I've been assigned The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish to read in my literature class. The first thing that struck me about the writing is how long the sentences are. It takes a mental settling-in to get in the right headspace for understanding the clauses. Opening to a random page:

The Empress being thus persuaded by the Duchess to make an imaginary world of her own, followed her advice; and after she had quite finished it, and framed all kinds of creature proper and useful for it, strengthened it with good laws, and beautified it with arts and sciences; having nothing else to do, unless she did dissolve her imaginary world, or made some alterations in the Blazing World she lived in, which yet she could hardly do, by reason it was so well ordered that it could not be mended; for it was governed without secret and deceiving policy; neither was there any ambition, factions, malicious detractions, civil dissensions, or home-bred quarrels, divisions in religion, foreign wars, etc. but all the people lived in a peaceful society, united tranquility, and religious conformity; she was desirous to see the world the Duchess came from, and observe therein the several sovereign governments, laws, and customs of several nations.
The Blazing World and Other Writings (Penguin Classics), page 189

That is a single sentence, with a single full-stop (not counting the . in "etc."). Granted, there are many semicolons, but that's also more semicolons in a row, without full stops, than I'm used to seeing. Flipping (again randomly) finds another example, this one with only a single semicolon but still a considerable number of commas:

But they told her Majesty, that Fortune was so inconstant, that although she would perhaps promise to hear their cause pleaded, yet it was a thousand to one, but she would never have the patience to do it: nevertheless, upon her Majesty's request, they tried their utmost, and at last prevailed with Fortune so far, that she chose Folly, and Rashness, for her friends, but they could not agree in choosing a judge; until at last, with much ado, they concluded, that Truth should hear, and decide the cause.
page 196

Checking some online versions shows a similar habit. I'm interested in whether this was simply the accepted writing style for the time, or if it was a quirk of Cavendish in particular. However, I'm not quite sure how to look for this. Obviously it wouldn't make sense to compare with other categories of works - plays, poems, etc. have their own conventions - but I'm not sure what other works would be considered contemporaries. Looking at Wikipedia's list of 17th century works, I clicked on a 1667 text Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, whose Project Gutenberg copy has shorter sentences. But that's only one datapoint and I'm not sure it's a valid one: see previous doubts over what would be good comparisons.

Are these long, many-claused sentences an artifact of the time Cavendish was writing in, or are they more personal to her?

  • english.stackexchange.com/questions/3602/…
    – Spagirl
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 12:10
  • I think you're confusing grammatical sentence with typology. There's only one period, yes, but each section the semi-colons divide would be considered complete sentences with a period in modern typography.
    – cmw
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 16:28
  • @cmw Replacing semicolons with periods works for some of the semicolons in these examples, but others do not represent a break between two independent sentences. Personally, I would replace some of them with commas and some with em dashes. It would require some rewording to split these long sentences up into sentences of a "reasonable" length by today's standards.
    – DLosc
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 17:45
  • 1
    "Each" might have been an overreach, but essentially yes, the grammar is far less complicated than on first glance.
    – cmw
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 17:47
  • It's one sentence as written — removing all the interior diversions, you get: "after she had quite finished it ... she was desirous to see the world the Duchess came from.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 19:08

1 Answer 1


TL;DR: The length of Cavendish’s sentences is unremarkable for the seventeenth century.

I found several modern studies of variation in sentence length across time, but none that covered the relevant span of time, or which examined specifically works of literary prose. So this answer is based on data from Edwin Herbert Lewis. In his History of the English Paragraph (1894), Lewis sampled (typically) 100–200 paragraphs from about seventy works of literary prose from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, and computed the average sentence length for each. I did the same for The Blazing World, getting an average sentence length of 50.82 words.

Plot of year of work against average words per sentence, using the examples from Edwin Herbert Lewis.

The plot shows that not everyone in this corpus wrote longer sentences in the seventeenth century (for example Fuller’s Worthies of England (1662) has an average sentence length of 23.45), but rather, that there was a greater variation in average length in this period than in later centuries, with a few works having more than 70 words per sentence. The Blazing World is in the middle of the pack for the seventeenth century portion of Lewis’s corpus.

Lewis attributed the lengthy sentences common in the seventeenth century to

the Latin influence, which was rather towards disregarding paragraph mark or indentation as a sign of anything but emphasis [… and so] for a time we have the single-sentence paragraph of great length. The Latinists still think themselves bound to group many clauses in one sentence, but they feel the natural genius of the [English] language conflicting with their wish. They cannot discard their large unit of thought—that would be, to them, philosophic retrogression. They cannot—in the uninflected language—go on indefinitely prolonging the period. They determine to make long sentences still, and, when the periodic structure fails, to secure distinction and intelligibility for the long unit by paragraphing it. Hence arises the interminable paragraphed sentence, not strictly periodic, by any means, but articulated by all the points of the periodos—(: ; , .)

