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Author Topic: How long should a sentence be to effectively deliver an idea?  (Read 453 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 23, 2017, 08:52:27 PM »

I would like to share my reply to two intriguing questions about written and spoken English that were raised by Mwita Chacha, a Tanzania-based member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum.

His first question: How long should we make our sentences to effectively deliver our ideas?




My answer is that to clearly convey an idea in our mind, a sentence should only be as long as it needs to be. It could be as short as two or three words, as “That’s all” in that old Nat King Cole song or “Call me Ishmael” in the opening line of Herman Melville’s whaling novel Moby Dick. On the other hand, it could be all of 4,391 words, which is how long Molly Bloom’s soliloquy* (http://tinyurl.com/ccqygz) is in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses; this formidable wordage, however, pales in comparison with a 13,955-word sentence in British novelist Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club, which Wikipedia says appears to be the longest sentence in English literature.

My point in citing these highly disparate sentence lengths is that there really isn’t any rule as to how long a sentence should be. It all depends on how simple or complex the mind of the writer runs, on the personal writing style that he or she has developed, and on the kind of audience being addressed. For practical purposes as opposed to literary purposes, however, I would recommend brevity in sentence construction every time for clarity’s sake.

In particular, I do think that a newspaper reporter would be making a hateful imposition on the reader by habitually writing news-story sentences far in excess of, say, 20-25 words; that a TV news writer would cause consternation among news readers and TV audiences alike by even just occasionally foisting 30-word sentences on them; and that a lecture-circuit speaker would make audiences doze off by droning on and on with sentences way beyond 30-40 words.

Admittedly, though, the preceding 75-word sentence in the preceding paragraph above would seem to contradict my very own prescriptions for sentence length. Well, it does, but I suggest that we look at this contradiction as another important aspect of sentence word-counts. Punctuation does change the sentence-length paradigm altogether.** Indeed, the judicious use of punctuation—the comma, semicolon, colon, dash, ellipsis, and parenthesis—makes it possible for us to write high word-count, many-idea sentences without overwhelming our readers or listeners.

Now to the second question: Is the advice credible that too much focus on grammar can hamper learning how to speak fluently in English?

Yes, that advice makes a lot of sense. Focusing too much on grammar just makes the learner too self-conscious and too fearful of making mistakes to the point of being tongue-tied.

Let’s keep in mind that even without formal grammar lessons, the child learns to speak and become adequately fluent in a particular language simply by listening to members of the household using it. The child learns to speak a language primarily by imitation, and the more fluent the people around the child are in that language, the faster the learning process and the better will be the child’s command of it.

When it comes to writing, however, the situation becomes different: the learner should first learn enough of the vocabulary, grammar, semantics, and structure of the language to be able to put his ideas in clear, understandable writing. This is a longer and much more painstaking process than learning to speak the language, of course, so it’s no wonder that we sometimes meet professionals who speak English very fluently but whose English grammar is so atrociously faulty that they couldn’t even write a decent sentence longer than five or six words.

Every nonnative English speaker thus needs to undertake a continuing self-improvement program in English grammar and usage, for not to do so is to risk making do with faulty spoken and written English for life. (2013)

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times in its August 23, 2013 issue, © 2013 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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*Simply for the curious, here’s a link to the full text of “Molly Bloom monolog end James Joyce” (3,684 words, with absolutely no punctuation whatsoever).

**Here, for instance, is how Charles Dickens punctuated his 120-word opening paragraph for A Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

« Last Edit: July 23, 2017, 08:55:24 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

Michael E. Galario
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« Reply #1 on: July 26, 2017, 12:41:19 PM »

Another example of a lengthy sentence is the Philippine Preamble:

"We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God, in order to build a just and humane society and establish a Government that shall embody our ideals and aspirations, promote the common good, conserve and develop our patrimony, and secure to ourselves and our posterity the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace, do ordain and promulgate this Constitution."

