The opening sentence of a recent front-page story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had, by my count, 49 words. The sentence had appropriate punctuation, but its length was excessive.
Last year, the St. Louis region approved Proposition P to increase sales taxes to support the Gateway Arch and local parks and trails. The text of the proposition was one 169-word sentence! (Again, that’s my count.)
Why would someone write such a long, convoluted sentence? The purpose in the case of Prop P may have been to make its meaning less than clear, a trick that some attorneys employ when writing contracts. It is hard to comprehend such a ridiculously long sentence. Or, it could be simple incompetence by the person or committee who wrote it.
Verlyn Klinkenborg’s 2012 book Several Short Sentences About Writing would have been useful for the Prop P writer(s). In the book, Klinkenborg shoots down much of what you may have learned in freshman English Composition class. Remember when your teacher wanted you to write three pages on a Shakespeare sonnet? If your paper was like mine, it was verbose and contained more fluff than substance. And the sentences were long.
Klinkenborg has good guidance for writers:
- “How long is a good idea? Does it become less good if it’s expressed in two sentences instead of one?”
- “Long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their own awkwardness.”
- “To make short sentences, you need to remove every unnecessary word. Your idea of necessary will change as your experience changes.”
- “A crowded sentence betrays the writer’s worry that the reader won’t follow the prose if parted by a period.”
- “Short sentences aren’t hard to make. The difficulty is forcing yourself to keep them short.”
He gives examples of sentences that are improved by his rewrites. If you write for a living or just for fun, I recommend you check out Several Short Sentences About Writing.
(For more on Writing Short, click HERE to read my August 2012 post inspired by Nora Ephron.)