Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

How to Write Long Sentences That Won't Confuse

Have you ever seen a five-year-old trying to learn to ride a bicycle? The bike wobbles like a duck in choppy water, the child shrieks and then suddenly takes off. But one false move -- a lean in the wrong direction or a bit of over-enthusiastic pedaling -- and whoosh, she's off too fast down the street and veering into the bushes with a thump and tears.

What writers and beginning bike riders have in common
I often think of five-year-olds on bicycles when I read long sentences. The writer of the sentence seems to be trying hard to keep his or her thoughts together. But despite these valiant efforts, the sentence wants to careen out of control. Subordinate clauses start jostling with each other for attention. Problems of agreement crop up. And the darn verb -- well, it often seems to disappear.

I regularly counsel writers to avoid all these problems by using short sentences. The optimum average length for a sentence appears to be about 14 words -- sentences of this length are easy for readers to understand. But please note the key word "average." This means that some sentences should be shorter, and, of course, others should be longer.

And it's these longer sentences that will often give you the most trouble. Unless... unless... you know one simple but very effective trick:

Yes, Virginia, it matters where you put your verbs
When you're writing a long sentence, be sure to keep your subject and your verb close together, and as close as possible to the BEGINNING of the sentence. (If your grammar is a little dusty, all you need to know is that the subject is the main "actor" in the sentence and the verb is the main action or "doing" word.)

But let me make things even clearer with some examples. The first is from Lawrence Durell's Alexandria Quartet:

"We abandoned the car in a narrow street by the mosque and Nessim entered the shadowy doorway of some great tenement house, half of which consisted of shuttered and bared offices with blurred nameplates."

Longer sentences can work, if you approach them the right way
At 34 words, the sentence above is not exactly short, but it is easy to understand because the main subject, "we" and the verb, "abandoned" sit right at the beginning. The sentence is a compound one (two parts joined by the word "and") and the second subject and verb, "Nessim" and "entered" follow immediately thereafter, further aiding clarity.

Let's look at another example, also from a classic, Balzac's Old Goriot:

"Old Goriot had attached a silver-gilt saucer and vessel like a soup tureen to the cross-bar of a table turned upside down before him, and was twisting a thick rope round the richly-chased metal with such terrific force that he was bending it, apparently into the shape of ingots."

This one is 49 words yet a model of clarity -- again because the subject, "Old Goriot" and the main action, "had attached," sit at the head of the sentence.

But some long sentences should be shot and put out of their misery
For the sake of contrast, compare those sentences to the following 47-word wonder of obfuscation taken from my daily newspaper:

"A North Vancouver man stopped by police more than two years ago on suspicion of drunk driving recently had charges against him tossed out by a judge who ruled police violated his rights by not giving him an adequate chance to call a lawyer of his choice."

Notice how you stumble reading this sentence. Perhaps you even had to read it twice to discern its meaning. This is because, (a) it's too long, and (b) 14 words separate the subject ("a North Vancouver man") and the verb phrase ("had changes against him tossed out").

Think: "short" and "front of the line"
Fortunately, the problem is easy to fix. (In the example, above, I'd start by splitting the sentence in two.) To avoid the problem in the first place, write mostly short sentences. And when you need to throw in long ones, be sure to keep your subject and verb close together, and near the beginning.

If you do that, you'll be able to write sentences the way Lance Armstrong rides a bicycle.

A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach who helps people writer better, faster. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday December 13th 2006, 5:25 AM
Comment by: E. Mike S.
Ms. Gray-Grant's example of a sentence that we should shoot and put out of its misery: "A North Vancouver man stopped by police more than two years ago on suspicion of drunk driving recently had charges against him tossed out by a judge who ruled police violated his rights by not giving him an adequate chance to call a lawyer of his choice."

Some possible revisions: (1) "Stopped by police more than two years ago on suspicion of drunk driving, a North Vancouver man had charges against him tossed out by a judge. The judge ruled that police had violated the man's rights by not giving him an adequate chance to call a lawyer of his choice."

(2) "A judge recently dropped charges against a North Vancouver man stopped by police on suspicion of drunk driving more than two years ago. The judge ruled that police had violated the man's rights by not giving him an adequate chance to call a lawyer of his choice."

