention”: in getting lost in its twists and turns; in its “immaculate daringness of superfluous beauty”.