Aim to be average: Avoid overly long sentences and sentence fragments
ONLINE COLUMN: Watch Your Language
Published: October 15, 2009
No writer wants to be average. As far as your sentence length, though, average is better most of the time. The long and the short of it is this: If you stuff in too many things, you've got an overly long sentence. Readers shy away from such sentences because they hate getting lost amid clauses and commas. On the other hand, if you leave out a subject, verb and/or object, you're stuck with a fragment. Incomplete sentences may annoy readers if you use this device too often. Neither kind of sentence is ideal—usually. Bonnie Trenga
Let's look at long sentences first. Marcel Proust is famous for writing long, unintelligible—I mean, artful—sentences. He even wrote a 958-word behemoth once. Congratulations to him, but too bad for readers. Back in Proust's day, e-mail and TV didn't exist to distract the public, so I guess readers were a hardier bunch. And copy editors must have been scarce. Nowadays, though, most readers won't stand for such windiness. They just don't have a very long attention span.
Proust's enormous sentence is an anomaly, but long sentences certainly haven't disappeared. These days, plenty of meandering sentences roam through manuscripts. Here are some ways to tell if your sentence is too long:
1. You read your sentence but can't remember what happened at the beginning of it.
2. The sentence contains more than 20 words.
3. The grammar-checker in your word-processing program underlines your entire sentence with a long squiggle, and the squiggle goes on for several lines.
4. Your sentence contains too many "which," "that" and "who" clauses; an overabundance of commas and semicolons; at least a few cases of "and" or "but"; and multiple pairs of em dashes or parentheses.
The best way to tame your inner Proust is to figure out what you're trying to say. Pinpoint what your main idea is. This is often difficult because you've probably crammed two or three main points into your long sentence. Once you remember the sentence's main idea, you must cut out all of your detours. You'll then have to strategically place these leftovers somewhere else. You can create new sentences out of some of these parts. Other parts you may have to squeeze in somewhere nearby. You may even need to delete some of your leftover crumbs, so don't become too attached to every word you create. Once you've allotted everything to its proper location, make sure all of your new sentences fit together seamlessly.
You're aiming for medium-sized sentences—around 20 words long on average. Average length means minuscule by Proust's standards. Although Proust was able to cram in 10 or more ideas into each sentence, today's readers can't process that many ideas simultaneously.
Let's do a little test to see how many ideas are too many for one sentence:
One idea: The actress went to an audition. (Fine.)
Two ideas: Although the actress went to the audition, she didn't get the part. (Still fine.)
Three ideas: Although the actress went to the audition, which lasted one hour, she didn't get the part. (Still fine, but getting to be a little long.)
Four ideas: Although the actress went to the audition, which lasted one hour, she didn't get the part, which was for a woman who was stranded on a desert island. (Eek! That's too unwieldy for most readers.)
Five ideas: Let's not even go there.
If you wanted to impart all the information in the four-idea sentence above, you'd have to break it into two sentences. One option would be this:
Although the actress went to the one-hour audition, she didn't get the part. She would have been playing a woman stranded on a desert island.
Or you could eliminate one of the ideas, as here:
The actress auditioned but didn't get the part of the woman stranded on a desert island.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find sentence fragments. Also known as incomplete sentences. Hey, do you think Proust ever wrote one of those? Nah. Bet not. Incomplete sentences are missing something. Often the subject.
Fragments can be a good device to use when you want to highlight something dramatic. For example, you might write, "The lurking man was carrying something in a knapsack. A head." This fragment says, "Wow! Look at me. I'm special."
Fragments do indeed call attention to themselves, but please use your head. If you overdo them, you'll annoy your readers, and then nothing you write will seem special anymore. You may even confuse readers if you stick in a fragment that doesn't clearly relate to the surrounding sentences.
So now we know that we don't want sentences that are too long or too short. But by no means am I suggesting that every sentence be the same length. A string of medium-sized sentences would anesthetize readers. I am suggesting, though, that you use long sentences and fragments sparingly. Use just enough to keep your readers interested. Vary the rhythm.
No Criminal Sentences today, but I invite you to e-mail me egregious examples of overly long sentences or fragments that seem to come out of nowhere. Send candidates to email@example.com, and we'll post the best one in each category.
Bonnie Trenga is the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing, available for purchase online and at bookstores nationwide. She blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, which features the daily Criminal Sentence and other posts about writing. She is also a guest writer for the popular Grammar Girl podcast. She's been a copy editor since 1996 and a mom since 2001. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--Posted Oct. 15, 2009