Long sentences are bad, we are told. The enemy of plain English. Today the average sentence is 14.4 words long, and that’s less than a quarter of what it was 200 years ago. The UK Government has gone as far as to mandate a maximum count of 25 words in official publications.

(For reference, if we all lived by that rule, this very sentence would be the longest string of words you would ever see, bar none.)

But I love a long sentence. I like two, three, five ideas all rolling off each other as your mind races to keep track of each thread. Read this famous writing quote and tell me which sentence stands out.

Which is why I was relieved to read Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel, Past Tense, and discover it had this doozy of a sentence:

Except that the next sentence, in brackets, was a grudging apology that the photograph used to illustrate the same point in an earlier edition had not actually been of Ryantown itself, but was a stock library image of a mill town in Massachusetts a decade earlier than the newsletter suggested, but which was nevertheless chosen with absolutely no intention to deceive, but rather in a spirit meant to be taken as purely mood-based, as such a tragic subject surely demanded, not literally, as indeed most histories were all too often written, usually to their detriment.

95 words. In an action thriller.

Well done, Lee. The only disappointment is that you failed to crack a ton.

2 thoughts on “In Appreciation of Long Sentences”

  1. This is fabulous Matthew, thanks for sharing your stories and insights.
    Lee Child always delights me with his complex characters, rich storytelling and gripping plots. Not to mention a brutal bit of biff!
    The casting of Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher tarnished the wholes series for me somehow. It’s hard to articulate why, but it was just so incongruous with the very essence of Reacher – the antithesis of who he is physically, his beliefs, his values, his grittiness – it somehow diminished Reacher for me.

    1. I have good news for you, Kylie: the Jack Reacher movies are being rebooted, and Tom Cruise is being replaced with someone more like the character in the books. No idea who yet…

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