Stripping off all the modifiers that intervene between the simple subject and the predicate, we would come up with the sentence structure below.

"We  do ordain and promulgate this Constitution."




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"The only thing that's worse than not knowing how to do something is to do something wrong while believing that it's right."

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Joe Carillo
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« Reply #2 on: July 27, 2017, 05:25:29 PM »

Fine, Michael. That kind of editing is called "baklas" in the trade and you did it with a thoroughly ruthless hand. If you've been hired by the Constitutional Commission to edit or rewrite the draft of that preamble, however, you'd surely be obligated to restore all the ideas in those phrases that you had decided to knock just for the sake of brevity. You must understand that with the best of intentions, the members of that Commission must have wrangled over those phrases for so many hours or days just to get them into that single-paragraph sentence. How will you now reconstitute that paragraph to faithfully reflect all those ideas that you have ruthlessly eliminated?

Let's assume that the Commission members have given you four hours to do the restoration/recomposition job, or else... How will you do it?
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Michael E. Galario
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« Reply #3 on: July 28, 2017, 08:50:45 AM »

Well, the Philippine Preamble is perfectly written and is beyond refute. A recast is not necessary. I just stripped it off to show an example of a lenghty sentence and the possible grammatical elements contained therein that made it a lengthy one.

For me, To recast it would require one's complete knowledge of history and laws and a consensus of those who are in authority.  It can't just be changed at one's will because each individual views the existence of something relative to his or her own experience.  =)
« Last Edit: July 28, 2017, 09:01:51 AM by Michael E. Galario » Logged

"The only thing that's worse than not knowing how to do something is to do something wrong while believing that it's right."

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Joe Carillo
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« Reply #4 on: July 29, 2017, 12:50:42 AM »

An impressive answer, Michael! An editor should only edit what is editable and should never attempt to supersede or supplant the thoughts and ideas arrived upon by so many minds and voted upon after so much deliberation, and much less if the composition and its words, tone, and voice are already hallowed by time and tradition. The overriding goal in editing is to conserve those thoughts and refine them, never to eliminate them for the sake of conciseness or style.
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Gerry T. Galacio
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« Reply #5 on: December 13, 2017, 08:08:56 AM »

        IMAGE SOURCE: TYLERVIGEN.COM*


A. The modern English sentence is short, averaging below 20 words per sentence.

(1) From "The Principles of readability" by William DuBay:

In 1880, a professor of English Literature at the University of Nebraska, Lucius Adelno Sherman, began to teach literature from a historical and statistical point of view.

He compared the older prose writers with more popular modern writers such as Macaulay (The History of England) and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He noticed a progressive shortening of sentences over time.

He decided to look at this statistically and began by counting average sentence length per 100 periods. In his book (1893), Analytics of Literature, A Manual for the Objective Study of English Prose and Poetry, he showed how sentence length averages shortened over time:

Pre-Elizabethan times: 50 words per sentence
Elizabethan times: 45 words per sentence
Victorian times: 29 words per sentence
Sherman’s time: 23 words per sentence.

In our time, the average is down to 20 words per sentence.

(2) Ellegard Norm: The modern English sentence has an average of 17.6 words per sentence. (From 1978 study by Swedish researcher Alvar Ellegard of 1 million words corpus of 20th century American English writing called the Brown Corpus collected by Brown University in 1964)

(3) "What is Happening to Written English?" at http://harrisonrichard.com/article1.html

Essentially, the sentence has become shorter – quite dramatically. In a study by Brock Haussamen (1994) using text from a variety of sources, the average sentence length was shown to have reduced from 40-70 in the period 1600-1700 to the low 20s in the 1990s.

