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I read somewhere that Chinese prefers short sentences while English prefers longer ones. I don't have great examples of this, yet.

This is particularly problematic in legal texts where an English sentence can be hundreds of words or a long paragraph, making it tricky to translate into Chinese (somehow). I am listening to the Tao Te Ching, which appears to be composed of very short sentences, yet offers great insight.

What languages prefer the shortest sentences, and compose meaning out of extremely short sentences?

What languages prefer short sentences. And which compose meaning out of extremely short sentences?

(I tried to make it into short sentences, but it feels awkward with that conjunction in English beginning the second sentence.)

I tried to make it into a short sentence. But it feels awkward. With that conjunction in English. The conjunction which begins the second sentence.

Wondering how short you can get and still be expressive.

Wondering how short you can get. And still be expressive.

What languages (natural or conlang) use short sentences mostly? What are the general patterns for it or where to look for more info?

I would like to learn how to write in English with short sentences, like the Tao Te Ching. Or even in the conlang I'm working on. To have short sentences everywhere. But not quite sure how that would look/feel/work.

In English it feels like a mixture of short and long sentences is the most poetic and expressive and beautiful sounding, but I'm guessing that's probably just a quirk of English somehow. So curious what the possibilities are for expressive, beautiful statements, rich with meaning, yet concise and to the point.

From the Tao Te Ching:

Once upon a time, those who knew the Way, were a mysterious and subtle people.
Transient yet profound. 
Tranquil yet utterly unfathomable.
Since they are inexplicable, I can only tell what they seem like:
Cautious, as if wading through a winter river.
Wary, as if afraid of their own neighbors.
Grave, like the courteous house guests.
Elusive, as of melting ice.
Pure and natural, as of unchiseled gems.
Wide and open, as of a deep valley.
Yet mysterious, oh yes, they were like troubled water.
Who can remain tranquil amidst troubled airs, that calmness may flow from within?
Who may remain at peace eternal, that motion would yield birth to nature?
For those who follow the Way, fulfillment has never been their aim.
Only as they are forever unfulfilled, can such freshness be ever renewed.

Is it some sort of poeticness that is happening here, or can any language have shorter sentences like these and have it be the norm?

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    I don't necessarily think it's the language per se, but more the genre. You can write short (and long) sentences in any language. With conlangs, toki pona is a bit of an exception, as it deliberately limits how long sentences can be. Nov 9, 2022 at 13:31
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    Part of the problem is that English can glue sentences together with colons, semicolons and coordinating conjunctions. Most of those periods in the translation you provide would probably be semicolons if this were a native English text, especially the ones after the colon
    – No Name
    Nov 11, 2022 at 18:45
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    Division into sentences is a bit arbitrary. This works best for written languages. Separators are required.
    – Edvin
    Nov 11, 2022 at 20:40
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    I read somewhere a claim that more insular communities use simpler sentences. You don't need relative clauses as much if all your interlocutors already share most of your context. Jun 10, 2023 at 18:09

1 Answer 1

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This question is really difficult to answer, because sentence length is a tricky beast. We usually measure it in words or tokens (which is words + punctuation marks). There are languages that can put much information in one word, like Greenlandic, a polysynthetic language. Such languages have short sentences in this measure.

The second problem is that sentence length is dependent on factors like genre, the existence of prescriptive style guides and personal preference of the author or speaker. Some prefer extremely long sentences, others prefer to produce aphorisms and proverb-like statements.

So I'm afraid there is no general answer, but my bet for a language with short sentences (measured on some carefully translated common text, to eliminate genre/preference as good as possible) is a polysynthetic one like Greenlandic.

P.S. Although average sentence length on a multilingual corpus seems to be a low hanging fruit, I did not find any papers on that in a very quick and dirty search.

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  • Yeah how to speak in proverb-like statements :)
    – Lance
    Nov 9, 2022 at 13:30
  • @Lance This is possible! A learned style is required. Some languages do this. Adinkra symbols can give inspiration.
    – Edvin
    Nov 11, 2022 at 20:38
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    That depends on how you characterize "short". While Greenlandic, like other Inuit languages, may have fewer words than an equivalent English sentence, the number of phonemes in that sentence can be the same or significantly more. Nov 23, 2022 at 20:20
  • @KeithMorrison: Indeed, there are other measures for sentence length, like characters (in a writing system), phonemes, and ultimately bits (in the sense of Kolmogorov's Minimal Description Length).
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Nov 24, 2022 at 10:20
  • @jk-ReinstateMonica, Exactly. Inuktitut, for instance, has a lower data rate than English because there is a much lower number of potential syllables, so on average it will take more phonemes to transmit the same amount of information. Nov 24, 2022 at 15:21

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