Don’t Make Us Slog Through Long Sentences

People often complain about jargon slowing down and confusing readers. But long sentences create as much drag on readers as unexplained abbreviations.

This opening sentence from a recent news article throws too much at readers at once: 

The frustration and defiance of the nation’s police officers were on display again Sunday in New York City, where tens of thousands of them gathered for the funeral of the second of two officers who were slain at the height of the ongoing protests and scrutiny after several high-profile deaths of unarmed black males.

Count the ideas crammed into that 54-word sentence. How many do you notice? 

If it were a clear, clean sentence, you would count one or two ideas–not these four:  

  1. The frustration and defiance of the nation’s police officers were on display again Sunday in New York City.
  2. New York City is where tens of thousands of them gathered for the funeral of the second of two officers.
  3. The officers were slain at the height of the ongoing protests and scrutiny.
  4. The protests and scrutiny come after several high-profile deaths of unarmed black males.

I was doing okay with the complicated sentence until "slain at the height of the ongoing protest" tripped me up. If the protests are ongoing, can we determine when the height is? I probably would have made it past that oddity if I were not already holding about 37 words' worth of ideas in my head, waiting for the conclusion. 

I like Ann Handley's comment on length. In her terrific book Everybody Writes, she states, "The longer the word, sentence, or paragraph, the longer the brain has to postpone comprehending ideas until it can reach a point where all of the words, together, make sense." That 30-word sentence is rich and dense, but it communicates just one idea, beautifully. 

Take a moment to break that news article sentence into several logically flowing ones, with each sentence communicating just one or two ideas. Try it before reading my revision below. Feel free to change the wording. 

 

 

 

My revision uses three sentences of 18, 17, and 17 words:

The frustration and defiance of the nation’s police officers were on display again Sunday in New York City. Tens of thousands of them gathered there for the funeral of the second of two slain officers. The two were slain as protests and scrutiny continue, following several high-profile deaths of unarmed black males.

Each of those short sentences allows readers to understand its meaning quickly. There is no need to suspend comprehension until a long-anticipated end.

Don't make us slog through long sentences! 

Was your revision similar to mine? And do you have any long sentences to share? I would love to read any that are giving you trouble as a writer or reader. 

Lynn
Syntax Training

6 COMMENTS

  1. Here’s the worst to ever come across my desk – 100 words long exactly!

    The objective of the assessment was to conduct a surveillance assessment and look for positive evidence to ensure that elements of the scope of certification and the requirements of the management standard are effectively addressed by the organisation’s management system and that the system is demonstrating the ability to support the achievement of statutory, regulatory and contractual requirements and the organisation’s specified objectives, as applicable with regard to the scope of the management standard, and to confirm the on-going achievement and applicability of the forward strategic plan and where applicable to identify potential areas for improvement of the management system.

  2. Nice makeover. What an effective way to make the point!

    Some years ago, my then employer had all its employees complete an online compliance course. In it, I found a 50-word sentence where 9 of the words were “or”!

    Believe it or not, that mega-sentence was a definition of a term, meant to help such a general audience understand. Guess what term was being defined? “Customer!”

    That definition of that everyday word was grammatically correct, but worthless.

    These days, I rarely come across extremely long sentences, because my speciality is spoken English.

    Still, people often use WORDS OR PHRASES that are needlessly long. I’ve listed many of the most common, and warmly welcome your comments or additions:
    https://bitly.com/1y8IfAM

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