Sentence length: the long and the short of it
Variety is the spice of life. This proverb may seem clichéd, but as with all clichés there is an element of truth in it, particularly when we talk about sentence length. If you want your writing to be boring and to send people to sleep, use the same sentence length and structure for each sentence.
What is a sentence?
A sentence is a group of words and marks that includes a subject, which may be implied, a verb, and a final punctuation mark. Sentences can be short, or longer, or somewhere in between.
Here are some short sentences:
- You went.
The word ‘You’ is the subject, ‘went’ is the verb, and then there’s a full stop (period).
Again ‘you’ are the subject, but this time it’s implied. ‘Go’ is the verb, and then, because it’s an imperative, there’s an exclamation mark.
In previous posts I’ve claimed that it is good to write shorter sentences rather than longer ones in business writing. We do this to make sure that our meaning is clear, and so that we don’t confuse our readers. But, that said, we don’t want all of our sentences to be the same length. If they are all short our writing can seem very choppy.
The key is variety. Humans like variety in most things, and sentence length is no exception.
Look at this paragraph.
- The photocopier needs replacing. It is not producing clear copies any more. Also parts are expensive. Three new models were assessed. We recommend buying the XYZ model.
See what I mean? Definitely choppy.
How to fix writing with too many short sentences
- The photocopier needs replacing because it is not producing clear copies any more. Also parts are expensive. We assessed three new models and recommend that we buy the XYZ model.
This is the same content, but it’s far more interesting to read. In this version I’ve joined short sentences with the conjunctions ‘because’ and ‘and’.
Another way to join short sentences is to change one of them, if appropriate, to a subordinate clause.
- The photocopier, which is not producing clear copies any more, needs replacing.
Why write short sentences?
Short sentences are not always wrong. Use a short sentence if you want to
- Capture your readers’ attention.
- Emphasise an important point.
- Help your readers read the text quickly.
But what about long sentences?
We come up against some common problems when they’re not written carefully. One of the main ones is that writers use pronouns to replace other words and to avoid repetition, but in long sentences, it is not always clear which noun the pronoun is replacing.
- The chairperson and the meeting attendees agreed on the proposal that the students, faculty and general public should have access to the resources, but they were not sure how to do this.
In this sentence, it is not completely clear who was not sure—is it the chairperson and the meeting attendees? Probably. But it might have been the students, faculty and general public. With sentences like this our readers have to work hard to try and find out what we meant to write.
Another challenge when we have a number of long sentences, one after the other, is that our writing can seem dull. Sometimes business writers are tempted to turn verbs into nouns, and to use the passive voice. Both of these practices tend to result in longer sentences which are more difficult to read.
But, how much variety is enough?
I hate to admit it, but there’s no definitive answer to this question. I suggest that, when you’ve finished drafting, you take a good, hard look at your sentences lengths. Is there variety? Read your writing aloud and listen to how it sounds. The more you do this, the more you will be able to ‘hear’ when you have a problem.