Everyone knows the first line of Moby Dick,
Call me Ishmael.
It is an exercise in brevity and one of the most iconic first sentences in the history of literature. It is an absolutely beautiful sentence.
The fourth sentence of Moby Dick goes like this:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
It is absolutely clear why almost no one knows this particular sentence by heart, even though it is another spectacular bit of English language at its best. It is long and it seems meandering, but it is actually just as perfect as the novel’s first sentence. It also conveys much more.
The reason why my exposition is this long is that we live in a world where everyone is encouraged to reproduce Melville’s famous opening line and I am starting to hate it.
We are told that the online reader has the attention span of a fruit fly and that everything over four words is too long.
I did it myself last year in this article. I even bothered Elvis to put back my original title as he used a longer version. I told him the brevity was on purpose.
(I confess, I am a creator of online content (have been for a while) and I have engaged in my fair share of brevity exercises.)
Over the last couple of months, however, this has been bugging me – this insistence on short sentences, as few adjectives as possible and an almost automaton-like approach to English or any other language that founds its way onto the internet.
I am seriously starting to think that we have a responsibility towards the language as the pinnacle of human thought, towards potential consumers of our content, towards the human culture as a whole, and towards ourselves.
Why so short?
Before I go on with my philosophical musings on the responsibilities of online content creators, I think we should investigate why so much focus is being put on being concise with one’s online writing.
For one, people read stuff online differently than they do when they read magazines, newspapers or books. Computer screens and especially smartphone screens come with their idiosyncrasies and limitations. A 35-word sentence feels never-ending when you try to scroll through it on your smartphone.
There is also the fact that people really are distracted online. The internet is still in its infancy and people still have trouble compartmentalizing it in a distraction-free way (or at least he majority of us do). When you have 17 more tabs open, with half-read articles and whatnot, it is hard to concentrate on sentences which feature more than one very short relative clause.
Also, let’s not forget that much of online content is created for one purpose only – to make money in a more or less direct way. Even the birds in the trees know how much SEO means for small businesses online and if a long sentence is bad for SEO, a business-affiliated content creator will avoid it.
That being said…
That being said, we cannot and should not start reversing the progress of the human thought, language and culture just because a few glinting screens invite us to.
Do not get me wrong, I am not a Luddite in any way and I very much enjoy modern technology, but that does not mean I cannot say a single bad thing about it. I have nothing against glinting screens; in fact I quite enjoy them.
It’s just that they are causing our writing to start reverting to those symbols they use to help chimpanzees and gorillas read.
If someone was to tell you that the internet will be just symbols in 25 years; with a symbol for ordering food, one for telling someone they are nice, one for saying something is interesting; you wouldn’t have a hard time believing them, would you?
It took us (human civilization as a whole) almost 5,000 years of written language to get to that fourth sentence in Moby Dick. It took us somewhat less to develop entirely theoretical concepts (language included) that would allow us to contemplate the point of existence and many other problems.
Even the occasional advocates of brevity and straightforwardness advocated those because they wanted to reach new ideas and new ways to convey those ideas. They did not do it because they couldn’t be bothered to read a long sentence or because it was inconvenient to do so.
In light of that, don’t we, creators of online content have a responsibility not to mess everything up?
Or maybe this is just a temporary glitch and everything will go back to “normal” soon?
Someone smarter needs to think about this.