Things Our Schoolteachers Told Us

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

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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.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: May 19, 1921

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  1. Some yutz back in the 1800’s decided that because Latin never ended a sentence with a preposition, that English had to follow the same rule. Says who? It is a bogus Victorian rule, made up by a bogus Victorian clergyman.

    Reminds me of the old joke. A country boy was admitted to university. On his fors day, he asks an upper classman “Where’s the library at?” The upper classman replies “You should never end a sentence with a preposition”. The country boy responds, “OK, where’s the library at, asshole?”

    1. Reminds me of the old joke. A country boy was admitted to university. On his fors day, he asks an upper classman “Where’s the library at?” The upper classman replies “You should never end a sentence with a preposition”. The country boy responds, “OK, where’s the library at, asshole?”

      Actually, I believe that happened to Dr. Ed at UMass Amherst.

      1. Actually, they were too busy trying to convince me that the library resembled a giant penis. (Talk about a square peg and a round hole, but I digress…)

        I am not making this up…

        1. And what the judge fails to understand is that 90% of the people who end a sentence in a preposition won’t do it correctly — much like starting a sentence with a conjunction.

      2. Dr. Ed never ends his sentences…..

    2. Trying to impose Latin grammar on a Germanic language also gets you rules like no split infinitives.

      1. We’re trying not to say this, but our point is, the judge exposes himself here as simply uninformed, both as a matter of history and as a matter of what we were taught in school.

    3. Possibly the best part of this movie, is this scene about never ending a sentence on a preposition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4XCZfkGF8k

      1. Beat me to it! (huh – huh – huh – huh)

    4. That is someone up with which I shall not put.

      And someone out for which my wife won’t put, either.

    5. The yutz mainly responsible was the Anglican bishop Robert Lowth in his 1762 book, A Short Introduction to English Grammar. And as you say, he was simply superimposing Latin to English. Before him Dryden complained about an example of p-stranding in Johnson’s Catiline (1611):

      The waves, and dens of beasts cou’d not receive
      the bodies that those souls were frighted from

      but it is unclear if he thought of this as a rule or simply didn’t like the specific sentence.
      The full history is more complex – English increased (some say acquired) p-stranding in the Middle English, when it changed from an inflected to an uninflected language.

      P-stranding can be found in great literature: “A very good age to be married at” (Oscar Wilde – and its Lady Bracknell talking the epitome of an over-cultured person) . It is in Shakespeare (“What were you talking of?: – Troilus and Cressida) and Chaucer: “For they had nothing but a sheet which they could wrap themselves in” (The Cann Yeoman’s Tale)

      Grammar books endorsed and recommended it: […] where they favour the easy fall of the voice, in a familiar cadence; (Priestley The rudiments of English grammar; adapted to the use of schools.

      And the idea that the later grammarians somehow discovered a cognitive science principle is unsupported by the evidence – see e.g. Gries, Stefan Th. “Preposition stranding in English: Predicting speakers’ behaviour.” Proceedings of the Western Conference on Linguistics. Vol. 12. Fresno, CA: Department of Linguistics at California State University, 2002.

      1. I recommend “Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins” (1971), cataloguing the many “rules” that were actually little more than superstitions.

  2. 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.

    Language doesn’t work like that. There is no authority to prescribe rules. The rules of spelling and grammar are descriptive of common usage. If the common usage changes than the rules have already changed, even if the writers/publishers of dictionaries and text books have yet to catch up.

    1. The Academie Francaise does not agree.

      There have been instances of prescriptive language change. Russian has had spelling reforms imposed (Peter I in the 18th Century and Shakhmatov in the 20th).

      1. The Academie Francaise is pathetic. They tried to keep anglicisms like Weekend and Internet out of French, and failed. Because the French public doesn’t give a crap what they think.

        1. What? The Academie Francaise, though ignored, is immortal!

          1. Well, yes, being a government agency it would be immortal. However, until they get the power to arrest and jail people who ignore their dictates, they have no real power.

      2. The Academie Francaise is delusional. Do they imagine that they control French speakers in the Canadian province of Quebec?

    2. ” If the common usage changes than the rules have already changed…”
      Such as spelling the word then, as ‘than’?

  3. Does anybody else use BriefCatch?

  4. “One accustoms himself to writing short sentences as a rule. At times he may indulge himself in a long one, but he will make sure that there are no folds in it, no vagueness, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he is done with it, it won’t be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water, it will be a torch-light procession.” Mark Twain

    1. That is about as perfect a paragraph, on so many levels, that the English language can ever produce.

  5. I am not against long sentences per se, but they can lead to other bad habits such as imprecision and over-spin.

    “Defendant breached the contract by refusing to deliver the widgets.”

    is a better sentence than

    “Defendant, obviously flagrantly disregarding his promise as well as any notion of ethical conduct, spurned his contractual obligation by brazenly flouting his obligation to deliver the widgets he had agreed to supply.”

