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Old 12-23-2014, 06:24 PM   #1
Kasper Hviid
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Why does old writing has so long sentences?

I notice this sentence in a 1890 book:

Quote:
Being deeply impressed with the great value of a "Corpus Sigillorum" which would bring together in one view a large number of English Seals of each century for the eye to rest upon and so to comprehend the varying styles at different dates, Mr. Grazebrook puts forward the following proposal to see if a sufficient number of Subscribers will be found to support him, and meet the heavy expense of producing such a work.
I'm impressed. It must take quite some some work to compose such a sentence. And it must has have taken quite some skill to actual read litterature that is written like that. I can't read it - I'm simply unable to fit the entire chunk of word into my brain in one bite.

Why were each sentence so impressively long back then? Was there a punctation shortage? And why has this changed today?
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Old 12-23-2014, 07:47 PM   #2
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Short attention span? I don't know, I like the sentence.
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Old 12-23-2014, 09:40 PM   #3
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I've read a number of "modern" books with long paragraphs.
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Old 12-23-2014, 11:19 PM   #4
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I think part of it is the limitations of technology at the time a given book was written. For example Lew Wallace's "Ben-Hur" has long blocks of description right from the start. That's because readers back when it was written hadn't seen the 'lay of the land' via pictures or TV documentary like we can now days. They had a choice of long descriptions, sketches, or actually going to the place where the story was set. That's why Matthew Brady is still remembered as well since he was the 1st person to actually take pictures of what a real battlefield looked like and he changed the average person's knowledge of what war actually was. Prior to that all that was available was words on a page.
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Old 12-24-2014, 12:41 AM   #5
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Styles and tastes change over the years?
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Old 12-24-2014, 12:52 AM   #6
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Styles and tastes change over the years?
That too. And of course when many 'classic' books were written they were 1st serialized in newspapers (like Dickens for example) and so the more words you wrote the more $ you made that week.
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Old 12-24-2014, 05:27 AM   #7
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I think part of it is the limitations of technology at the time a given book was written. For example Lew Wallace's "Ben-Hur" has long blocks of description right from the start. That's because readers back when it was written hadn't seen the 'lay of the land' via pictures or TV documentary like we can now days. They had a choice of long descriptions, sketches, or actually going to the place where the story was set. That's why Matthew Brady is still remembered as well since he was the 1st person to actually take pictures of what a real battlefield looked like and he changed the average person's knowledge of what war actually was. Prior to that all that was available was words on a page.
Absolutely! But what I'm on about is not as much lengthy paragraphs without anything going on. Rather, I'm wondering about the individual sentence that goes on forever so the reader have to take notes to remember how it started out, before the author puts an end to your suffering by the grace of punctation.

Anyways, I had always wondered why so many older novels always started out with extensive description of the landscape. I just didn't get it before.

Here's another beautifully crafted sentence, this one the opening line from The Turn of the Screw:
Quote:
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.
Longer sentences requires a more alert reader. Not only does you have to understand the content of the words, but you're also required to recognize and keep track of the network of interposed phrases. The long sentences might have started out as the way Those Who Reads Books distanced themselves from the peasants. They were a bother to read, but then you where part of the ingroup.

The longer a single sentence goes on without punctation, the more information is jammed into a single 'argument'. This might explain the lengthy sentences used in legalese, where the words exact relation is importaint.

Maybe the shortening of the sentences and the disappearence of the ; are related?

I'm still unsure about the reason for those lenghty sentences, but it's probably the Germans fault. Here is a quote from Mark Twains 'The Awful German Language':
Quote:
There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech -- not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary -- six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam -- that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it -- after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb -- merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out -- the writer shovels in "haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein," or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the flourish to a man's signature -- not necessary, but pretty. German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head -- so as to reverse the construction -- but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.
Source:
http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/awfgrmlg.html

Last edited by Kasper Hviid; 12-24-2014 at 05:33 AM.
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Old 12-24-2014, 05:55 AM   #8
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The sentence quoted by the OP doesn't strike me as being abnormally long, I must say.
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Old 12-24-2014, 05:56 AM   #9
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There is also the fact that there wasn't much in the form of personal entertainment back then either. You couldn't go to the movies or watch the latest DVD or streamed video because those things didn't exist yet. A long book filled the hrs that a person had when they weren't working and of course books weren't cheap to buy back then so you wanted the most you could get out of them for your money.
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Old 12-24-2014, 06:03 AM   #10
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A long book filled the hrs that a person had when they weren't working and of course books weren't cheap to buy back then so you wanted the most you could get out of them for your money.
There was, however (in the UK, at least) an excellent public library system in the 1890s.
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Old 12-24-2014, 06:09 AM   #11
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There was, however (in the UK, at least) an excellent public library system in the 1890s.
Touche. I don't know what the library system was like here in the Midwest US back then. I imagine it was also a bit of a status symbol though to be able to say you had your own copy of author x's book and that you had finished it. Much like we today pride ourselves on having a particular type of car or a certain size of flat screen TV. People don't change much.
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Old 12-24-2014, 06:13 AM   #12
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Touche. I don't know what the library system was like here in the Midwest US back then. I imagine it was also a bit of a status symbol though to be able to say you had your own copy of author x's book and that you had finished it. Much like we today pride ourselves on having a particular type of car or a certain size of flat screen TV. People don't change much.
It was because libraries were the main buyers of books at that time that most novels were published in several volumes (typically 2 or 3 volumes). That way, when a library bought one copy of a book in, say, three volumes, it meant that three readers could read it simultaneously.
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Old 12-24-2014, 06:46 AM   #13
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That too. And of course when many 'classic' books were written they were 1st serialized in newspapers (like Dickens for example) and so the more words you wrote the more $ you made that week.
I would imagine that a paper column contains roughly the same number of words independent of the number of points dividing them into sentences.

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