(3) "A North Vancouver man recently had charges against him dropped. Police had stopped the man more than two years ago on suspicion of drunk driving. A judge tossed out the charges after determining that police had violated the man's rights by not giving him an adequate chance to call a lawyer of his choice.

Which of the three versions do you think best? Or does anyone have a better one to post?
Wednesday December 13th 2006, 6:07 PM
Comment by: Tzvi F.
You need to keep in mind that this is a newspaper--meaning that the first few words have to sound like news.
Thursday December 14th 2006, 3:09 AM
Comment by: Anthony C.
I don't have a problem with the original. (What does that say about me?)
Thursday December 14th 2006, 5:01 PM
Comment by: Michael L.

A tabloid shot at it:
A two-year old police fubar has been righted by a clear thinking judge. The judge dumped the driving while drunk charges against the horribly wronged North Vancouver man, stating he had not been allowed adequate time to call a lawyer.
Saturday December 16th 2006, 12:48 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for the suggested revisions, Mike. If you're looking for a career change you could maybe consider seeking a job as a "desker" (copy editor) at a daily! I liked your rewrite #2 the best.

Interesting comment, Tzvi. You make a good point, but it's worth noting that even newspapers are (slowly) changing their ways. One of the major news services (sorry, can't remember which one) is now providing "alternative" ledes/leads (beginning paragraphs) in its news stories. One lede is the "standard" inverted-pyramid approach, the other is more "featurish" -- using elements of traditional story-telling, such as characterization and suspense.

Anthony, this probably says that you are the kind of person who can read complex writing and still understand it! Writing is not just a matter of right and wrong. It's also a matter of taste. My argument is that if you want to appeal to a large number of readers (as newspapers do) then you need to write in a way that will appeal to as many readers as possible. Yes, there is an element of "lowest common denominator" to this but if you're a journalist, or, say, a copy writer, then you have to live with that. If you're a novelist or short-story writer, however, you have more leeway.

Michael - loved your effort at emulating tabloids. Excellent!! (My favourite tabloid headline ever is: Man survives death plunge. Think about it!)

I hope my comments don't shut down further replies...Am interested to hear what others have to say too.
Saturday December 16th 2006, 11:51 PM
Comment by: E. Mike S.
Michael L., liked your tabloid riff. If you could work in a reference to Britney Spears somewhere, you might have a shot at one of the national tabloids.
Friday December 22nd 2006, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Donnie S.
I really enjoyed this post. I have job that involves a variety of tasks, but I get to spend about 20% of my time writing. One of my favorite things to do, is take someone else's writing, and re-write for clarification and simplicity. I have found that the most consistent mistake that writers make is creating long-winded sentences that go and on, just for the sake of keeping an entire thought in the same sentence, when it would be much easier to just break the sentence down into smaller portions that are easier to read, which would greatly reduce confusion and actually make the thought easier to follow. (Detect the subtle humor?) Anyway, I thought this article was great, and I enjoyed the comments afterward as well. Especially the tabloid emulation.
Saturday December 30th 2006, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Penny C.
I'm a high school English teacher. In this day of text messaging, I'm thankful to receive assignments that contain actual sentences whether short or long. Verb? What's a verb?
Sunday December 31st 2006, 12:18 AM
Comment by: Steven D.
How about this:

A judge recently ruled that police had violated the rights of a North Vancouver man by depriving him an adequate chance to call a lawyer of his choice, and dismissed all charges of drunken driving for which they had arrested him two years ago.
Monday January 1st 2007, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'm with Anthony Cook. It was not difficult at all to follow. Hmmm...Now there's a pair of us. Don't tell. They'll banish us, you know.
Wednesday December 17th 2008, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Lyn P.
My submission: "Stopped by police more than two years ago on suspicion of drunk driving, a North Vancouver man recently had those charges against him tossed out by a judge who ruled police had violated his rights by not giving him an adequate chance to call a lawyer of his choice." Situation--subject-verb--explanation...seems logical to me. But, like Anthony C and Jane B, I didn't have an issue with the original. Tech Writer, ya know: 'long sentences are us' *G*!

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