When is a sentence too long?

German stylistics: How long can a sentence be?

15 or 20 words at most! This is a rule of thumb that applies in editorial offices and style primers. It is sensible insofar as it reliably prevents a nested sentence structure of around 40 words - everyday life in official German; it is not quite correct.

First, because even short sentences can be ugly ("Warnings are given before eating before eating"); Second, because it is not the length of a sentence that determines its comprehensibility and its power, but the question of whether it is lean and manageable, not hung with the garlands of inserted subordinate clauses (lesson 14), not crammed with preceding attributes (lesson 13).

One of the most exuberant sentences in the German language consists of no less than 187 words and is by Schopenhauer. In his METAPHYSICS OF SEX LOVE, between two points he accumulates 16 reasons why love is an aberration, yes "a hostile demon" be - with the conclusion: "It's just a matter of every Hans finding his Grete."

The same applies to our everyday life as it does to poetry: The sets should be fat-free when propelling.

"Friendship, love, philosopher's stone, I hear these three praise them, and I praised and looked for them, but alas: I never found them."Simple, fast-paced and by Heinrich Heine; and we should try to approach it in prose too.


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In German, this is countered by a problem with the grammar that drives foreigners learning German to despair, and even native-speaker readers are often scared away from the text: that we are making the parts of a two-part verb (I will ... come, I want to ...) ) do not have to be together (I have helped my father, I helped my father), yes, the second half of the verb, which first creates the meaning, can be allowed to lag behind at any distance; by 27 words, for example in a 2012 annual report: "The magazine uses the latest internet technology to address the megatrends of the future, such as an increasing number of cardiovascular diseases, a growing need for high-quality food and the carbon dioxide problem."

What is missing here is firstly any instinct for a form of expression that would be relaxed and based on the oral, i.e. reader-friendly - and secondly, the knowledge of the basic insight of an exact science, the comprehensibility research (nobody denies it, but most professional writers, including the German teachers ignore them): The storage capacity of our short-term memory, the ability to recognize two words as belonging together, as the two parts of a verb are - it ends with 6 to 7 words.

For example: "Using the latest internet technology, the magazine addresses the megatrends of the future, for example ..."

Of course: 7 words, that's a rough number, calculated for a diffuse readership. Just curious: Most of the great authors in the German language - not Kleist, not Thomas Mann, not Thomas Bernhard, but most of them - have behaved in exactly the same way, instinctively before all science. Driving forward they wrote:

As Schiller in the HISTORY OF THE WASTE OF THE NETHERLANDS: "The team was numerous, their courage desperate, their trust in relief and their hatred of the Catholic religion to the extreme."

Like Siegfried Lenz in DEUTSCHSTUNDE: "I don't tell a random story, because whatever is random doesn't oblige you to anything. That's why I insist on oppressive skies, veiled air and weak sun, I let ourselves work under the sounds of a moderate surf, the rustling of the reeds, a migration of birds is forming , the bog is boiling its bubbly soup. "

That was in 1968, and since then the range of texts on offer has multiplied with the help of the Internet, but the willingness to read leisurely has decreased in lockstep. So we have every reason to honor the 7 words that are a law for research, at least as a rule of thumb. It also applies to the distance between subject and predicate, i.e. to the answer to the question: Who does what? And it is hard to believe with what indifference to the reader many writers go to work.

The BROCKHAUS ENZYKLOP√ĄDIE from 2006 wants to define the "culture of remembrance" for us. It is presented as a concept of cultural studies, "which against the background of ... following ... has developed into a key term in the discussions about ... and the meaning of ... with regard to ... (and after 63 words)" .

Perversion of German grammar. Mastering them should also mean being able to tame them.