Field of Science

What is the Longest Sentence in English?

Writers periodically compete to see who can write the longest sentence in literature. James Joyce long held the English record with a 4,391 word sentence in Ulysses. Jonathan Coe one-uped him in 2001 with a 13,955 word sentence in The Rotter's Club. More recently, a single-sentence, 469,375 word novel appeared.

Will they ever run out of words?

No. It's easy to come up with a long sentence if you want to, though typing it out may be a chore. Here's a simple recipe:

1. Pick a sentence you like (e.g., "'Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.")

2. Add "Mary said that" to the beginning of your sentence (e.g., "Mary said that 'twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.")

3. Add "John said that" to the beginning of your new sentence (e.g., "John said that Mary said that 'twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.")

4. Go back to step #2 and repeat.

If you keep this up long enough, you'll have the longest sentence in English or any other language.

Why this matters.

There are reasons to care about this other than immortalizing your name. This formula is a proof by demonstration that language learning is not simply a matter of copying what you have heard others say. If this was true, nobody could ever make a longer sentence than the longest one they had ever heard.

However, making longer sentences is not simply a matter of stringing words together. You can't break the longest-sentence record by stringing together the names "John" and "Mary" 469,376 times. That wouldn't be a sentence.

This exercise is one of the most famous proofs that language has structure, and speakers of a language have an intuitive understanding of that structure (the other famous proof arguably being the sentence Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.).

2 comments:

Derek James said...

This exercise is one of the most famous proofs that language has structure...

Does this even require proof? Would anyone seriously contend that language doesn't have structure?

...and speakers of a language have an intuitive understanding of that structure...

Ah, now this is contentious. You didn't use the word "innate" though, which is what all the controversy is about.

Couldn't a comparison be drawn with some task, say...building with Legos? You can always make a larger structure with Legos (assuming reliably manufacturing). You just add another piece onto the existing structure. Is this proof that assembled Legos have structure and that humans have an intuitive (or innate) understanding of that structure?

jeromine said...
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