Sentence length in Spanish

Sunday, 20th September 2020 ◆ Time line (8) ◆ Comments (3) Linguistics

Although I have read a couple French novels as part of an educational requirement, I had never read a foreign-language novel for pleasure until now. I have just finished reading "El Príncipe de la Niebla", a small teenage fiction novel by esteemed Spanish writer Carlos Ruis Zafón. His first novel, in fact.

El Príncipe de la Niebla El Príncipe de la Niebla

There were plenty of words I didn't know, but they did not impede my ability to follow the plot. And for sure, I learnt a lot of vocabulary along the way. It's an exciting milestone in my Spanish-learning journey, and I am looking forward to enjoying more Spanish books in the future.

Whilst reading this book, I found myself thinking that the sentences were far longer than what I would have expected in an English-language novel. This is a thought which had already been growing based on other snippets of Spanish fiction I had encountered. However, am I right? Could this just be a stylistic choice of the author, or is there a real difference in average sentence length in Spanish compared to English?

Here's an example lengthy sentence from the first page of the book:

A mediados de junio, el día en que Max cumplió los trece años, su padre, relojero e inventor a ratos perdidos, reunió a la familia en el salón y les anunció que aquél era el último día que pasarían en la que había sido su casa en los últimos diez años.
– El Príncipe de la Niebla, Chapter 1, Carlos Ruis Zafón

Let's look at some original texts. It's difficult to find the texts of novels, so instead I took three recent articles from different authors from an English and Spanish newspaper. A more exhaustive approach would be interesting, across more newspapers and languages, but I don't have the patience (yet).

Newspaper Article title No. words No. sentences Avg words per sentence
El Diario Madrid contará con un despliegue de 200 policías locales en 60 zonas para hacer cumplir las medidas sanitarias 393 9 43.7
El Diario Reino Unido considera cerrar los pubs, vuelta al cole en Italia y segundo confinamiento en Israel 1253 42 29.8
El Diario Un juez ordena el ingreso en prisión de la directora de una residencia de Valladolid que robó en casa de un interno recién fallecido 1019 19 53.6
The Guardian Thai protesters call for reform of monarchy and general strike 883 31 28.5
The Guardian Another day not at the office: will working from home be 2020's most radical change? 2854 147 19.4
The Guardian Royal Academy's cruel dilemma: sell a Michelangelo or lose 150 jobs 851 32 26.6

That seems fairly conclusive! Yes, Spanish sentences do tend to be longer. Even the titles of the articles appear to be more consise in English. I think it's interesting that the makeup of a language is much more than its grammar and vocabulary; there are also different practices and styles.

What other non-grammar non-vocabulary differences are there between Spanish and English, I wonder? Or indeed, between other languages...


seth ◆ Sunday, 20th September 2020 at 19:11

It would be interesting to see the distribution of setence lengths. Glancing through them it doesn't look like the English article averages are brought down by a small number of very short sentences. I think that would be quite interesting to see for a book in both languages!

I recently read Pride and Prejudice (a book I very much reccomend, by the way), which I also noted as having extraordinarily long sentences for an English book, though I've read very few things that are quite so old.

An example from early on:

"The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend."

Perhaps sentences like that are a little passé in modern English.

(Perhaps sentences with semicolons are cheating?)

kobbo ◆ Monday, 21st September 2020 at 02:07

Whist reading your article I wondered whether by reading a Spanish book, you had adopted a longer sentence style. I analysed average sentence length of this post in comparison to your recent previous posts, not including bullet points or quotations.

This post : 17 words/sentence Previous 2 posts : 15.5 words/sentence, 17 words/sentence, 22/sentence

No significant findings :(

Patricia Martín Rivas ◆ Thursday, 1st June 2023 at 16:55

Hello. I just came across this post. I am a Spanish translator, and I can assure you Spanish sentences are way longer that English sentences. You are indeed right! We generally use more subordinates, so I'd say it is not particularly Zafón's style. Best, Patricia