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Lost in Long Sentences?

Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training

When reading essays, books, and novels, many people enjoy traveling through long, complex sentences with twists and turns that lead to a satisfying end. But in business writing, readers want a short, clear path to understanding. Follow the four tips below to edit long sentences.

1. Include just one idea per sentence. When sentences have several ideas, readers need to figure out the relationship between the ideas. They need to suspend their understanding until they get to the period (full stop). In contrast, readers can quickly grasp each one-idea sentence and move on to the next.

The sentence below packs in three ideas. The punctuation makes is easy to recognize them.

I hope you will be able to attend, and if you need more information, please call or email me, and I will be glad to help you.
This revision shows that each idea can be a crisp sentence: I hope you will be able to attend. If you need more information, please call or email me. I will be glad to help you.

Test Yourself Number 1: Revise this three-idea sentence, whose length makes readers move slowly:

Our credit department has requested that you provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document and that you fill out the top and signature portion of the credit application just for assurance that we have the pertinent contact information correct.
Revise the sentence to communicate just one idea per sentence. After you have tried, you can check my revision. It appears at the end of this article.
2. Begin with the subject, not the windup. 
In baseball, the windup is the pitcher’s actions before releasing the ball. Although important to the pitcher, the windup can distract the batter. The same is true of readers: If you begin a sentence with a fancy windup, you may lose your readers before releasing your main idea. Instead, start with your subject.This sentence has a dizzying windup, which makes it too long and complicated:

With over a decade of experience with programming, network security, reverse engineering, cryptography design and cryptanalysis, and attacking protocols, and significant expertise in information security, Lance James provides consultation to businesses ranging from small startups to governments, Fortune 500s, and top financial institutions.
If the sentence began with the subject, Lance James, rather than the long windup, it would be two clearer sentences:
Lance James has over a decade of experience with programming, network security, reverse engineering, cryptography design and cryptanalysis, and attacking protocols, and significant expertise in information security. He provides consultation to businesses ranging from small startups to governments, Fortune 500s, and top financial institutions.
Test Yourself Number 2: Start with the subject rather than the long windup in this sentence, so readers do not struggle to understand its meaning:
By keeping the three critical success factors in mind and talking with your unit manager or your peer coach whenever you find yourself struggling with an employee issue, you should have the greatest opportunity for success as a new supervisor.

My revision appears at the end of the article.

3. When a sentence is too long or has more than one idea, try inserting a period (full stop) in place of the word andSometimes your sentences will ramble on because you have forgotten to take a breath and give your reader one. Replacing and with a period may help, as it would in this sentence:
Thanks for your cooperation on this project and we look forward to meeting with you to discuss the items above.
This revision communicates in two powerful sentences: Thanks for your cooperation. We look forward to meeting with you to discuss the items above.Sometimes replacing and with a period requires the addition of a word. In the sentence below, which word would you use to replace and? 

The navigation panel on the left side of the screen is the same for all contractors and helps them navigate through the site to find what they need quickly.

Your revision might look like mine: The navigation panel on the left side of the screen is the same for all contractors. It helps them navigate through the site to find what they need quickly.

Test Yourself Number 3: Break up this long sentence by inserting a period and replacing and. Then compare your revision with mine, which appears at the end of the article.

Recently there have been several calls and emails from individuals who are using an MS Excel version dated earlier than 2007 and are not able to save their changes based on the instructions provided in the guidelines.

4. Do not let a long list transform your sentence into a solid wall of text. Often you need to include a list in your writing. But a sentence burdened with a long list can become a blur to your reader. If that happens, your reader will not see any of the important information in your list. The solution is to break up the long, heavy sentence into bullet points or short sentences that keep your reader’s attention.

How would you revise this list-heavy sentence?

Your daily work will include counseling managers on issues ranging from major incidents to employee communications and community relations, representing the company with various groups, supporting the needs of individual plants, managing strategic media opportunities and crisis communications, placing community advertising, and publicizing company efforts in environmental stewardship.
This revision helps each point stand out for the reader:
Your daily work will include:
  • Counseling managers on issues ranging from major incidents to employee communications and community relations.
  • Representing the company with various groups.
  • Supporting the needs of individual plants.
  • Managing strategic media opportunities and crisis communications.
  • Placing community advertising.
  • Publicizing company efforts in environmental stewardship.
Test Yourself Number 4: Restructure this long sentence so that each part stands out:
If new information concerning the case should come to your attention, if you should leave the area for more than a few days, or if you should change your address or telephone number, please advise Marie Smith or your insurance agent immediately.
How long is too long? Sometimes long sentences are not difficult to understand. But a document filled with long, complex sentences will slow down readers and could lose them. Strive for an average of no more than 20 words per sentence–15 is better. Also, do not allow yourself to include sentences of more than 35 words in your final draft. If a sentence gets that long, break it in two (or three) or cut words.
Solution to Number 1:
Our credit department has requested that you provide a copy of your exempt sales tax document. Also, please fill out the top and signature portion of the credit application. This step is just for assurance that we have the pertinent contact information correct.
Solution to Number 2:  
You should have the greatest opportunity for success as a new supervisor if you do these two things: Keep the three critical success factors in mind. Talk with your unit manager or your peer coach whenever you find yourself struggling with an employee issue.
Solution to Number 3:
Recently there have been several calls and emails from individuals who are using an MS Excel version dated earlier than 2007. They are not able to save their changes based on the instructions provided in the guidelines.
Solution to Number 4: 
Please immediately advise Marie Smith or your insurance agent if any of these occurs:
  • New information concerning the case comes to your attention.

  • You leave the area for more than a few days.

  • You change your address or telephone number.

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2 responses to “Lost in Long Sentences?”

  1. pchabanowich says :

    If your suggestions are for the writing of sentences in a business style, they are flawless. However, great writing does not eschew the loquacious blather, but, rather, it includes various lengths of sentences to achieve its rhythm and its sound. But, I suppose that is why I do not read business manuals for pleasure.

  2. C. C. Hogan, Author (@Its_CCHogan) says :

    Two more tips:

    Always read out loud – if you cannot find an easy place to breathe, then the sentence is either too long or convoluted. (Warning: do not add commas where you naturally breathe – fine for scripts, bad for prose.)

    Remember the dear old Semi-Colon; nicer than the dash and has a nice clear meaning.

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