Longest English sentence

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There have been several claims for the longest sentence in the English language, usually with claims that revolve around the longest printed sentence. There is no absolute limit on the length of a written English sentence. A sentence can be made as long as time allows with concatenating (linking) clauses using grammatical conjunctions such as and. Sentences can also be extended indefinitely by the addition of modifiers and modifier clauses, such as

The mouse that the cat that the dog chased ....[1]

or of successive extensions of the form

Someone thinks that someone thinks that someone thinks that...,[2]

This ability to embed structures iteratively within larger ones is called recursion.[3] This also highlights the difference between linguistic performance and linguistic competence, because the language can support more variation than can reasonably be created or recorded.[2] Human language grammars are phrase-generation systems, so—in their simplest forms—they must have infinite output. The deeper, more recursive structures reflect similarities among linguistic constituents and operations, but a listener can understand these structures without going into a deeper analysis.[4] At least one linguistics textbook concludes that, in theory, "there is no longest English sentence".[5]

The 1983 Guinness Book of World Records claims, however, that there is a "Longest Sentence in Literature": a sentence from the William Faulkner novel Absalom, Absalom! containing 1,288 words. The sentence can be found in Chapter 6; it begins with the words 'Just exactly like father', and ends with 'the eye could not see from any point'. The passage is entirely italicised and incomplete. Molly Bloom's soliloquy in the James Joyce novel Ulysses contains a sentence of 4,391 words. Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club appears to hold the record at 13,955 words. It was inspired by Bohumil Hrabal's Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age: a Czech language novel that consisted of one great sentence.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Elaine Rich (2007). Automata, Computability and Complexity: Theory and Applications. Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-228806-0. 
  2. ^ a b Stephen Crain, Diane Lillo-Martin (1999). An Introduction to Linguistic Theory and Language Acquisition. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-19536-X. 
  3. ^ Carnie, Andrew (2013). Syntax: A Generative Introduction - Third Edition. Singapore: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 33. 
  4. ^ Stabler, Edward P., Recursion in grammar and performance, http://www.linguistics.ucla.edu/people/stabler/Stabler10-Recurs.pdf revised 2011-10-06 10:06
  5. ^ Steven E. Weisler, Slavoljub P. Milekic, Slavko Milekic (2000). Theory of Language. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-73125-8. 
  6. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/reports/archive/arts/sentence.shtml

External links and references[edit]