Sentence Length Has Declined 75% in the Past 500 Years
In 1892, author Edwin Herbert Lewis wrote in his History of the English Paragraph that “it is a well-known fact that the English sentence has decreased in average length at least one-half in three-hundred years,” and, in the nearly 125 years that have elapsed since the publication of Lewis’ book, the average sentence length has unsurprisingly decreased by yet another half. If this trend continues, then the average sentence length would likely continue to decrease by another half still and, by the year 2100, all in-sentence punctuation, such as commas, colons, and semicolon, might be reduced altogether from our language.
I must admit that I intentionally made the first sentence in this article lengthy, especially for our time period; it contains 61 words, which was the average sentence length around 500 years ago. (Of course, my first sentence is nowhere as singular as Faulkner’s famously long sentence in Absalom! Absalom!, which contained an extraordinary 1,292 words.) On average, sentences today range from 15 to 20 words. Compared to the past, that is exceptionally low, since the average sentence length in the sixteenth century was as high as 70 words per sentence in some years.
Not much research has been done on the length of sentences, but nineteenth-century scholar L.A. Sherman does provide us with one of the rare examples of a scholarly analysis of sentence length. In his analyses of several books from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, he determines that the average sentence length was approximately 63.02 words per sentence in the 1525, and, 70 years later in 1595, dropped precipitously to 41.41 words per sentence. In the 1820s, it maintains an average of about 26 words per sentence.
Sentence length, in conclusion, is not all that Sherman analyzes in his book. He also notes that a decrease in sentence predication roughly parallels the decrease in sentence length. For example, in 1525, when the average sentence length was 63.02 words per sentence, the average number of predicates per sentence was 6.16, and, in 1950, when the average sentence length was 14.4, the average predication rate decreased to 3.93. Interestingly, even the cases in which longer sentences appear in nineteenth century literature, such sentences still lack the number of predicates per sentence that had existed in previous centuries, according to Sherman.
As one of the most accurate books on sentence length over the past 100 years, Sherman’s work still serves as a useful source in the study of sentence length and also, in demonstrating the downward trajectory of sentence length and predication that occurred for the past 500 years. All that it takes to get a clearer idea of what has happened in the century or so since the release of the book is to pick up a magazine from the past 10 years, to count the words in the sentence and to see that, for the most part, the sentence length now has gotten lower than ever before.