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What’s Wrong With a Long Sentence?

Yesterday when I was presenting at a national insurance conference, we talked about this sentence, taken from a letter to customers:

Believing that a specialized approach and focus for recovering from uninsured individuals is most effective, we use a professional collection agency whose expertise has proven successful in the recovery process.

What is wrong with this long sentence and others like it?

Long sentences make readers work too hard. The one above makes readers slog through it to figure out what it is about. It's not about believing–or is it? 

Not until the 16th word do we find the subject–we. 

The sample sentence is 30 words, not terribly long. But its words and ideas are abstract rather than concrete: believing, approach, focus, recovering, effective, agency, proven, process. They paint no pictures. Compare this 30-word sentence:

Walking home from my office yesterday afternoon, I stumbled on a crumbling curb and fell to my knees, tearing my new silk pants and breaking the heel off my shoe.

When our sentences paint pictures with concrete words, our readers can follow 30 words easily. The problem is that much of our business content is abstract and complex. We can't see anything in it. So we have to help our readers, especially when they are not experts in our field.

This revision breaks the sentence in two:

We believe that a specialized approach and focus for recovering from uninsured individuals are most effective. That is why we use a professional collection agency whose expertise has proven successful in the recovery process.

No, it isn't a great passage. But the shorter sentences do make the message clearer.

Here is a two-sentence version with much simpler language: 

We have found that collection experts do the best job of recovering money from uninsured individuals. That is why we use a professional collection agency.

Before I sign off, I am wondering whether you noticed that I changed the verb from is to are when I broke the original sentence in two. But I'll leave the topic of subject-verb agreement for another day!

Syntax Training
P.S. I did not really stumble and tear my pants–in case you were feeling sorry for me! 

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “What’s Wrong With a Long Sentence?”

  • There are lots of reasons to keep sentences short, particularly on the web where readibility and usability are extra issues. It’s just a case of following plain English guidelines, which is 20 words, I think (though 30 is reasonable too!).

  • The title of your post got my attention because I’ve recently been listening to CD’s from a professor who argues for long sentences.

    It turns out that the kind of long sentence that he likes is a cumulative sentence, a sentence that includes multiple free modifiers. I found it interesting that your example of a readable 30-word sentence is not only concrete but also cumulative.

    I have always argued for short sentences, but I have found the idea of a cumulative sentence intriguing. So far, however, it seems to work much better with creative writing than with business writing.

  • What is a sentence? In Ulysses (James Joyce) I believe there are two sentences over 11,000 words long. I haven’t read it myself and given those sentences I doubt I ever will.
    Although it is good to keep sentences short, it is also worth noting that it is good to vary sentence length. Too many short sentences in a sequence can cause discomfort. In fiction it is a technique used to show action scenes where lots of exciting things happen quickly.

  • Iain, Alfredo, and Chris, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you. It’s essential to make a distinction between business writing and other types of writing. Business readers typically seek information and advice rather than a great read. Their needs make a difference.

  • I’m glad you changed “recovering” to “recovering money” — the sentence didn’t make any sense to me before you did that!

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