The Sentences of Twitter


Let's talk about sentences. For the past several hundred years, the average English written sentence has been almost certainly getting shorter. (You can get a start on the data by checking out this thread and this old article.) Writing at the end of the sixteenth century, Edmund Spenser's prose averaged about 50 words per sentence; Richard Hooker's, around 40. By the 19th century, Hawthorne's 35-word sentences were distinctively long ones: John Ruskin came in at just over 30, Emerson at just over 20. A few decades later Willa Cather's average was below twenty. Though it's unwise to assume that professional writers' habits are the same as other people's, it's worth noting that the average English sentence today is around 14 words.

It's easy to come up with exceptions to the trend. Tom Wolfe writes a lot of long sentences, for example, as did William Faulkner before him. I would suggest that today we have a nearly unprecedented variety of sentence-length preferences; our sentences are sort of like our hair in that respect. It's very hard to find short sentences in Renaissance prose, because the conventions of punctuation were so different then. (By the way, Malcolm Parkes's Pause and Effect: an Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West is a fabulous book with an even more fabulous title.)

Scholars will also tell you that the average English word is about five characters long. So: if you write an average-length English sentence using average-length English words, you might be able to get two of them into a tweet. Or you could tweet one unusually elaborate sentence. That 140-character limit that so many people sneer at isn't as limiting as they assume. (Plus, when I run up against the limit I usually find that I can make my sentences significantly better by shortening them: using stronger verbs, eliminating waste, etc. It's a useful discipline in a very Strunk-and-White kind of way.)

And of course you're never limited to one tweet. You can write as many as you want! And people have a variety of ways to indicate in one tweet that another is coming: writing "(1/2)" and then "(2/2)" or just using ellipses. I'm an ellipsis guy myself, because I found that sometimes when I had written "(2/2)" I still had something to say and therefore had to label the next tweet "(3/2)". Mathematically awkward.

People who disdain the 140-character convention of Twitter fail to see that a person's Twitter persona is not determined by one tweet any more than a writer's style is determined by one sentence. In Twitter, it's the stream that matters, even a single person's stream: the stereotypical what-I-had-for-lunch tweet can actually be interesting and even revelatory when it comes in the midst of a series of thoughtful reflections on politics, culture, art. It's really kind of wonderful to learn that that person whose incisive thinking you so admire has some of those incisive thoughts while eating tacos.

Years ago, in a preface to his book Unattainable Earth, the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz explained why he was putting into the book not just poems but journal entries, quotations, and various random jottings:

It is customary among poets to gather poems written during a few years and to compose them into a volume provided with a title. That custom, upon reflection, persists by dint of inherited habits, but has nothing self-evident in it. For a given servant of the Muses was in that period not only busy creating ideal objects that bear the name of poems. He lived among people, was feeling, thinking, getting acquainted with others' thoughts, and tried to capture the surrounding world by any means, including the art of the poem, but not only. Why then separate what is unified in time?

Twitter at its best is a reminder of the distinctively human complex of the elevated and the mundane. Is Twitter always at its best? Of course not; neither is anything else in this vale of tears. But if you follow the right people it's a real delight. And every day I come across some terrific sentences.

Image: Alexis Madrigal.