The art of the run-on sentence

Back when we were discussing The Isle Of Pines, blog visitor Supersonic Man exclaimed, “Holy crap, that thing has a 397 word sentence immediately followed by a 340 word one” – prompting me to the facetious observation that, “Historians generally agree that the late 17th and early 18th centuries were the Golden Age of the run-on sentence.” Well, many a true word is spoken in throwaway facetious remark. In The Perplex’d Prince, the anonymous author gives Henry Neville a run for his money by concluding with a sentence of some 268 words, which in its original formatting ran for over two pages.

And I quote:

“Very well, replyed the Prince, I think I never slept sounder in my life: the Country man expressed abundance of Joy thereat, intreating him that since he had been so happily directed to his house, he would do him the honour to stay and dine with him, the King desired to be excused, but yet upon his importunity he consented, and found his entertainment very much to exceed his expectation; dinner being over, and his Horse and all things being got ready and having taken his leave, he mounted and Rode towards Carmanio, until he came to a pleasant Path way that led unto a delightful Shady Grove situated upon an hill, from whence he might take a view of the neighbouring Vallies, and having viewed it he dismounted and entered the Grove, and being very much delighted with the umbrage, sat himself down beneath the spreading Boughs on the flowery Bank of a Christal Spring, whose murmuring Streams in Silver Trills discharged themselves into a neighbouring Brook, and with much admiration took a delightful view of the out spread Plaines and Vallies, which were curiously fringed with Trees and Blossom Shrubs, nor was he less delighted to see the careful Shepherds Feeding their Numerous Flocks, whose pritty bleatings answered still those rural Songs which they on Slender Reeds Tuned, Harmonious as the Musick of the Spheres; nor was there any other Rustick Exercise or Pleasing Object wanting to his sight, which had been hitherto been represented to his View in Land-skips dextrously drawn by the most curious Pencils, where we at present leave him to his Contemplations.”

Reading that sentence in context was an almost hypnotic experience. It’s all in the punctuation, of course. I guess you could cut it off at “the Country man”, or even at “dinner being over”; but I prefer the strict interpretation of fullstop to fullstop.

I also love the way that, as a piece of closure to a tale of deceit, conspiracy and danger, it builds to such a marvellous anticlimax.

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9 Responses to “The art of the run-on sentence”

  1. This brings to mind a school exercise: write the longest possible sentence that could not be cut off any earlier and still remain a grammatical sentence. Lots of subclauses tended to get invoked quite early on…

  2. Truthfully, I’m rather addicted to run-on sentences myself, thanks to my unnatural relationship with the semi-colon.

  3. Evidently English grammarians in those days had not yet decided against the comma splice– either that tor T.S. paid no more attention to his or her tutors than do modern American high school students.

  4. “either that OR,” that should have been.

  5. See? Not so easy, is it??

    T.S. is actually quite representative of the time; comma usage is frequently inexplicable. (She said, slipping in a semi-colon.)

    • I’ve noticed that many nineteenth-century authors each had a specific punctuational quirk they would follow. (Yes, I know right now you’re discussing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors, but I admit I haven’t read many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors, so I’m going by what I know.) Alas, I can’t give any specific examples right now, because I don’t remember them… at one point I’d planned to write up a post about the subject, but I didn’t get around to it, and now I’ve forgotten the details. I do remember, though, that one well-known author, for example, though I fear I’ve forgotten which one (I think it may have been Sir Walter Scott, though I don’t have any of his books handy to check — and yes, I suppose I could check a free copy at gutenberg.org, but I guess I’m not quite committed enough to the accuracy of this comment to take the time for that), had the rather off-putting habit of setting off indirect quotations in quote marks, or, what amounts to more or less the same thing, of altering all pronouns in direct quotations to the third person. That is, he would write sentences like the following:

      She told him that “he should leave her alone”.

      I think I recall Charlotte Brontë doing something odd with semicolons, but, again, it’s been long enough since I read her work that I may be misremembering.

      • Then there’s that bastard Henry James, who used to insist upon putting quotation marks around any vernacular or idiomatic expression– because he was a Serious Artist, you know, and in Serious Art, one can’t simply go around saying things that actual people might actually say. That would be common, unseemly… possibly even comprehensible!

  6. It’s an interesting question, when these things became standardised – and whether it was the editing that was standardised, or the education of the writers. It seems to me that female writers remained idiosyncratic for longer, probably because female education was far less regimented than male – and many female writers appear to have been self-educated, at least to a degree.

    Isn’t there some sort of stink in academic circles at the moment over Jane austen being “cleaned up” by her editor?

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