I started to call this post “The Perfect Sentence.” Then I realized perfection is not the goal for most writers. Most of us simply need to get our ideas across without too much confusion. We need to tell our colleagues where next Tuesday’s meeting will be held. We need to explain the data in a report about third-quarter profits. We need to tell our kid’s teacher that we can chaperon the field trip. We need sufficient sentences, not perfect ones.
Perhaps, taking my cue from a popular children’s book, I could have called this post “The Workable, Adequate, Good-Enough, Quite Okay Sentence.” I find that title entertaining, and some of my readers would recognize the allusion. However, some readers wouldn’t recognize it, and search engines don’t parse humor or allusion very well. So I opted for a more straightforward title, which is appropriate for a post about making each sentence communicate as clearly as possible.
The sentence is our basic unit for expressing ideas, and the structure of our sentences can alter how people understand those ideas. So, whether you’re composing a brief email message or an in-depth feasibility study, it’s worthwhile to think about how readers derive meaning from sentences. Today I have two writing tips to help with that.
Emphasis on the Endings
Have you ever had a phone conversation while you were also working on something else? Have you ever sat through a lecture class only partially paying attention? If so, you may have noticed something important about sentence endings. Whether we’re listening or reading, English speakers tend to prioritize the information placed at the ends of sentences.
It’s a feature of the English language to reserve the most important clause or phrase for the end of a sentence. The beginning of a sentence sets up the general topic, and the end provides either the most important or the most unfamiliar information. In the study of languages, this is called “end focus.” If your first language is English, this is how your brain processes sentences. You expect the important stuff at the end.
For example, you might communicate this to your boss:
I’d like to take the rest of my vacation time during the last week of September.
The beginning of the sentence sets up the general topic, scheduling vacation time. The end emphasizes the most important part, the specific week you would like to be out of the office. In English, the sentence above is considered better than this one:
The last week in September is when I’d like to take the rest of my vacation time.
Because our brains are wired for end focus, we’re not as quick to glean the important information from that second sentence.
Also consider how end focus can subtly alter the meaning of what we say:
I’m ready to start a family, but my current schedule is hectic.
My current schedule is hectic, but I’m ready to start a family.
These two sentences imply opposite conclusions. The first writer would like to start having children now but emphasizes this may not be the right time. I would expect this person to postpone having kids a while longer. The second writer allows that this could be a challenging time but is ready to start a family anyway. The meaning shifts, in part, because of how the clauses are positioned in relation to the conjunction “but.” The meaning also shifts because whatever we place at the end of the sentence is what lingers in our readers’ minds.
Consider this information we often see on road signs:
Bridge may ice in cold weather.
In the sentence above, the weather is in the emphasized position, but ice—the possibility of driving on ice—is the important part. This would be better:
In cold weather, bridge may ice.
Because our brains expect end focus, we should also try to position the following items at the ends of sentences: technical terms, newly introduced concepts, and information that the reader needs to remember. Consider these examples:
We’re calling to confirm your appointment with Dr. Patterson on Wednesday, May 9th at 3:40 p.m.
The procedure we’re scheduling is called balloon angioplasty.
You can reach me on my cell phone at (713) 555-5555.
We all write under deadlines and with distractions. It’s not practical to revise every sentence to use end focus, but it’s a communication principle worth keeping in mind.
The Long and Short of It
Ideally we want to use a mixture of short sentences and longer ones, simple sentences and more complex ones. Without such variety, reading can be tedious. You may remember English teachers extolling the virtues of sentence variety. What was true in school is also true in business and personal writing. You need sentence variety to keep readers interested. However, when your goal is to be understood by busy, distracted readers, there is such a thing as ideal sentence length.
Here’s some advice from Mike Markel, university writing teacher and author of the textbook Technical Communication:
“Sometimes sentence length affects the quality of the writing. In general, an average of 15 to 20 words is effective for most technical communication. A series of 10-word sentences would be choppy. A series of 35-word sentences would probably be too demanding. And a succession of sentences of approximately the same length would be monotonous.”
Technical communication encompasses résumés, reports, emails, instructions, proposals, presentations, and more. Unless you’re writing fiction or an academic paper, technical writing guidelines are applicable. Even in creative and scholarly writing, this insight about sentence length can be useful.
I’m not suggesting that you make all of your sentences between 15 and 20 words long. But be aware of your average sentence length and notice when you’ve written a string of very short sentences or a string of very long ones. Your readers will notice, and it will affect how they engage with what you write.
Microsoft Word and some other word-processing programs can show you readability statistics, including average sentence length, for a document. You can also find a free online readability utility here. I used it on a draft of this blog post. Here’s a screen shot of the information it provided:
The red arrow points to the average sentence length in my draft, 15.49 words. I’m within the effective range mentioned by Markel, but the other readability data gives me a few things to consider.
Average sentence length, average syllables per word, and other factors are used to calculate the level of education needed to to understand a piece of writing. On several different scales, my draft was judged readable by someone with about a tenth-grade education. That number is too high for Web content meant to reach a wide audience.
As a journalism student, I was taught to aim for a seventh-grade reading level in my news and feature stories. As an educator, I taught college freshmen whose high-school textbooks were written at middle-school level and whose favorite novels were around a fifth-grade level. Based on what we know about recent textbooks and the readability scores of popular writers, a fifth- to seventh-grade score would be better to reach a wider audience. Monitoring sentence length is one way to keep that readability level from creeping too high.
Although I’ve concentrated on only two aspects of sentence structure, I can think of several more that help with clarity. What else do you do to craft easy-to-understand sentences? What sentence constructions hinder you when you’re reading?