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From my own reading of older books (eg. 18th, 19th century) in various styles (novels, philosophical treatises, scientific publications), it seems that sentences were longer back then.

Is there good hard data on this? Have sentences in fiction shrunk faster than sentences in, say philosophy journals? (I expect so). What explanations can be given for this trend?

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Hold on, I'll ask on Twitter ;) –  VonC Oct 1 '10 at 19:19
just a note that certain kinds of writing (e.g. philosophical journals) might have wordier styles than others (e.g. fiction, which is more informal and contains more informal dialogue). So you'd need to compare older fiction to modern fiction, for example. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 1 '10 at 20:08
True enough. That's why I mentioned different styles. But even within academic philosophy writing (the style of writing I'm most familiar with) it's certainly true that sentences are shorter than they used to be. –  Seamus Oct 1 '10 at 22:36
I've added a "bounty" here, since that seems the only way of indicating that I too am interested in the same question. I'm hoping someone can give an answer with the "good hard data" the question asks for. (Or, failing data, at least an indication of what the scholarly consensus on this issue is.) –  ShreevatsaR Nov 11 '10 at 19:09
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3 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I believe the answer is definitely yes.

A quick google search turned up this book result, "The History of the English paragraph," by Edwin Herbert Lewis, where it says:

In view of the now well known fact(1) that the English sentence has decreased in average length at least one half in three hundred years the question arises whether the length of the paragraph has decreased increased or remained stationary.

The citation is:

(1) The fact was definitely demonstrated by Professor L. A. Sherman, in his Analytics of Literature, Boston, 1892.

Another google search turned up the book, and I found a certain Chapter XIX titled "The Literary Sentence-Length In English Prose."

On page 259 he supplies some hard data from various book sources, which I've converted to text here and filled in with full names, book titles, and dates. This shows the average number of words in between periods for the first few hundred periods:

Robert Fabyan, "Chronicle", written 1516-1559
First   hundred periods: 68.28
Second     "       "   : 66.68
Third      "       "   : 56.12
Fourth     "       "   : 65.77
Fifth      "       "   : 58.26
Average:                 63.02

Edmund Spenser, "A View of the Present State of Ireland", written 1590s
First   hundred periods: 49.78
Second     "       "   : 50.24
Third      "       "   : 53.67
Fourth     "       "   : 47.56
Fifth      "       "   : 47.88
Average:                 49.83

Richard Hooker, "Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie", written 1594-1597
First   hundred periods: 43.98
Second     "       "   : 40.90
Third      "       "   : 37.12
Fourth     "       "   : 41.63
Fifth      "       "   : 43.40
Average:                 41.41

Thomas Babington Macaulay, "Essay on History", written 1828
First   hundred periods: 23.23
Second     "       "   : 21.26
Third      "       "   : 25.95
Fourth     "       "   : 22.20
Fifth      "       "   : 19.65
Average:                 22.46

William Ellery Channing, "Self-Culture", written 1838
First   hundred periods: 25.15
Second     "       "   : 25.51
Third      "       "   : 25.38
Fourth     "       "   : 26.80
Fifth      "       "   : 25.84
Average:                 25.74

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Address before the Senior Class in Divinity College", written 1838
First   hundred periods: 18.06
Second     "       "   : 20.15
Third      "       "   : 21.01
Fourth     "       "   : 24.18
Fifth      "       "   : 19.52
Average:                 20.58

The time periods are: Fabyan (? - 1513), Spenser (1552-1599), Hooker (1554-1600), Macaulay (source written in 1828), Channing (source written in 1838), and Emerson (1803-1882). To round it off, by my own reckoning, the preface to Sherman's book (1892) has an average of 24.77 words for its 168 sentences. There seems to be a gap of sources in the 1700s, so I wonder if those sentences were around 30-40 words long on average.

He goes on to show that the authors are pretty consistent within their own works, so these numbers are pretty indicative of an author's style. Furthermore, Sherman demonstrates that the number of predicates per sentence has also decreased with time. Unfortunately he does not claim to know the cause of this.

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Wow, thanks very much! (An average of 63 words per sentence? Wow...) –  ShreevatsaR Nov 12 '10 at 4:12
@Shr:yea:"In this season the legat vpon his partye, and the kynge of Romayns vpon ye other partie, for allyaunce that was atwene hym and ye erle of Glouceter, laboured so to the kynge that a reformacon of peas was spoken of; durynge whiche treaty, the souldyourrs lyinge in Southwerke made many robboryes in Southerey and other places, and rowed ouer to Westmynster, and spoyled there the kynges palays, and deuoured his wyne, and breke the glasse of the wyndowes, and all other necessaryes to that palayes they distroyed and wasted; and somtymes came in lykewyse into London, and robbed there also." –  Claudiu Nov 12 '10 at 4:43
My answer is better, but this answer is better. +1. –  Jon Purdy Nov 12 '10 at 7:09
But whose answer is the most betterest? –  RegDwigнt Nov 12 '10 at 12:07
Jon's answer gives a reason.. mine gives data.. together they are unstoppable! –  Claudiu Nov 12 '10 at 13:14
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Writing for an internet audience means writing short, easily-consumed sentences that can be rapidly skimmed for content, and which don't force the reader to continue slogging through a wordy explanation when a short bullet point would have sufficed, because reading on a screen is unnatural and tiring, not to mention that contemporary literary tastes tend toward the clear and plebian in lieu of the florid purple prose of yesteryear, the equivalents of whose borderline poetic constructions in modern form tend to read as overly complex at best and run-ons at worst, again, in large part because they don't follow one of the simple rules of modern literature: information is paramount, and how information is presented has become much less important than what it actually is—temporarily disregarding standards of readability and good taste—so the obvious choice is minimalism and succinctness (and the epitome of this is Twitter, which a comment already mentioned) especially because it's significantly easier to write many brief sentences than one long one that retains even a modicum of comprehensibility.

(You have no idea how hard that was to do.)

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Too Short; Didn't Read. –  j_random_hacker Oct 6 '10 at 7:29
I believe that the trend to shorter sentences started long before the internet. –  Colin Fine Nov 11 '10 at 18:16
+1: "florid purple prose of yesteryear" –  Jared Updike Nov 11 '10 at 19:57
+1 For making such a long sentence actually quite easy to follow. I didn't have to go back and reread once. The admittedly awkward run-ons were cleverly camouflaged by the use of varying punctuation marks. –  Cerberus Mar 21 '11 at 21:57
@Cerberus: This was the ultimate exercise in writing how I (sometimes) talk, if I get going on some kind of crazy tangent spiral while riffing on a topic. –  Jon Purdy Mar 22 '11 at 0:48
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You beat me to it! –  calvinf Mar 10 '11 at 18:58
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