There are many ways in which texts give us pleasure, but none has accumulated more prestige than what some have called syntactical vertigo. When we think of masters of prose, the names that typically jump to the front of the line are the Virginia Woolfs, Thomas Manns, and Marguerite Yourcenars of the world: the writers who could turn a trainwreck of clauses into an unlikely thing of beauty. This might be changing.
In her Nautilus essay on the ever-shifting terrain of English syntax, Julie Sedivy shows how languages become exponentially more complex as societies transition from oral communication to textual transmission. This makes one wonder: if we’re indeed in an age that moves (dare I say, pivots) away from the printed word, will this lead to an inevitable flattening of our syntax?
When children are fed a steady linguistic diet that is rich in complex sentences, these become easier to compute, and in turn, more readily produced under the time pressures imposed by speech. For example, psychologist Jessica Montag and her colleagues targeted relative clauses in the passive voice (the dog that was hit by the car), which are exceedingly rare in speech but more abundant in text, even that written for children. They found that heavy readers in the 8-12-year-old range produced such structures more often than children who read less. Even among adults, the production of these sentences was highly correlated with how much text they consumed, suggesting that avid readers are far more likely to transmit complex sentences to future generations.
All of this suggests that exposure to literary language is essential for the health of complex recursive sentences in English. If certain structures are too rare in speech to be reliably mastered by learners and passed on, then they may fade out within a community of non-readers. Naturally, this raises the question: Could syntactic complexity in literate languages diminish over time, if new technologies (podcasts, video lectures, and audiobooks) tether language more tightly to speech and its inherent limitations?
In fact, heavily recursive sentences like those found in the Declaration of Independence have already been dwindling in written English (as well as in German) for some time. According to texts analyzed by Brock Haussamen, the average sentence length in written English has shrunk since the 17th century from between 40-70 words to a more modest 20, with a significant paring down of the number of subordinate and relative clauses, passive sentences, explicit connectors between clauses, and off-the-beaten-path sentence structures.
These changes may reflect shifts in readers’ experience with language: Where literacy used to be an elite skill commanded by a very few steeped in lives of scholarly study, now it’s a universal basic necessity. More people now read—because they have to—but many probably still consume the vast bulk of their linguistic diet in spoken form and may have little patience for writing that is mentally taxing and reeks of snobbery. The need to make text accessible to a broader population, with a wide range of linguistic experiences, has created some pressure to bring the structures of written English more in line with spoken English.