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Power of Short Sentences

Post dedicated to Thomas Hardy (see History Today below).

There are monster sentences like the one you encounter as the first paragraph of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. One of my friends, whom I am getting equipped for his IELTS (what is this?), told me that the examination recommends long sentences. In writing classes also, I guess it’s longer sentences most tutors promote. But indubitably shorter sentences are more powerful. We will see why.

Take a long sentence for instance:

Tom Cruise, one of the finest actors in the whole world, is perhaps the most powerful celebrity to exist ever according to Time Magazine, but many people still dispute this fact and point out that there are more powerful and popular actors than Cruise, though they were unsuccessful in providing the total number of fans, who liked the films of those actors.

This is a long sentence and it is very confusing. Though it has a logical construction and conveys a meaning, it falters in many occasions and seems to be in need for parentheses (to indicate which pronoun means what). A reader is likely to be bored reading several of such sentences.

The long sentence we saw could be broken down into two or three smaller sentences as follows:

Tom Cruise, one of the finest actors in the whole world, is perhaps the most powerful celebrity according to Time Magazine.

Many people dispute this fact and point out that there are more popular actors than Cruise.

But they could not provide any proof for it.


Here I cut down the sentence into three and expressed the third sentence a bit differently, and that avoids the need for parentheses.

The Reasons

People tend to write longer sentences due to two major reasons.

1. The Ego of the Writer: Trying to be as Dickens is one thing, but being Dickens is an entirely different thing. Many new writers believe that writing long, complex sentences is an academic elegance. But I believe otherwise. Simpler writing is better, clearer, and more comprehensible to the readers. It is always better to be plain than clog the reader’s brain with unnecessary constructions.

However, there are situations in which you cannot go short. In such situations, writing two-line or three-line sentences with appropriate constructions and no confusion in meaning is good.

2. Lack of Vocabulary: The second major reason behind longer sentences is writer’s lack of vocabulary. Some writers are very good in sentence construction, but they may lack words. Not knowing which word to use in a particular place may make their sentences weird. Here is an example:

The woman who came to help deliver the child found out that the child had already died inside the womb.

Rewritten:

The midwife found that it was a miscarriage.

The second sentence is far more powerful and conveys clearer meaning than the first wordy, inelegant one. A writer would attempt the first if he/she is not familiar with ‘midwife’ and ‘miscarriage’.

If the writer is very knowledgeable (like Dickens) and can pull off the long sentences successfully, without confusing the readers, then it is good. Otherwise, it is far more effectual to have sentences short. Introduction of new words and constructions make them powerful.

Why Long Sentences Fail?

One popular thought is that the reader forgets the beginning as he reaches the end of the long sentence. Also, the longer sentences can confuse the readers a lot. Some of them need read it time and again to comprehend. So, if you shower such a reader with long, complex sentences, he would soon be bored and would stop reading. So, the trick is to keep it simple.

The writer’s ego to show to the readers that he is capable of creating weird (but correct) constructions with language may not go down well with the readers. Playing with language is good, but playing with words is better. If you have short sentences with new words, it is an indication that your vocabulary is rich. And possession rich vocabulary is an indication of an experienced writer.

Thesaurus and Sentence Fragments

If you read great writers, you will encounter so many new words. Finding and using correct words for a situation is an art by itself. Most writers suggest keeping a thesaurus handy when you write. The thesaurus helps find the appropriate word for a particular situation. On substituting that word, your writing will be a lot smoother.

So, short sentences with powerful words make your writing powerful.

You may have read my last post on sentence fragments. In it, I had told to avoid using sentence fragments, which are longer than three words. Really short sentence fragments, when used properly, can strengthen the situation (mainly in fiction). But remember, longer sentence fragments are not shorter sentences. So, they must be avoided.

Chop Down the Clutter

Why would you want to clutter your reader’s mind with more crap? The whole thought in this post is not against long sentences. It is against muddled sentences as in the example above. A well trimmed down sentence is powerful, whether it’s long or short (for this, please read my post on superfluity). We tend to use so many redundant words in our writing. Expurgating the redundant words would shape up the sentence. For instance:

He was not well, and that’s the reason why he didn’t attend the class.

Consider the italicized words. “Reason why” is redundant. Both words mean the same. Scrubbed, the sentence would be:

He couldn’t attend the class because he was unwell.

Or Better:

Illness caused his absence.

Cut the sentence down to as few words as possible, and it will look beautiful. Another advantage of cutting the sentence down is that you can express more in less space. For instance:

Illness caused his absence yesterday.

Fever caused his absence yesterday.

These sentences are shorter than the original above; still they convey far more meaning than that. So, as good writers, you should write such shorter, more powerful sentences.

History Today

In the eventful history, this day in 1731, the first first lady of the US, wife of George Washington, Martha Washington was born.

Thomas Hardy, British poet and novelist was born in 1840.

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy

Image Credit: Sydney Morning Herald

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

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  1. This is great! I surely will come again to your blog

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