Sometimes it happens that reading texts with sentences that are too short I feel like there is no fluency, as if someone talks hiccupping. Language is obviously a cultural formation and where I am from there is no such apparent need for always formulating the shortest sentence as possible.

I wonder if you have any clue on this English peculiarity (which is perhaps not only English, I don't know!) What are the reasons behind English passion for short sentences?

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    Can you please add some examples of what you're talking about, in an EDIT to your question? Aug 31, 2016 at 8:42
  • Probably, short attention spans, smart phones, dumb people...
    – NVZ
    Aug 31, 2016 at 8:46
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    While some languages do have longer sentences on average than others (looking at you, French), short is the default, not an exception. This question is based on a false premise, that in turn is based on a perception bias. The reason you think English favours short sentences is because you favour reading short English sentences. You are very welcome to read long English sentences, of which I can assure you there is no shortage whatsoever.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 31, 2016 at 9:15
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    @RegDwigнt I don't see how the average length of sentences is a cultural thing. It may not be intrinsic to a given language, but I'd say it's all but completely unrelated to the culture, except in things like ritual or court writings, where culture overrides normal language usage every time. The average complexity and length of sentences in any given language is part of that language and its usage; it's something you'd expect to learn about in a grammar/language class, not in a sociology or anthropology class. Aug 31, 2016 at 19:01
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - You don't think that a "cultural style", such as the tendency to emulate Shakespearean style, would affect this? Wouldn't a lot depend on the icons of literature which a given generation was encouraged to emulate?
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 31, 2016 at 19:11

2 Answers 2


It is a literary technique called parataxis that favors short, simple sentences, with the use of coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions. I agree with you, it looks typical, or at least is common in written English.

Dickens employs parataxis in his opening to A Tale of Two Cities:

  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

Hemingway, from "The Undefeated":

  • Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go out into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurito. He would go to sleep while he waited.


  • "Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better--splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foothold at street corners." (Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1852-1853)

  • "In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels." (Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929)

  • "I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun." (Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely, 1940)

As for why, this usage probably has its roots in the past, in Old English:

Parataxis in Old English: Evidence from Translation K. Aaron Smith, University of New Mexico

  • In this paper, I show the paratactic clause combining nature of Old English through a comparison study of some portions of the Old English translations of Bede’s original Latin work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. In the data, I find that whereas Latin employed many hypotactic and subordinating clause combining strategies, Old English translations of these structures was predominantly paratactic.

  • The study is significant for the literary history of the English language and for the linguistic theory of grammaticization. First, it indicates that written Old English was closer to a spoken type of discourse where little subordination is found. I argue that this is most likely due to the fact that in the Old English period, the language had not long enough been used for literary aims and therefore had not yet developed a large repertoire of hypotactic and subordinating strategies for combining clauses as compared to Latin, which at the time already had a long history of literary expression.

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    To be pedantic, those Dickens sentences are anything but short and simple. Aug 31, 2016 at 8:53
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    @MaxWilliams - well, they are a series of short sentences. I think this is an aspect the the language that may appear "unusal" mainly to non-natives.
    – user66974
    Aug 31, 2016 at 8:56
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    A very long sentence with lots of short clauses, surely? Aug 31, 2016 at 8:59
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    @MaxWilliams Arguably no. There are no conjunctions, so despite the fact that they're only separated by commas, they essentially make up a series of parallel sentences, rather than being clauses in a single sentence. Aug 31, 2016 at 19:04
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - But if Dickens had tossed in an "and" here and there, and maybe a "followed by" and a "thereafter" or two, it would be one big sentence??
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 31, 2016 at 19:15

Its a cultural thing, nothing to do with the language itself. Read some older stuff, for instance from the 18th or 19th Century, and you'll see that back then much longer and more complex sentences were preferred.

For example, the entire first paragraph of the Declaration of independence (1776) is a single sentence containing 5 clauses and 71 words.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation

Lest you think this a fluke, the next two sentences are even longer, clocking in at 109 and 116 words respectively.

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    I don't see how that makes it a cultural thing. It's something that's changed a lot in recent decades, but that's true of many linguistic factors, and there's nothing cultural that this change in English can reasonably be linked to that wouldn't also apply to other languages where the average sentence length hasn't decreased by anywhere near the same amount as it has in English, or indeed languages like Chinese and Japanese whose sentences are significantly longer now than they were a couple of hundred years ago. Aug 31, 2016 at 19:08
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - I'm not sure I get your point. But perhaps that's because I lost you and quit reading about 35 words into your 77 word sentence...
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 31, 2016 at 19:10
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    My point is this: just because sentences were longer in English 200 years ago than they are now, that doesn't make sentence length a cultural, irrespective of the language. There's nothing culture-based about sentence length (at least no more than every other aspect of language). Aug 31, 2016 at 19:12

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