Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Long and Short of Average Sentence Length

For an earlier post, I analyzed the text from 616 articles in Slate’s sections “The Good Word” and “Books.” The purpose was to answer a question about the use of em dashes, but since I had all 697,422 words at the ready, I asked another question: Of all the articles, which had the longest and shortest average sentence length?

For context, the average sentence length across all articles was 25.4 words per sentence. The winner for longest average sentence length was nearly twice that. The shortest was about a third less.

And now, the drumroll please....

The winner for longest average sentence length, at 49.7 words per sentence, was Daphne Merkin’s review of Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. Here is the opening paragraph:

Although it is not uncommon for big families to produce a rebel or two along with the chip-off-the-old-block offspring, there are few that can lay claim to as much dissension within the ranks as the aristocratic clan of Mitford. This gaggle of wayward sisters (six in all, with one brother, Tom, who was killed in combat in 1945 at the age of 36) included Diana, the family beauty, who married the dastardly Oswald Mosley, head of the British Fascist party; Nancy, the family wit, whose novel The Pursuit of Love kick-started the proliferation of novels, memoirs, and biographies that would come to be called the Mitford “industry”; and the family madwoman, Unity, who went bonkers for Adolf Hitler and put a pistol to her head when Britain declared war on Germany.

Compare and contrast with the winner for shortest average sentence length, Jason Sokol’s commentary on The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson: Mississippi Burning and the Passage of the Civil Rights Act: June 1, 1964-July 4, 1964. Sokol’s average of 16 words pers sentence was less than the length of the title. Here is the first paragraph:

President Lyndon Johnson, domineering and manipulative, lives on in American memory as the classic power broker. He bullied opponents, sweet-talked skeptics, and chewed out subordinates. He oozed confidence as he passed one piece of landmark social legislation after another, even as his cockiness helped to mire the country in Vietnam. Yet this is not the Johnson who emerges from volumes seven and eight of The Presidential Recordings, a transcription of his phone conversations from June 1 to July 4 of 1964.

My purpose is not to claim one of these examples is better than the other. They are both well-crafted paragraphs. But side by side, they are a reminder of how stylistically diverse good writing can be.