Edwin Herbert Lewis (1894). History of the English Paragraph, p. 44. University of Chicago Press.

The data in the plot comes from a table in Lewis, pp. 35–36, which I have transcribed below, with a few minor corrections, and an approximate year for each work.

Year Author Title Average
1449 Reginald Pecock The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy 61.00
1528 William Tyndale The Obedience of a Christian Man 31.72
1545 Roger Ascham Toxophilus 43.13
1555 Hugh Latimer Sermons 20.45
1565 John Stow Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles 57.00
1578 John Lyly Euphues 36.83
1579 Philip Sidney The Defense of Poesie 38.80
1579 Stephen Gosson School of Abuse 60.00
1580 Thomas Cranmer Answer to Stephen Gardiner 37.22
1585 Richard Hooker Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 41.23
1586 William Webbe Discourse of English Poetrie 50.50
1605 Francis Bacon The Advancement of Learning 60.03
1628 Robert Burton Anatomy of Melancholy 40.14
1643 Edward Herbert Autobiography 75.60
1644 John Milton Areopagitica 50.70
1646 Jeremy Taylor A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying 52.93
1651 Thomas Hobbes Leviathan 39.26
1652 Fulke Greville Life of Sidney 55.00
1658 Thomas Browne Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial 33.09
1660 John Dryden Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets 38.44
1662 Thomas Fuller Worthies of England 23.45
1665 Izaak Walton The Life of Hooker 64.00
1666 Margaret Cavendish The Blazing World 50.82
1668 Abraham Cowley Essays 48.37
1678 John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress 31.61
1689 John Selden Table Talk 33.58
1690 William Temple On Heroic Virtue 53.40
1697 Daniel Defoe An Essay Upon Projects 49.64
1702 Edward Hyde The History of the Rebellion 74.94
1704 Jonathan Swift A Tale of a Tub 40.74
1706 John Locke Of the Conduct of the Understanding 49.80
1715 Joseph Addison The Freeholder 38.58
1717 Henry St John Letter to William Wyndham 34.86
1719 Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe 78.68
1726 Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels 40.00
1727 Jonathan Swift A Short View of the State of Ireland 49.80
1749 Henry Fielding The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling 41.92
1759 Samuel Johnson The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia 38.15
1762 David Hume The History of England 39.81
1766 Oliver Goldsmith The Vicar of Wakefield 26.94
1768 Laurence Sterne A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy 36.50
1774 Edmund Burke Speech on Moving Resolutions on Conciliation with America 26.09
1776 Edward Gibbon The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 31.21
1785 William Paley The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 37.68
1809 Samuel Coleridge The Friend 37.60
1819 Walter Scott Ivanhoe 32.14
1820 Washington Irving The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent 26.73
1821 Thomas De Quincey Confessions of an English Opium-Eater 38.81
1823 Charles Lamb Essays of Elia 27.19
1827 Thomas Carlyle Jean Paul Friedrich Richter 31.56
1829 Walter Landor Imaginary Conversations 25.43
1833 Thomas Carlyle Sartor Resartus 35.05
1837 Thomas Carlyle The French Revolution: a History 23.89
1838 William Channing Self-Culture 25.35
1841 Charles Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop 23.78
1841 Emerson Essays and Addresses 20.58
1843 Thomas Macaulay Critical and Historical Essays 23.05
1844 Francis Jeffrey Contributions to the Edinburgh Review 50.65
1848 Thomas Macaulay The History of England from the Accession of James the Second 23.43
1850 Charles Kingsley Alton Locke 23.74
1852 Herbert Spencer The Philosophy of Style 30.38
1852 John Newman The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated 41.44
1865 John Ruskin Sesame and Lilies 33.31
1865 Matthew Arnold Essays in Criticism 34.41
1866 James Lowell Carlyle 31.45
1874 John Green A Short History of the English People 29.04
1876 George Eliot Daniel Deronda 22.39
1889 Walter Pater An Essay on Style 38.54
1893 Barrett Wendell English Composition 25.65

(A caution for anyone trying to reproduce Lewis’s data: you need to make sure you have an original edition, as later editions may have edited the text to suit modern conventions. For example, the 1719 edition of Robinson Crusoe starts with a 106-word sentence, but in this Project Gutenberg edition it has been split into two sentences of 33 and 72 words, and in this 1801 edition it has been split into three sentences of 13, 20 and 44 words.)


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