    1. Well, it’s better for lots of reasons, not just brevity. All the adverbs constitute table pounding, usually a signal that either the facts or argument or both are quite weak.

      (Indeed, when I read opposing counsels’ briefs that sound like that, I usually drop in a snide comment to that effect in the introduction to my response.)

      1. I am right there with you. 🙂

      2. True in appellate briefs. Not true, unfortunately, in drafting a closing statement to the jury.

  6. I’m reminded of the Dilbert cartoon where the boss tells Dilbert to sum something up in one sentence. Dilbert, knowing that a complex issue that he was dealing with made this impossible, made extensive use of semi-colons.

    As for long sentences, I’m for them, I use them all the time. But there is a middle ground between Hemmingway (short and punchy) and Dickens (paid by the word and sentences would last a page).

    1. Remember that a lawyer’s job is to help the judge(s) (or the jury). We so often forget this. We’re there to assist the adjudicator in understanding the case, as well as our client’s contentioins.

      The problems with long sentences are where they get in the way of clarity and assisting the court. Obviously, if a sentence needs to be long because the idea it is conveying is complex and important, go for it!

      But many times, sentences are long because the lawyer is more concerned with his or her own concerns (such as packing as many spin terms into it as possible, or looking good to the client, or obfuscating) and less concerned with helping the Court understand the argument.

      1. While I generally agree, it’s interesting comparing your advice about lawyering to captcrisis, who says you have to use laywerese and make things sound complex, but not too complex. He doesn’t say why. I think, just like in certain disciplines of academic writing, there is the need to sound smart enough so that people think the rubes won’t get it and that they are in the “know” and can think them selves smart. On the other hand, it has to also be simple enough so that the actual few readers that there are understand it in order that they can feel like they are exclusive.

        But if you fill it with to much insider lingo or techno-babble, even those who should know what your talking about get lost in it. They may even *pretend* they understand it and it a peer review pass because they don’t want others to think that they aren’t smart enough to get it. However, a peer review pass isn’t the same as a judge or staffer taking your argument as the more valid.

        All very post-modern.

        1. I think judges are different from academics. Has there ever been a Sokal hoax played on a judge? Judges WANT to understand your contentions, whereas some academics may just want to know you are doing something complex.

          1. Applying the lessons learned about pseudo-scientific bs being peddled to/by some academics, I’m extending the lesson to lawyering, in that judges want to think what they are doing is complex. Yes, often it is, but often it’s not. all else being equal, a person who makes the reader feel smart is more persuasive than one who doesn’t. Let’s hope captcrisis responds.

            1. I don’t buy that. Academics can raise questions and, to use the terminology of the Internet, JAQ off. Judges can’t. If you can tell a judge “there’s a really simple way to decide this case”, it is music to a judge’s ears.

              1. Well, I take your practical experience in the field over than my tandem experience in another, but I think there is still something to be said about using enough lingo to make the reader feel smart.

                1. Sure, until you’ve used too much lingo and made the reader feel like an idiot.

                  1. That’s what I said already, if you follow the comment trail upwards just a bit.

                2. “I think there is still something to be said about using enough lingo”

                  I’m interpreting your use of the word “lingo” to mean “jargon”.
                  Every field of specialized knowledge has its own jargon with specific meaning to experts in their field, but meaningless to non-experts. When used correctly, jargon establishes the speaker as an expert, to other experts. The problem is, non-experts can have difficulty in telling correctly-used jargon from incorrectly-used jargon. People who are not experts but who would like to be thought of as experts will often try to use jargon and usually will eventually be caught out by their inability to do so correctly. For an example, just look at nearly any time Hollywood tries to show you a character who is supposed to be an expert in a specialized field of knowledge. You can be sure they’ll spout off a series of jargonized words and phrases.

  7. I read of the findings of the psycholinguists with some skepticism. How well would their findings apply to native speakers of German, in which prefixes that determine the meanings of verbs are commonly exiled to the very end of a sentence? For instance, a German might write: “The lawyer FUSED the judge by submitting briefs full of lengthy sentences, replete with numerous asides and nested parenthetical phrases, and often not ending until halfway down the next page, CON.” The reader doesn’t discover that the verb is “confused” until he reaches the end of the sentence and finds that “con” prefix.

  8. It is Letter From Birmingham Jail. No indefinite article.

  9. “Our schoolteachers presumably didn’t know about the budding field of psycholinguistics, but they knew about their own difficulties in remembering lengthy passages.”

    Yet they kept assigning Dickens for reading assignments. Dickens was paid by the word, and it shows.

    1. When I read “Hard Times” in high school, I settled into a very consistent reading pattern: Read two pages, then nap, so on and so forth.

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