Wednesday 5 November 2014

In praise of short sentences

One of the themes of my life this year has been the short sentence. Early in the year an experienced editor brought to my attention the virtues of the short sentence. I took his words to heart. I have been trying to use a greater variety of sentence types in my writing, and I have particularly been labouring to achieve good short sentences. It is harder than it sounds.

I have also begun to notice that many college students could improve their writing dramatically merely by setting their sights on shorter sentences. Many students have somehow got the assumption that scholarly writing requires a certain tone of voice. I don’t know where this assumption comes from. I am inclined to blame it on the rhetorical posturing of well-meaning but fundamentally inept high school English teachers – the kind of teacher who promotes “critique” and “decoding” of “texts” instead of explanation and clarity of ideas. I do not blame these teachers. I hope they will still be allowed into heaven. I know they are only doing what they’re told. At any rate, whatever the source of this malaise, the symptoms are evident in the tendency of students to obfuscate simple ideas through a complexification of syntax, a multiplication of imprecise verbs instead of the selection of the one strong verb, and a deliberate substitution of polysyllabic words whose meanings are often vague and slippery for smaller ones whose meanings are plain and solid. It is all very anti-working-class. The student’s shame of his uneducated parents and their drab suburban home is transferred to a (deeper and more scandalous) shame of plain speech. Nothing good will come of this.

So I have been encouraging students to aim for shorter sentences that say exactly what you want to say, not for longer sentences that sound the way you would like to sound. And – physician, heal thyself – I’ve been trying to do it too.

I have also been noticing short sentences when I read. Sometimes I have underlined a sentence simply because it is so short and good. One of the theological geniuses of the short sentence is Tertullian. Some of Tertullian’s most impressive (and humorous) rhetorical effects are achieved with short sentences. In his treatise on the Trinity Against Praxeas, he cites a list of biblical texts used by his opponents, and then responds drily with a two-word sentence: “Legimus omnia” – “We’ve read all that.” What a sentence! Sharp as a sniper’s shot. The whole of Tertullian’s little treatise on the Roman toga (De Pallio) is abuzz with similar short-sentence effects, humorous and biting and precise.

A modern genius of the short theological sentence is the congregationalist writer P. T. Forsyth. He uses potent bursts of staccato sentences. Like the following: “To lead the democracy the Church must be free of the democracy. The Church is not a democracy. It is certainly not the democracy on its religious side. That is but Hooker up to date. It is latter-day Erastianism. What is the difference? Democracy will acknowledge no authority but what it creates whereas the Church has no authority but what creates it. It is an infinite difference…. The Church is not the indiscriminate champion of the democracy but its benefactor, its faithful friend and prophet. It is not its tribune but its conscience. The Church is not there in the first instance to represent democracy, but to represent God to the democracy. It is not there to speak for it, but to speak to it” (The Church and the Sacraments, p. 118).

What a difference it would make to contemporary theological writing if we had more of this! At the end of his treatise on the toga, Tertullian avows his preference for the philosopher’s cloak over the Roman toga with the short exclamation: “Gaude pallium et exsulta!” – “Rejoice, O cloak, and exult!” I will paraphrase the great North African, in praise of short sentences: Rejoice, O short sentence, and triumph!

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