Author Topic: The long and short of English sentences  (Read 7092 times)

Joe Carillo

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The long and short of English sentences
« on: July 13, 2023, 06:10:40 AM »
Are there any hard-and-fast rules on the length of English-language sentences?

Herman Melville begins his classic whaling novel Moby Dick with only three words: “Call me Ishmael.” Vladimir Nabokov, my favorite English-language stylist, starts Lolita, his landmark novel of sexual obsession, not even with a sentence but with three short bursts: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Later in their stories, both writers at times go on long-sentence binges but nevertheless remain clear and expressive.

Now contrast their very readable prose to this kilometric sentence: “Owners, operators or persons charged with the operation of movie houses, theaters and cinemas who refuse admission to qualified senior citizens for free shall, upon conviction, be penalized by a fine of Eight Thousand Pesos (Php 8,000.00), or imprisonment of Three (3) Months, or both such fine and imprisonment at the discretion of the court: provided, That if the violator…”


The sentence goes on for another 36 words for a whopping total of 94, cramming every big and little detail in just one sentence than offend readers by using more than just one period in a paragraph.

There are, in fact, no fixed rules on sentence length. It all depends on the writer’s intent and predisposition. For those concerned only with documenting things and who don’t care whether or not they are understood, writing long sentences from start to finish is not only SOP but a way of life. But for those who want to be perfectly understood, using short and long sentences judiciously is a must.     

This is why from grade school onwards, we were taught to make brevity a virtue. We learned that it’s better to write short sentences because they are easier to understand than long ones, and that conversely, an unbroken chain of short sentences can be more tedious to read than a brief cluster of long but clearly stated sentences. What commands and sustains reader attention is, in fact, a good mix of short and at times long sentences.

Take this passage from Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s book World Class, which precisely does that: “International advertising agencies profit from global efficiencies. For example, advertising in global media can be handled at a single point, thus economizing on production costs and providing the client with volume discounts. Once organized to work globally, agencies have a stake in finding more things that can be done globally. The cascade continues.”

Estimates vary on what the average length of sentences should be. In my case, I find that for essays, narratives, and feature articles, sentences averaging 16-20 words will be just fine. What’s important is to spice up short sentences occasionally with longer sentences between 21 and 50 words—with judicious use of punctuation, of course, so the writing doesn’t become bewildering.

A practical tool for measuring readability is the Gunning Fog Index. Developed by plain English advocate Robert Gunning, the Fog Index = 0.4 x [(number of words / number of sentences) + “difficult words”]. A sample passage of about 100 words is needed, and “difficult words” are those with three or more syllables that are (a) not proper names, (b) not combinations of easy words, or (c) not made three syllables by the suffixes –“ed,” “–es,” or “–ing.” The easy reading range has a Fog Index of 6-10. A high of 18 or more means that the prose is tough to understand even for university students, and a 10—the Readers’ Digest level—will be just fine for the average reader.

The 60-word cinema ordinance we read earlier (I excluded 36 words from the actual document to  save space) gets a staggeringly high fog index of 45, much foggier than the 18-plus of typical Ph.D material. The passage from Kanter’s World Class, despite its more abstract concepts and longer words, gets a healthy 11.

These figures should prompt us to apply better sentence-length strategies to make our own writing more readable.

This essay is a condensation of an 808-word chapter that appeared in the author’s 2004 book English Plain and Simple.

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
The long and short of English sentences

(Next: The feel of English words)                   July 20, 2023

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter and e-mail me at j8carillo@yahoo.com.

Gerry T. Galacio

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Reason why sentences in legal writing are unnecessarily long: provisos
« Reply #1 on: August 17, 2023, 04:15:31 PM »
Now contrast their very readable prose to this kilometric sentence: "Owners, operators or persons charged with the operation of movie houses, theaters and cinemas who refuse admission to qualified senior citizens for free shall, upon conviction, be penalized by a fine of Eight Thousand Pesos (Php 8,000.00), or imprisonment of Three (3) Months, or both such fine and imprisonment at the discretion of the court: provided, That if the violator…"

This example is obviously from a statute or an ordinance, and sentences in legal writing are notoriously LONG. Part of the reason why they're long is the so-called "proviso" which is signaled by the phrase "provided that," "provided however," or simply "provided."

A. Bryan A. Garner in his book "Legal Writing in Plain English" advises legal writers to avoid provisos.

Garner has posted in https://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/garner/documents/section36.html several exercises in eliminating provisos.

B. The Michigan State Bar journal through its "Plain English" section has a free PDF titled "Down with Provided That" which can be downloaded from https://www.michbar.org/file/generalinfo/plainenglish/pdfs/04_july.pdf
« Last Edit: August 18, 2023, 12:10:29 PM by Gerry T. Galacio »