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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

June 22, 2016
If it's Dickens, it has to be hard.

Great Expectations can be difficult if you’re average.

Classic novels are classic for a reason, but sometimes the sentences in those classics can be tough for an average guy to read.   For example, struggling readers might think the novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens has an unintentionally ironic title because they don’t expect much, except that it will be difficult.  Charles Dickens has a reputation, after all; he’s not the easiest author to get through.

I know that “bad” and “good” sentences are subjective.  My rule is that if a writing instructor would call it a bad sentence when a student writes it, then it’s a bad sentence.  Classic literature is filled with sentences that writing instructors would tell us not to write.  True, modern literature has many of the same issues too, but it’s more fun to find bad sentences in literature that instructors tell us are the classics.

I thought it would be easy to find these kinds of bad sentences in Great Expectations, but after reading the first few chapters, I changed my mind.

The sentences in Great Expectations aren’t as complicated as I was expecting.  At least for me, they’re easier to follow than sentences in other classics, and I think I could even diagram most of the sentence in Great Expectations (if I really wanted to).  But I saw a few sentences that I wasn’t sure about.  These sentences might be great to sophisticated readers.  To an average reader, however, they might suck.  And if students turn in sentences like these to their writing instructors… Look out!!

SENTENCE #1 (Chapter Three)

I had seen the damp lying outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief.

My instructors might have thought that was a good sentence, but I don’t know.  They might have said this kind of figurative language detracts from the story.  Why did we need to have a metaphor describing the damp outside window?  Where did the goblin come from?  And the window being used a handkerchief, well, that’s just disgusting.

One of my writing instructors was paranoid, had a constantly runny nose, and carried a handkerchief.  He would have taken this sentence as an insult.

SENTENCE #2 (Chapter Three)

The gates and dykes and banks came bursting at me through the mist, as if they cried as plainly as could be, ‘A boy with Somebody-else’s pork pie!  Stop him!”

My writing instructors were not fans of the speaking simile, where an inanimate object talks, but it’s a technique that Dickens uses.  If I had written a sentence like that in high school or college, my instructors would have told me to chop off the second half.   We didn’t need to know the exact words that the mist is figuratively crying out.  Seeing those words is distracting.  Maybe it wasn’t distracting in the 1800s, but it’s distracting now.  At least, that’s what my writing instructors would have told me if I had written it.

SENTENCE #3 (Chapter Three)

On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village- a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there- was invisible to me until I was close under it.

This was just a fancy way of saying that Pip couldn’t see much in front of him, but it took a long time to get to a simple idea.  That’s when descriptions can get in the way, my writing instructors would say.  We’ve got a thick mist, a sign with a finger that nobody pays attention to even when the mist isn’t thick, and the finger isn’t necessary to explain that the mist was thick.   That was the whole point, wasn’t it?  The mist was thick.

But since it takes too long to get to its point, I think my instructors would have called this a bad sentence if I had written it.

SENTENCE #4 (Chapter Seven)

mI deEr JO i opE U r krWite wEll i opE i shAl soN B haBelL 4 2 teeDge U J O aN theN wE shOrl b sO glOdd aN wEn I M peNgtD 2 u JO woT larX an blEvE ME inF xnPiP.

Even by today’s texting standards, that’s a bad sentence.  I think I’ve written sentences like this in the middle of the night, but there’s no way I’d ever have shown them to my writing instructors.

The word bad has such a negative connotation, and I know that most of the sentences listed above aren’t really that bad.  A lot of them together, however, can make a book difficult to read.  And if you turn sentences in like these to your writing instructors, some of them will find the sentences questionable.

Questionable.  Maybe that’s a better word than bad.  Maybe the next series from Dysfunctional Literacy will be… “Questionable Sentences in Classic Literature.”


What do you think?  What is your opinion of each sentence?  Would you use a speaking simile in your own writing?  Do you think context matters for SENTENCE #4?


And for more literary analysis of classic literature, check out the  Dysfunctional Literacy About  page.


  1. I kind of like #3. I thought it was pretty funny, but then I’m biased by being a fan of Dickens, I think.

  2. thegirlfromwonderland permalink

    See that’s why I often get so confused with older books…

  3. I agree #3 was an excellent example of how I wrote in the middle of the night.

  4. Oh dear. These writing instructors of yours continue to alarm me. These sentences – apart from the ‘middle of the night’ one – work. They work! They work!! Even if a window would make a pretty bad pocket handkerchief for a goblin, and even if there are no such thing as goblins, and why would a goblin be crying on somebody’s windowsill in the middle of the night anyway?

    The point is, you (or at least, I) see that little goblin, care about that little goblin, are engaged by that little goblin and remember afterwards, vividly, both that the windowsill was wet and – more importantly – that there are threats out there, maybe magic afoot, that something rather strange is going to happen… That’s why Dickens was a great author rather than deadly-dull-and-now-forgotten one.

    If you try to read literally and write ‘correctly’, in accordance with a series of pre-digested rules, you are so limiting yourself and so disrespecting the author. There is no correct – there is just language. There are just stories. To use another highly unlikely image – it’s like walking around on dry land in a strait-jacket and an old-fashioned diver’s helmet – there’s no need.

    • Exactly! This is why I love certain writers. I like how they speak to me, not just what they’re saying to me. I love the unexpected turn of phrase that makes me giggle, as in example #3. A writer that speaks to me in a dull monotone, about something that’s supposed to be exciting, will have their book dropped.

      As someone once said, “It’s the story, Stupid! It’s always about the story.”

  5. In my experience, Dickens is actually very easy to read.

  6. You could pull out some James Joyce for some wild sentences.

  7. Any idea how Charles Dickens worked and created his books? It may explain some sentences. As for the people remarking the sentences work: like a few other authors, Dickens acted out scenes, events, his characters.
    I’m currently struck by how many good writers somehow had or have a link with the theatre or love to play roles.

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