The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Things Our Schoolteachers Told Us

Childhood lessons and the mysteries of the reader's brain.


For many of us, school consisted of a series of "You better nots": You better not be late for class, you better not talk in class, and you better not do countless other things of the same ilk. English classes were more of the same: You better not end a sentence with a preposition and, even more ominously, you better keep your sentences short! Twenty words, perhaps. Thirty words at the most!

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, our schoolteachers have jettisoned these admonitions; and today's grammarians assure us that we can safely end sentences with prepositions and write long sentences. But where did these admonitions originate? Like many well-worn adages, they sprung from an intuitive appreciation for how we process written language.

For a half-century, psycholinguists have probed how we process words. Many of these probes involve how we read words starting and ending sentences. As we approach the end of a sentence, for example, our eyes move more slowly when a nearby period comes into focus. Psycholinguists call this the "wrap-up effect;" our eyes tell our brains that we need to slow down to make sure that we have processed what we just read before moving on.

Traditional grammarians lacked the benefit of these psycholinguistic contributions, but shared a common understanding for the importance of the closing words in a sentence. And the grammarians of our past recognized the folly of squandering this valuable space on meaningless prepositions.

What, then, was the springboard for the common refrain against lengthy sentences? Today's psycholinguists tell us that most of us can store in short-term memory only a few chunks of information. Consider what happens when someone gives you several telephone numbers. You might remember a few, but cap out quickly.

Our schoolteachers presumably didn't know about the budding field of psycholinguistics, but they knew about their own difficulties in remembering lengthy passages. From these difficulties, our schoolteachers surmised that short sentences would ease the reader's burden.

We now know, though, that lengthy sentences can be just as easy to recall as shorter sentences. Consider Martin Luther King, Jr.'s stirring Letters from a Birmingham Jail. These letters include a single sentence spanning over 300 words, cataloguing a series of injustices. Though the sentence is long, the injustices unfold in twelve discrete chunks. As each chunk comes, the reader's eyes quicken as they approach the climax: "When you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait." King's message is impossible to miss or forget, despite the length, because the message comes in discrete, manageable chunks.

Freed of arbitrary word limits, masterful orators learned that they could brandish a particular point by weaving short sentences among longer ones. Consider Winston Churchill's effort to unity Britons against the German threat:

You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory.

Churchill's three- and four-word sentences echo because they follow longer sentences. Like King, Churchill realized that readers could easily understand a relatively long sentence. With that length came an opportunity to burnish his message through short, powerful climaxes.

So when you consider your school days, don't shun what your teachers told you. Just consider the wisdom that underlay those admonitions. It's still not a good idea to be late for class. And if you wax poetic for a while, remember that long sentences can still overtax the reader's memory unless the information comes in manageable chunks.

With these chunks of information, you might not match Churchill's ability to inspire the masses. But if you aim to create a rhythm and slow the readers' eyes when they zoom in on the focal point of your argument, perhaps you can try mixing long and short sentences. It might just spell victory.