Do We Really Need Long Sentences?

Andrew Kern argues that we need long, multi-clause sentences to talk about some of the important things in life:

I’m arguing for the long sentence, contending that we have made ourselves stupid by refusing to express a thought that cannot be reduced to a single clause […].

As I read what he wrote on the matter, I wondered how classical Chinese sentences in philosophical works came down upon this, since classical Chinese is known for its terseness: did they support this claim?

Let’s examine a paragraph from the beginning of the Mencius:

(See here for the original Chinese.) Mengzi replied, “O king, why should we speak of profit? There is only goodness and righteousness, and that is all. When the king says, ‘How to profit our kingdom?’, the great officer says, ‘How to profit our house?’, and the scholar and commoner say, ‘How to profit our self?’: high and low they strive together for profit, and so the kingdom is in peril. For a kingdom of ten thousand chariots, the one who assassinates his lord must be from a house of a thousand chariots; for a kingdom of a thousand chariots, the one who assassinates his lord must be from a house of a hundred chariots. From ten thousand taking a thousand, from a thousand taking a hundred – that counts not as ‘not much’! If you pull back righteousness and put forth profit, no one will be satisfied without grabbing. Never was there one who was good and neglected his parents; never was there one who was righteous and put his king last [in priority]. A king speaks only of goodness and righteousness, and that is all: why speak of profit?”

These few sentences are much more practical than abstract in import, yet their length is more than we are accustomed to seeing in English anymore. This length cannot be explained away as a mere one-shot extravagance: much of philosophical discourse in Chinese is this way; certainly, on the other hand, sentences in Chinese poems are certainly far shorter and far less syntactically complex. For different genres, then, we have differing sentence lengths, according to differing rhetorical needs.

It appears, therefore, that long sentences are not just a feature of Indo-European languages with traditions of complex sentences for complex things. Indeed, Chinese texts support the universal claim that the ability to express thoughts in sentences with multiple clauses and to understand thoughts so expressed is cognitively part and parcel of the matter itself. Unless we are willing to give up the matter, we need to put the question to rational examination rather than to our mere preferences.


3 responses to “Do We Really Need Long Sentences?

  1. *headdesk*


  2. Very nicely said! Thank you for referring your readers to Quiddity and for developing that thought in an area that I couldn’t comment on.

    Your blog is a source I’ll turn to for what’s going on in the far east, as well as your reactions to American culture. Thanks again.


  3. Thank you for the compliments. I’m glad to engage with ideas with a perspective from a different cultural tradition.

    I must warn you, however, that concerning the far east I am a stranger too, because I’ve never lived outside of the U.S., so what I think of Asia and the immigrant experience is definitely not representative of the majority population.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s