During the Christmas holidays, I picked up an issue of The New Yorker (12/17/18), and I read a short story entitled “Time for the Eyes to Adjust” by Linn Ullmann. The story described an interesting relationship between the narrator and her father, but the specific feature that stood out was the 259-word sentence near the end of the story.
As a long-time writing instructor, I’ve often assigned one-page descriptive essays (12-point font and double spaced) to my students. Typically, those essays include roughly 250–300 words. So technically, this one sentence by Ullmann could have met my essay requirement. Amazing — right? Yet, needless to say, I’ve never had a student submit a one-sentence essay. Still, this particularly long sentence does raise the question: what should be the maximum word count for a sentence today?
Based on my almost 40 years of grading papers, I would guesstimate that most student sentences are between 15 and 25 words, but I’ve never mandated a particular range. In our class discussions, I suggest to my students that they find a length that fits what they’re trying to say without trying to cram too much information into one sentence.
We also talk about “readability,” and I try to emphasize the point that if long sentences are not crafted properly, readers can get lost and may have to re-read the sentence, which, obviously, is not ideal. Thus, I usually conclude by highlighting the idea that if as writers, they begin to worry that their sentence is too long, then their readers may also struggle with the sentence’s length.
Having said all that, the sentence by Ullmann is surprisingly well crafted and amazingly clear. In the story, the narrator is a 12-year-old Norwegian girl who is about to meet six older siblings she has never met previously. In the sentence, she describes an older brother who works as a transatlantic airplane pilot. The following sentence is what Ullmann wrote about the brother and about the girl’s encounter with him.
“He was the tallest of them all — she knew it was him the minute she laid eyes on him — he turned around in the yard and when he caught sight of her he set down his suitcase and opened his arms, he was treetop tall and slim and the best-looking man she had ever seen, and she had, despite her tender years, seen lots, and she ran toward him and he swept her so high off the ground and swung her around so fast that she nearly lost her breath, but instead of losing her breath she opened her eyes, slowly, as if she were underwater, and from up there in his arms she saw not only Hammars, with its moors, its lambs, and its old limestone farmhouses, but the whole of Fårö, from the limestone quarry up at Norsholmen and the English cemetery south of Dämba to the sand dunes at Ullahau, where the girl had heard that you could go sledding in the winter, to the old grocery store down by the church and the beaches at Sudersand, Ekeviken, and Norsta Aurar, and all the way out to the sea stacks at Langhammars and Digerhuvud, and just when she thought he was going to set her down on the ground again his arms grew even longer and she rose even higher in the air and now she could see the ocean and the horizon and the Iron Curtain there in the distance, where, if you lose your way and end up there, they’ll never let you out.”
I don’t think I could ever write a sentence that long!
As I read Ullmann’s sentence, I immediately noticed the lack of commas and coordinating conjunctions, but I kept reading because I was intrigued by the description of both characters and by their physical interaction, especially when the brother lifted the narrator initially and, then, lifted her ever higher, and she imagined she could see so many places in the distance, places she had never seen before; despite the run-on nature of the sentence, I read it easily and did not need to slow down or back up because the author skillfully included descriptive phrases within the sentences, phrases such as “despite her tender years” or “as if she were underwater,” phrases that Professor Brooks Landon from the University of Iowa (in his video course entitled “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft”) calls “second-level modifying phrases” because they go beyond the basic kernel of a sentence and create a sense of movement, as if the reader, too, is being lifted high above the physical setting and allowed to view not only the places mentioned but also the incidents the writer/narrator has experienced during her short lifetime, a lifetime that has been so heavily influenced by her famous parents (her father is Swedish director and screenwriter Ingmar Bergman, and her mother is Norwegian actress, author, and director Liv Ullmann) who separated when the girl was three, so consequently, she only saw her father during the month of July when she would live with him and his fifth wife, an experience that would, indeed, require “Time for the Eyes to Adjust.”