Short sentences? Is this topic something that could possibly interest anyone but a writer?
Whether they are aware of it or not everyone who reads the printed word IS interested in the issue of short sentences. Why? Simply because short sentences are easier to read. The easier a block of text is to read the more likely the reader is to start and above all finish it. The easier the read, the more enjoyable the experience. Moreover, after reading a block of text with relatively short sentences the reader will retain much more of the information than if the sentences were hard to read.
The first person I ever heard expressing praise for short sentences was Canadian journalist and writer Gordon Sinclair (pronounced Sink-ler). I heard his emphatic proclamation on this subject during one of his frequent radio opinion pieces broadcast during the 1960s. Any sentence, was the gist of his point, over 10 words in length was just a waste of ink. Ten words should be enough to say anything important.
A more famous proponent of short sentences was Ernest Hemingway. One may even speculate Hemingway and Sinclair exchanged the views on the subject. They would likely have rubbed shoulders when they worked together at the Toronto Star in the 1920s. Newspapers have backed now this dictum up with research. An American Press Institute study showed that a reader's ability to comprehend the printed word drops steadily with increasing sentence length.
That was 100 years ago. Was the Hemingway/Sinclair dictum more relevant 100 years ago than it is today? After all few people read newspapers anymore. The same is also true about books and magazines. Everybody watches screens now for most of their entertainment and information. So... less reading today? Are sentences less important than ever?
Not a chance. Today more text than ever is placed in front of the eyes of every literate person on the planet. How can this be, you may argue?
Just think for a minute about what we are all seeing on those screens. In TV news shows and all commercial messages text performs a critical role. How about the moving crawler of text that runs below the talking head on every news program? Think about the text that surrounds every video on YouTube. Many TV ads consist of nothing but animated text.
Do a Google search for some information you need and you'll get hundreds of webpages filled with text. Keeping up with the doings of your friends and family on social media? Again you will encounter primarily text messages. In fact one of today's most popular forms of digital communication is called just that, 'text messaging.'
Why Do Short Sentences Matter?
If we can't give up on text, why do short sentences matter? Short sentences usually have a simpler structure, often with only a single subject and verb. When faced with the stress of screen reading we appreciate a message that is inherently easier to understand. When we want information long sentences are frustrating, even enraging. We quickly close the page and seek another that is easier to understand.
Short sentences are essential to keep the reader engaged and reading on. But what else can they contribute to a satisfying reading experience? An anonymous author on Writology.com says it all. Short sentences, because they can be abrupt and startling, can grab the reader's attention. A series of short sentences can strike the reader with one alarm signal after another. This creates tension and tunes the reader's emotion to a fever pitch. A short sentence can also summarize several ideas that preceded it, deepening understanding.
And best of all, short sentences avoid all the baggage of really long sentences. Here's a mouthful from a sermon entitled, 'AGAINST FOOLISH TALKING AND JESTING.' by Isaac Barrow (1630-1677), "It also procureth delight, by gratifying curiosity with its rareness or semblance of difficulty (as monsters, not for their beauty, but their rarety; as juggling tricks, not for their use, but their abstruseness, are beheld with pleasure) by diverting the mind from its road of serious thoughts; by instilling gaiety and airiness of spirit; by provoking to such dispositions of spirit in way of emulation or complaisance; and by seasoning matters, otherwise distasteful or insipid, with an unusual, and thence grateful tang."
That one requires some real mental unpacking if you're going to derive any sense from it.
Barrow's sentence is by no means one of the longest. You will find there is a bit of a 'Guinness World Records' air about finding or creating the longest English sentence. A Wikipedia article cites seven exceptionally long sentences in print ranging from 427 to 496,100 words. The same article demonstrates several of the simple, artificial methods for creating really long sentences.
More interesting to my mind are some of the famous really short sentences. The King James Bible contains the complete sentence, "Jesus wept." This short sentence has given rise to reams of sentences of analysis. A few others appear as titles:
· I am. (movie, TV show)
· Go! (movie 1999)
· Who goes there? (Novella + "Other adaptations and inspired works have spanned various media.") (Wikipedia)
· No! (many artistic creations)
· Just say no! (anthem of anti abuse)
And your shortest sentence doesn't even have to be a word or a sentence; you can try exclamations or interjections like Hmmm..., Ick!, Grrrr... , Ahh..., Wow!, Good grief! Urk!, Zzzzz...., !!???? Huh?, Oops!. Just try not to overdo it.
A Good Read is Like a Good Meal
All of these extremes, while fascinating, are of little interest for the more serious pursuit of clear writing and effective communication. Not everyone does like short sentences, at least not all the time. Because, truth be told, writing only in short sentences can quickly become boring and wearying.
A good read is like a good meal. Both benefit by variety. A continuous diet of short sentences overstimulates the nervous system. It's too intense to read for long. On the other hand, if your topic is weighty and your sentences become complex, you may fear your readers are going to sleep. I’ll bet more than a few of Barrow’s parishioners nodded off. The remedy… try the technique Haydn used in his 'Surprise Symphony' (Symphony #94). Throw in a really short, abrupt sentence every once in a while, just to wake them up again.
Hemingway and Sinclair demonstrated an understanding of this principle. In their books, both use a variety of sentence lengths. According to Justin Rice, writing in the LitCharts blog, Hemingway's average sentence length was just over 10 words. But that's an average remember. So many of his sentences were longer than 10 words in length. Not only that, but the average sentence length of his novels increases with time. While 10 words was obviously a good thing for Hemingway, it was no hard and fast rule. Interestingly, Rice includes a quote claiming that Hemingway picked up the short sentence guideline when he worked at a Kansas City newspaper.
Gordon Sinclair was apparently the same. In fact I kind of wonder now if Sinclair's proclamation of the 10-word maxim was a matter of journalistic bravado only. Ever the showman he was fond of outrageous claims. Perhaps the only place Sinclair stuck to 10 words was in his newspaper pieces. While I know of no statistical analysis of his writing, in 'Will the real GORDON SINCLAIR please stand up' a book published in1966, one can easily find sentences as long as 20, 30 and even 45 words in length. To be generous, I suppose it's possible that like Hemingway, Sinclair's sentences grew in length in later life. The title I examined was written towards the end of his book publishing career.
The Bell Curve
For my own writing, I like to aim for a sentence bell curve, skewed to the left. Most sentences should be in the range of 10-20 words, with a smattering of shorter ones. According to that American Press Institute study that should ensure comprehension of about 90%.
That guideline leaves room for the rare few sentences that go on for 30 words or longer. For me this is a great recipe for turning out good, accessible writing. It ought to be easy to read but with enough variability to avoid boredom.
Count 'em! How well did I do?
Want to Dig Deeper into This Topic?
Haydn and the Surprise Symphony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0sgGDSLD1c
History of the Sentence: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2005/11/history-of-the-sentence/ Nov 2005
How to Make Your Copy More Readable: Make Sentences Shorter: http://prsay.prsa.org/2009/01/14/how-to-make-your-copy-more-readable-make-sentences-shorter/
Is book reading declining? https://www.mvorganizing.org/is-book-reading-declining/ May 2021
Longest English sentence, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longest_English_sentence
Sermons on Evil-Speaking by Isaac Barrow, https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10274
What Makes Hemingway Hemingway? https://www.litcharts.com/blog/analitics/what-makes-hemingway/
Writing effective sentences: long vs. short sentences https://writology.com/blog/writing-effective-sentences-long-vs-short-sentences.html May 2016
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