The Curse of the One-Sentence Paragraph

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

I’ve been noticing lately that the English paragraph seems to be sinking gradually into the world of the minimal like Michael Crichton’s shrunken people in Micro, a practice that hovers between the silly and the technical. This is especially the case with many of the political articles of our day. The once-mighty paragraph that adorned our best writing in history and politics, as well as literature, is getting shorter by the day, often settling into the one-sentence fragment.


Not only a block of print on a page, the paragraph is a unit of thought, a means of conveying a description, a theory, a report, an impression, a complex idea, or a rhetorical flow with a degree of authority. It is holistic by nature and, as such, an aid to contemplation. It is not merely a stylistic tic or a passing literary convention that can be denatured for convenience. A paragraph properly leads to another when the mental trajectory it favors and permits is complete. It is, in its way, like a cerebral lobe that serves a particular function. One-sentence paragraphs are like lesions. Of course, a standard paragraph these days may run to two or three sentences, but the difference is not significant. The sense of continuity is stunted.

Related: Transgendering Language

Some of our Top G bloggers and columnists — I won’t name names — now seem to believe the general run of readers to be incapable of sustaining interest without taking coffee breaks after the initial expression of a thought, and so have adjusted to this reductive paradigm. Others may even have adopted this truncated mode of writing not only expediently but quite naturally and unreflectively. For those who have studied the classics or cut their teeth on the great prose writers of the Western tradition — say, Sir Thomas Browne, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Edward Gibbon, Arnold Toynbee, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Joseph Epstein, et al., and in fiction, James Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, Willa Cather, Walker Percy, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann (the latter two in translation), and many more of our illuminati, masters of the paragraph who continue to covet and explore the long arc of language — the tendency toward discursive abridgment is a sign of intellectual surrender to the shriveled sensibility of the modern era.


In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell presciently warned of the decline of political and literary writing. His argument is even more relevant today than it was in 1946 when the essay appeared. Orwell wryly notes that “the struggle against the abuse of language” is regarded as “a sentimental archaism.” But the fact is that “our thoughts are foolish,” “unevocative,” “prefabricated,” and that our language has become slovenly, mere “verbal refuse.” Literary and expository practice is differentially the latest proof of Orwell’s grim assessment, in large part owing, no doubt, to the ubiquitous sweep of the Internet and electronic media that characterize a digital age drowning in emails and other ephemera and that have us squinting and scanning rather than taking time to absorb and ponder.

After having bought a typewriter, Friedrich Nietzsche observed in an 1882 letter that “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” This aphorism is equally true of the current writing-and-cognitive environment in which we inevitably participate. “The world of the screen…is a very different place from the world of the page,” argues Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, “attention splinters, thinking becomes superficial, and memory suffers.” As a result, “Authors will face growing pressures to tailor their words to search engines” and will find themselves “fated to eschew virtuosity in favor of bland but immediately accessible style.”

I’ve just finished reading three political articles by writers I greatly admire, one a well-respected American blogger, another a celebrated American author who has become a household name, and the third a young Canadian columnist of considerable acumen. The former two have grown adept at producing contracted, often one-sentence paragraphs, not always grammatically controlled, with irritating regularity. The latter has become a one-sentence junkie. Printing out his material requires four pages instead of one and a half, unless I glue his sentences together. The purpose seems to be to make a point, but the concatenation of points feels spasmodic rather than fluid.


In an age in which people are hooked on Twitter (280 characters, which may increase), “tweeting” rather than writing, there seems little embarrassment in acting like a cartoon canary rather than a serious person. Pace Elon Musk, Twitter should have died immediately under the withering hand of its preposterous and demeaning designation. Additionally, when people have come to rely on text messages and sound bites, read vooks (emails with embedded videos in virtual pages), and depend mainly on film, videos, and a carnival of images to dispense and acquire information, the long paragraph developing a complex thought quickly dulls the eye as it does the patience needed to follow and assimilate the slow and intricate effusion of genuine thinking. The one-sentence paragraph is a kind of mental spurt that evaporates on the page and makes it harder to knit together what should be a coherent whole. After all, we enjoy a long succession of green lights while driving; a red light at every intersection is a palpable annoyance. The opposite is now the case when negotiating a tract, treatise, article, documentary, essay, or book. The single-sentence paragraph becomes like a red light, creating stop-and-start traffic to the end of the page.

Obviously, there is a place for the one-sentence paragraph when it announces a bulleted list, indicates dialogue, introduces a new idea or a change of pace, or begins a piece of writing with a blazon and ends with a clincher. Were I a sports writer, for example, as I once thought of becoming after a stint on the sports section of my campus newspaper, I might have begun my report on the recent Super Bowl with a leading sentence like: “The Philadelphia Eagles won the game, but the Kansas City Chiefs scored more points.” My conclusion might have been: “Never lose heart, even if you win.” Both one-sentence items would have bracketed an analysis of different coaching styles and game strategies, the concept of “magic” (an epithet often applied to Patrick Mahomes), the changing quarterback style in the NFL, the sense of brotherhood among competitors, and the necessity of playing — or living — through pain: football as a life lesson. The one-sentence paragraphs would have functioned as parentheses, enclosing a more substantial analysis or report in paragraphs of respectable length.


As noted above, the one-sentence paragraph is merely an emblem of the proclivity to hyphenated thinking, of the general bias toward reductiveness. It symbolizes a trend that appears to be growing, which does not augur well for the future of Internet writing or even for the more traditional model of expository, descriptive, or narrative prose. It is a symptom of introspective decay, of thinking in fractions rather than in wholes. Thankfully, at least the majority of political analysts and culture critics have resisted the temptation for now, but I fear the writing is on the wall for our scribbling Belshazzars, signifying collapse. Mene mene tekel upharsin: “numbered, numbered, weighed, divided.”


Trending on PJ Media Videos

Join the conversation as a VIP Member