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Prof. Brooks Landon, U. Iowa, Ph.D. U. Texas at Austin. Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read (Great Courses) (2013). pp 55-56.

Why don’t writers tier long sentences as Landon does beneath? His formatting is far more readable, and clarity's more important than the additional required space.

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Restating the claim in the question,

  • writers like Joseph Conrad should have structured their books like
    • decks of PowerPoint slides,
  • which would have made them
    • more readable,
    • and clearer.

The first point to make,

  • though it may seem a little cheap,
  • is that
    • you haven’t tried it:
      • your questions here have all been
        • written in standardly presented prose
      • which suggests that
        • you don’t have confidence that
          • this is really all that good an idea.

The obvious problems with this idea are:

  • it would have been wasteful of space,
    • thus making books more costly,
    • since only very recently were authors freed from these constraints by
      • the availability of electronic publication;
  • it would have made composition much more laborious,
    • as you would have discovered if you had tried it for yourself,
    • since small changes to wording of one part of a sentence affect
      • the nesting depth of every consequent part,
    • requiring continual adjustments to indentation,
      • which again only became convenient with the development of
        • outline editing software.

But there are subtler and deeper problems:

  • the tree structure only conveys its syntax,
    • but syntax is only a fraction of the content of a sentence,
      • thus giving precedence to something that
        • is of comparatively little importance in comparison to
          • semantic structure;
  • it lacks the facility for ambiguity of attachment,
    • for example in Landon’s extract from Conrad,
      • the clause “motionless in the moonlight”
        • must be attached either to
          • the “entangled mass of trunks, branches,” etc.
            • (as Landon has it),
          • or “the great wall of vegetation”,
      • but either choice narrows the meaning compared to the original;
  • it’s redundant,
    • duplicating information that a competent reader can reconstruct,
      • thus performing the function of a reading crutch,
        • like
          • the illustrations in a picture-book,
          • or the furigana in Japanese beginner texts;
  • it could easily be incorrect,
    • landing the reader with
      • the additional tasks of
  • determining whether an error has occured,
    • and if so, correcting it.

It’s naïve to think that

  • presenting one’s sentences in this form will not have an effect on
    • the content of those sentences too:
      • Edward Tufte,
        • in his book The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,
        • says,
          • among many other cogent criticisms of this approach,
          • “Impoverished space leads to
            • over-generalizations,
            • imprecise statements,
            • slogans,
            • lightweight evidence,
            • abrupt and thinly-argued claims.”
  • A playful answer. But I did restrict my questions to 'lengthy sentences'. Some of your sentences can be shortened into ones with commas. Your first diagram can be rewritten as: We can restart the claim in the question: writers like Joseph Conrad should have structured their books like decks of PowerPoint slides, which would have made them more readable and clearer. – Chrome Feb 2 at 22:53
  • I split your second diagram into two sentences: The first point to make, though it may seem a little cheap, is that you haven’t tried it. Your questions here have all been written in standardly presented prose, which suggests that you don’t have confidence that this is really all that good an idea. – Chrome Feb 2 at 22:53

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