By 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?
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.
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