I was sent this BBC article to read a few days ago by a person who knows my love of words and also my left-leaning political views. It is an interesting article, a mix of politics and linguistics (there’s just no avoiding semantics when it comes to that pairing!), and it gave me much to think about. I did, however, find myself distracted from the content by an aspect of formatting I’ve been noticing lately about internet news stories in general: the one-sentence paragraph. It creates an interesting but not entirely pleasant effect. I don’t know if it is a new phenomenon (relatively speaking, of course, since much of the internet is “new” to us), or if I’ve just finally become more explicitly aware of what I’ve been unconsciously noticing for some time.

The first effect I felt about this style of writing was that ideas were given false portent simply because of the visual impact of seeing them all alone. Because our paragraphs are so often composed of more than one sentence, seeing one short sentence all by itself will often be used for emphasis or exaggeration. As explained here, “Unlike paragraphs with multiple sentences, a one-sentence paragraph places heavy emphasis on the idea. It is a high-impact tool for telling the reader, ‘This is very important.’ Very few ideas require this level of emphasis. Used sparingly, one-sentence paragraphs can be very effective for pointing out critical ideas or keeping the reader mentally focused on the content.” An article consisting solely of one-sentence paragraphs loses the use of this technique to emphasize one idea over another. For example from the article in question:

“How to achieve liberal goals? In 1848, revolutions swept across Europe.

Their goals were by and large liberal. People wanted clear national borders and they wanted to be able to trade freely across them.

These revolutions were bloody at first, and so for some, liberal became closely linked with radical.

The revolutions ended in failure, but within two decades most of the liberal principles that had been fought for had become common.

Modern Germany and Italy had been created.

Strong national movements in smaller countries were thriving.

But most of all, by the middle of the 19th Century, liberalism meant free trade.

Certainly, that is what it meant for Britain’s Liberal Party which tore itself out of the Conservative (Tory) Party shortly after the events of 1848.”

Visually, this sequence leads me to believe that each idea is very important and I have to pay special attention to each one. However, this isn’t really the case. The first sentence could be considered a topic sentence and the following sentences details that support the idea of the link of revolution with the word ‘liberal.’ The idea starts with the initial link, and then goes through the steps of how the word ‘liberal’ then became associated with political or economic movements. These are all interesting details and part of the logical process the author is explaining, but they are not important enough to require a stand-alone paragraph for emphasis.

This is one interpretation of this particular sequence of sentences. I’m sure there are other ways to analyze the relationship between these eight ideas. Perhaps the first four sentences make up a short paragraph with the following four comprising the second paragraph. Perhaps there are even three separate paragraphs. The point here is that it is very difficult to tell because the reader is bombarded with pitch after pitch in such rapid succession that we have little time to recover and settle back into a comfortable batting stance. We are sent from one idea to the next with very little or no transition or structural information on the relationship between the ideas. “As a result, he or she loses the ability to point out specific ideas as being the most important. This is similar to always shouting. If you shout everything you say, no single shouted idea has more emphasis than any other.” (One-Sentence Paragraph)

I understand that this is not just internet journalism at work, but journalism period. Traditional paper and ink newspaper articles were written in short, clear, efficient sentences and paragraphs as well. They weren’t however, usually only one sentence long. And even if they were, just for argument’s sake, the columns at least served to create the visual illusion of longer paragraphs. The vast space that is the internet is not limited by physical considerations the way newspapers have been, and so sentences can spread out across the whole screen. Because of these visual effects, the same writing that is used in print can often have a different effect on readers when presented on a computer screen.

The second distraction of the formatting was that it pushed me through the article and I found that I was reading almost as if I were being timed for an exam. I suppose this is an effect that is desirable in a news article: the reader will read quickly, getting the main ideas or events or facts, and then move on to the next article. There is no time for in-depth reportage or analysis when the reader just wants the facts. The problem here is twofold. This article is not a basic ‘who, what, where, when, why, or how’ article. It isn’t about a fire or an accident or troop movements in the current war or gerrymandering in the current municipal government. It is an analysis piece. It is meant not as a strict telling of the facts, but as an interpretation of an event (in this case, linguistic/sociological behavior). A reader might want to linger over these ideas rather than be rushed through them just to get to the next article faster.

More importantly, however, is the idea of how quickly one can read and still understand the concepts. Granted, this wasn’t a particularly complex article, but it still had ideas worth mulling over and some that might take a reader a couple of seconds to understand the reference. How much of the substance of these ideas might get lost if the reader goes through it too quickly and only gets a superficial comprehension of the concepts? We’re already complaining about decreasing attention spans and increasing distractions, so do we really want to encourage this with a journalistic style meant to quicken the pace of reading, even for subject matters which might be better understood if read more slowly and thoroughly? Do we always have to push ourselves to do everything faster?

I am reminded of a quote from an essay called “Coon Tree” by E.B. White: “Many of the commonest assumptions, it seems to me, are arbitrary ones: that the new is better than the old, the untried superior to the tried, the complex more advantageous than the simple, the fast quicker than the slow, the big greater than the small, and the world as remodeled by Man the Architect functionally sounder and more agreeable than the world as it was before he changed everything to suit his vogues and his conniptions.”

I am not arbitrarily against technology or its effects on our behavior or language; I only object when those changes do not clearly add to the substance of our lives and seem only to serve change for its own sake.

And yes, that was an emphatic one-sentence paragraph. Pay attention to it, please.

Articles Referenced:

Goldfarb, Michael. “Liberal? Are we talking about the same thing?” BBC News World. 20 July 2010.

“The One-Sentence Paragraph”. ArticlesBase. 2 March 2009.

White, E.B. “Coon Tree” Reprinted in Essays of E.B. White. Harper and Row. New York. 1977. p.34-45.

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