Year 1600 - 1700: Sentence length 40 - 70 words
Year 1800 - 1900: Sentence length 30 - 40 words
Year 1990s: Sentence length 20s

B. Recommended average number of words per sentence in legal documents:

15 words (Federal Register Document Drafting Handbook, October 1998)
Between 15 and 18 (“Plain English: Eschew Legalese” by Judge Gerald Lebovits, New York State Bar Association Journal, November/December 2008)
18 words (“Appellate Practice—Including Legal Writing From A Judge’s Perspective”, by Judge Mark P. Painter)
20 words or fewer (US Federal Aviation Administration “Writing Standards,
20 words (“Legal Writing in Plain English” by Bryan A. Garner)
20 words (“How to write clearly” from European Commission)
20 to 25 words (“How to create clear announcements” Project on the Use of Plain Language, by Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission”)
20 to 25 words (“Tips for Better Writing in Law Reviews and Other Journals” by Joseph Kimble, Michigan Bar Journal, October 2012)
22 words (“Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer” by Anne Enquist and Laurel Currie Oates)
25 words (“Mightier Than the Sword: Powerful Writing in the Legal Profession” by C. Edward Good)

C. Comparison of average sentence length of several writers from http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/projects/stylistics/topic6b/auth_style/8auth2.htm

Jane Austen: 42
John Steinbeck: 18.4
D. H. Lawrence: 13.5

D. From "Editing Tip: Sentence Length" at https://www.aje.com/en/arc/editing-tip-sentence-length/

" ... the average sentence length for Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who can be considered representative of a modern English writer with a general audience, is 12 words ..."

E. From " The long sentence: A disservice to science in the Internet age" at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bies.201190063/pdf

If  we  want  the fullness  of  science  in  necessarily long papers to be appreciated, it must increasingly be written in short sentences.

F. From "Three ways to write like Warren Buffett" by Ian Harris at https://www.managementtoday.co.uk/three-ways-write-warren-buffett/article/1334430

But what’s interesting is if you study Warren Buffett’s writing over 50 years, there’s a correlation between success and simplicity. Basically, the richer he becomes the simpler his writing.

• From 1974 to 2013, the average words per sentence falls from 17.4 to 13.4.

• The age you’d need to be to understand his writing falls from 17 years old in 1974, to just 12 years old in 2013.

Despite all this evidence, I still meet people who are scared to make their writing simple. They say, ‘It's all very well for you, but I have to sound professional. We don't talk like that in my business.’
Usually all I do is tell them: if plain English is good enough for Warren Buffett, it’s good enough for you.

G. The longer the sentences, the less readers understand, according to research by the American Press Institute (API).

The research, based on studies of 410 newspapers, correlated the average number of words in a sentence with reader comprehension.

• When the average sentence length was fewer than eight words, readers understood 100 percent of the story.
    
• Even at nine to 14 words, readers could understand more than 90 percent of the information.
    
• But move up to 43-word sentences, and comprehension dropped to less than 10 percent.

Source: https://freewritingtips.wyliecomm.com/2009/11/november-2009/

H. Contrary view by Joseph Williams (author of "Towards Clarity and Grace") and George Gopen (Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Rhetoric at Duke University): It's not the length of a sentence that makes it difficult to understand but its structure.

From "The Science of Scientific Writing" by George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan at https://cseweb.ucsd.edu/~swanson/papers/science-of-writing.pdf

"When is a sentence too long? The creators of readability formulas would have us believe there  exists some fixed number of words (the favorite is 29) past which a sentence is too hard to read. We disagree. We have seen 10-word sentences that are virtually impenetrable and, as mentioned above, 100-word sentences that flow effortlessly to their points of resolution. In place of the word-limit concept, we offer the following definition: A sentence is too long when it has more viable candidates for stress positions than there are stress positions available. Without the stress position’s locational clue that its material is intended to be emphasized, readers are left too much to their own devices in deciding just what else in a sentence might be considered important."

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*Find more information about sentence length in literary works by clicking this link to the Literature Statistics page of Tylervigen.com.
« Last Edit: December 14, 2017, 08:08:51 PM by Gerry T. Galacio » Logged
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