We’ve all had to navigate them … the protracted strings of words (otherwise known as sentences) that seem to stretch to the horizon and veer out around Pluto, before finishing with a lap of the sun. The meaning of these arduous, dull assaults on our concentration is generally lost somewhere on the journey through the solar system. While this is a journey that may interest NASA, here on corporate terra firma, the long sentence is the black hole of corporate comms.
In 15 years as a plain-English specialist at andrewpeglermedia.com.au my experience has taught me to identify the client’s core communication among the flotsam and jetsam, and allow their real message to shine. In other words, for the sake of comprehension, to make it simple, to keep it easy, to ensure people understand what’s being said after one reading, I have boldly gone where many have not, and befriended the full stop.
Shorter sentences, dealing with one main point, are the most effective. This doesn’t mean over-simplifying the writing but crafting each sentence to serve one precise purpose. Just one. As a guide, a good, plain-English sentence should consist of around 20 words — short enough to be clear, long enough to flow well.
Here’s a ‘before’ and ‘after’ example …
Before: Long sentences can be hard for the reader to understand, even when the punctuation is correct, because people like a gap and as a writer you have to be aware of this, and consider the impact of long sentences on your reader. Long sentences in reports, web copy, and other assorted business communications read as too wordy and dense, even if this isn’t the case, because the information in those long sentences can be too hard for the reader to grasp.
The example above is grammatically correct but the length of those sentences causes it to flow about as well as a warp in the space–time continuum. Here’s how embracing the full stop (and a bit of editing) can improve things.
After: Long sentences can be hard for the reader to understand, even when the punctuation is correct. This is because people like a gap and, as a writer, you have to be aware of this. Long sentences in any form of business communication make it appear too wordy and dense, even if it isn’t. This is because an excess of words can obscure the real information.
So with all that said and done here are my five tips to short sentence success.
- Strive for one main idea per sentence.
- If you have two good ideas, then use two sentences.
- Remove unnecessary words.
- Could that comma be a full stop?
- Wherever you use ‘which’, ‘because’ or ‘but’, try out a new sentence instead.
On that note, a quick word about ‘and’ and ‘but’. Most of us have been taught not to start a sentence with either but modern language is more conversational. And being conversational is the key to good,plain English. This makes the use of ‘but’ and ‘and’ at the beginning of a sentence much less of a sin that it once was. But don’t overdo it now!
Remember, stick to your key points and keep it simple. After all, it’s not rocket science.
If you’ve enjoyed this stroll through the plain-English universe, here are three plain-English things you can do in your solar system right now!
- Email me at email@example.com to receive my eight top tips for creating plain English.
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- Leave a comment below. Let’s start a conversation about plain English. Go on, you know you want to!