Sentence Length: Is Shorter Always Better?

in Grammar & Usage

shortsentenceBy Allison VanNest of Grammarly.com

February is the shortest month, but it can feel like it lasts forever—just ask Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day.

When it comes to sentence length, there are some writers who swear by short, straightforward sentences.

Others—including this writer—tend to ramble, enjoying the intricacies of the English language.

So which way is better?

It depends…

As with almost every grammar question, the answer is that it depends.

Sentences of varied length and construction contribute to the rhythm and flow of your writing. As in musical compositions, short, staccato sentences indicate a sense of urgency, power, or directness. Long, meandering sentences are often more lyrical and force the reader to slow down. Compare the prose of Ernest Hemingway, which is often bare bones, to Henry James or William Faulkner, whose sentences are the grammatical equivalent of wandering through a hedge maze.



The choice of sentence structure and length reinforces the style and content of these famous writers’ work. You can achieve the same effect by being more aware of the rhythms of your writing. The Purdue Online Writing Lab, one of the best resources for writers on the web, cautions against falling into a syntactical rut. “Several sentences of the same length can make for bland writing. To enliven paragraphs, write sentences of different lengths. This will also allow for effective emphasis.”

The sweet spot

In order to find the sweet spot for sentence length, you’ll need to consider the audience, the medium, and the subject.

Blog posts and newspaper articles are both likely to be skimmed by readers in a hurry, so shorter sentences are best. According to Writer’s Digest, Hemingway’s distinct style was influenced by his early career as a newspaper reporter. He “wrote sentences that were straightforward and clear so that readers could understand the points he made even if they were skimming quickly through his articles.”

Readers of blogs and newspapers (or their online equivalent) are typically in search of something specific, including:

  • A concise report of a news story or event
  • A straightforward answer to a question
  • A clear set of instructions to perform a task
  • A quick laugh or heartwarming picture

In its most extreme form, sites like Buzzfeed reduce information into easily skimmed lists punctuated by pop culture GIFs. Shorter words, sentences, paragraphs, and posts are ideal for online media.Memoir and long-form journalism, on the other hand, are meant to be read more in a more leisurely way, and longer sentences encourage readers to slow down. Malcolm Gladwell, one of the best known long-form journalists, writes long, complex sentences to express his thoughts. In a piece from The New Yorker, he wrote:

In the years that followed, an entire field within psychology grew up devoted to elaborating on Simon and Chase’s observation—and researchers, time and again, reached the same conclusion: it takes a lot of practice to be good at complex tasks.

For those of you playing at home, that sentence contains an introductory prepositional phrase, a dash, an aside set off by commas, and a colon.



In fiction writing, sentence length depends on the tone of the piece. A passage describing a beautiful landscape might contain more baroque sentences, while a tense chase scene would be written in short, choppy sentences to speed up the pace and create more tension.

In Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, writers are encouraged to use clear, concise language. However, Strunk and White also caution against writing too many cookie-cutter sentences in a row:

If the writer finds that he has written a series of loose sentences, he should recast enough of them to remove the monotony, replacing them with simple sentences, by sentences of two clauses joined by a semicolon, by periodic sentences of two clauses, by sentences (loose or periodic) of three clauses— whichever best represent the real relations of the thought.

Ironically, Grammarly’s automated proofreader red flags the above quote for excessive wordiness.

Do you tend to write short sentences or long ones? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author: A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and more than ONE MILLION Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.

Attribution Some rights reserved by Brett Jordan

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Lampton March 15, 2014 at 2:42 pm

I took stage direction 101 in college and the teacher made a statement that’s stuck with me ever since: If you want something to move quickly, don’t keep it moving quickly. Vary the speed. I’ve tried to apply the same rule to my writing, mixing up short sentences with long ones. It works well. Long sentences can get boring, but too many short sentences in a row is far worse.
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annew March 20, 2014 at 8:57 am

Sounds like excellent advice, Chris. Thanks.

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Douglas Nicholas March 7, 2014 at 2:27 pm

I think a long, complex sentence can be effectively exciting. Here’s a sentence I’m fond of, from my first novel, SOMETHING RED, in which an unarmed boy, facing Gintaras, a grown swordsman with weapon raised on high, is saved by his stepsister Nemain, a skinny girl who is more than she seems. I patterned it a bit on Cicero’s long sentences, in which suspense builds up clause by clause, until the trigger is pulled at the end:

“It was at that moment when he realized that he was
doomed, that as Molly would say ‘his bread was baked,’ it was at
that moment that there was a scuttling at his back, a frenzied
clutching at his arm, and here with her narrow face white as a
cleaned skull, her flying hair red as spilled blood, her glittering
eyes green and cold as an old serpent’s, came Nemain with a
small antler-hilted dagger in her bony hand, leaning sideways to
stab around Hob with reptile speed, her long slim pallid forearm
ruling a straight line to Gintaras’ heart.”

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annew March 11, 2014 at 11:48 am

And in the non-fiction realm, Buckminster Fuller wrote some of the most complex compound sentences imaginal- I always felt I had to turn on a ‘Bucky switch’ in my brain to read him well. Long sentences certainly can work if carefully drawn.

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Jennifer Mattern March 3, 2014 at 9:20 pm

Like Anne, I frequently write for other writers. That makes me feel a bit freer to experiment, although I find myself using longer sentences with that audience. It’s my more natural style.

When writing copy, such as for press releases, I pay more attention to keeping them short and to the point.
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annew March 4, 2014 at 7:45 am

Hi Jenn… you know I don’t think about sentence length much until my first draft is done… then, when I read it out loud long awkward sentences show up pretty easily. So do those super short ones that don’t say enough.

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jorgekafkazar March 3, 2014 at 11:28 am

Short.

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annew March 3, 2014 at 12:28 pm

love it!

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Katherine James March 2, 2014 at 7:27 am

“Do you tend to write short sentences or long ones? ”

I try to write shorter sentences. Especially when it comes to writing fiction.

Short sentences makes for easier reading. Plus it avoids getting bogged down by run-on sentences.
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annew March 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm

My approach is varied. I do have a tendency to run on, as some of you may notice from time-to-time so I watch for that….

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