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Alaskan Range: Pleonasm

Columnist and word juggler Greg Hill brings news of a world champion 13,955 word sentence.

They say "pleonasm" means "the use of more words than those necessary to express an idea." It's a charge that could be leveled against writers who use a single sentence for entire books. That hasn't occurred in English yet, but in 1964 the Czech author Jerzy Andrzejewski wrote a 117-page one-sentence novel titled "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age."

The book's a series of fictional confessions made by "horny French teenagers marching toward Jerusalem in the 13th century Children's Crusade," according to a NY Times article from last December by Ed Park titled "One Sentence Says It All." Reading such contrivances can strain readers' patience. "Every mention of the 'long and arduous road' seems to comment on the enduring nature of the sentence itself," Park grumbles, while noting "repeated descriptions of crummy weather give the brain some breathing space."

Bohumil Hrabal, a Polish writer, wrote the 158-page "The Gates of Paradise" four years earlier, but it was actually comprised of two sentences, although the second was only five words long. English literature has some dandy syntax; we can produce infinitely long sentences by adding "and," "but," and other conjunctives. Wikipedia notes that the "Guinness Book of World Records" claims the longest English sentence is William Faulkner's 1,287-word doozy in "Absalom, Absalom." But Molly Bloom's soliloquy in James Joyce's "Ulysses" contains an 11,281-word sentence, Jonathan Coe's 2001 novel, "The Rotter's Club," includes a 13,955-word sentence, the current world champion.

None were edited by a committee, obviously. Tom Jefferson's Declaration of Independence underwent group scrutiny, and he writhed under it so that Ben Franklin told him a story. An apprentice hatter Franklin once knew was about to launch his first shop and composed wording for a signboard. It featured a picture of a hat and read, "John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money." The hatter's friends pointed out that "hatter" followed by "makes hats" was a tautology and unnecessary. His customers wouldn't expect credit nor care who made the hats, so "makes" was cut, as was "for ready money." "Sells" was dropped since he wouldn't give them away, and the hat picture made "hat" unnecessary, leaving just the picture and "John Thompson."

The best approach to committee editors is "KISS," or "keep it simple, stupid" as practiced by the author of "Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity in Words of Four Letters or Less." It gets a bit tedious, but here's as sample: "So, have a seat. Put your feet up. This may take some time Say you woke up one day and your bed was gone. Your room, too. Gone. It's all gone. You wake up in an inky void Now say you want to know if you move or not. Are you held fast in one spot? Or do you, say, list off to the left some? What I want to ask you is: Can you find out? Hell no To move, you have to move to or away from well, from what? You'd have to say that you don't even get to use a word like 'move' when you are the only body in the void."

An abundance of short words can quickly grow annoying, but so can unnecessarily long ones. "Sesquipedalianism" means "given to long words," according to the American Heritage Dictionary, and the Google.com thesaurus adds that "hippomonstrosesquipedalianism" "is an even stronger way of expressing this thought." Which reminds me of a literary feud that began when Faulkner spoke at a question-and-answer session with students at Old Miss. Faulkner, who was as unafraid of upbraiding fellow authors as he was of testing literary conventions, was asked about Ernest Hemingway's famously terse writing style, and replied, "he has no courage, has never climbed out on a limb He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."

Papa Hemingway was famously thin-skinned, especially about his courage. He had a mutual friend inform Faulkner about his exploits as a correspondent in Spain, and Faulkner apologized. But Hemingway didn't forget, and when asked later about the feud, replied "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"


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