Recently, three months to be exact, I finished reading Moby-Dick; and I have to say that Herman Melville must have been paid with semicolons; but his payment must have been like that too, as payment was made at times at that time from what I gather, it has been subtracted from every point he used, as there seem to be sentences that last forever.
That was a sarcastic nod to Melville, but I think that’s what a lot of people wrote in the 19th century. If you don’t believe me, I just opened my book and found this huge one after just a minute:
“And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues, every majestic or beautiful ornament, the sweet hues of evening skies and woods; yes, and the golden velvets of butterflies and the cheeks of butterfly of young girls; these are all subtle deceptions, not really inherent in the substances, but only imposed from without; so that all Nature challenged paints absolutely like the harlot whose seductions cover nothing but the house interior carnal; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces each of its hues, the great principle of light, remains forever white or colorless in itself, and if it operated without a medium upon matter, it would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with their own light hue in white – pondering all this, the paralyzed universe lies before us like a leper; and like obstinate travelers in L Aponia, who refuses to wear colored glasses and dyes in his eyes, thus the miserable infidel looks at him self-blind before the monumental white shroud that wraps the entire perspective around him.”
That’s a 175-word sentence monster right there!
Now what can we learn from this? First we can tell by reading it that it is difficult to read. Granted, the sentence is technically not a continuation, even though it violates the ‘one breath rule’ that some people use to determine if a sentence is a continuation. In fact, a sentence can be infinitely long, as long as it is properly punctuated. So it’s not a corrido, but wow, it’s complex and hard to read. So we don’t want to mimic this, but why study it?
Just like a batter in baseball puts a weight on his bat to practice swings before he gets to the plate, learning to write a sentence like Melville’s will make you more comfortable using more complex sentences in your writing. Again, I’m not advocating filling your paper with 100+ word sentences, but it’s valuable to learn how to construct them.
So let’s start deconstructing that sentence. I will first break the sentence into all the independent clauses.
“And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues, every majestic or beautiful ornament, the sweet hues of evening skies and woods; yes, and the golden velvets of butterflies and the cheeks of butterfly of young girls – these are all subtle deceptions, not actually inherent in the substances, but only imposed from the outside;
so that all Nature challenged paints absolutely like the harlot whose seductions cover nothing but the inner carnal house;
and when we go further and consider that the mystical cosmetic that produces each of its hues, the great principle of light, remains forever white or colorless in itself, and if it operated without a medium on matter, it would touch all objects, even the tulips. and roses, with their own white tint–
Meditating all this, the paralyzed universe lies leprous before us; and like obstinate travelers in Lapland, refusing to wear colored glasses and colored eyes, so the unbelieving wretch stares blindly at the monumental white shroud that shrouds the whole panorama around him.”
So as you can see there are 4 of them there. If you read each one, you will notice that it is one complete thought. You’ll also notice that two of them end with a semicolon, one ends with a hyphen, and the last one obviously ends with a period.
Why are commas not used? Well, a comma would normally be used in a more basic complex sentence. “I went to the store and bought a gallon of milk.” There are two independent clauses there: “I went to the store” and “I picked up a gallon of milk.” In that case, a comma joins them nicely, so why did Melville use a semicolon and a hyphen?
He did this because the general rule is to use a semicolon instead of a comma to join two independent clauses when commas have already been used in the independent thought. (And a hyphen can take the place of a semicolon and is nothing more than a stylistic choice.)
That’s an extreme example of a complex sentence, broken down into main thoughts; and having read that, I hope he feels confident to add complexity to some of the sentences in his paper that he feels could use it.