Small is mighty: the power of short sentences

Small is mighty: the power of short sentences

Most of your sentences turn out okay, don’t they? If they seem right, they probably are right. If you learned English as your first language, your instincts are usually fairly trustworthy.

By the same token, if you think there’s something wrong with a sentence, there probably is. Take another look at the one that bothers you. Can you say it more simply? Of course you can. And is that sentence really necessary? If in doubt, cut it out.

Short sentences communicate powerfully

As Winston Churchill said, ‘the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence... is a noble thing.’

Writing short sentences is a very good plain language trick. Plain language uses short sentences. If you write short sentences, your meaning is usually clear and your grammar is usually correct.

It’s that simple.

Aim for an average of 16-20 words per sentence in business documents. The danger point occurs at 20 words.

If you are having trouble writing a particular sentence, it’s probably too long. Just chop it into two or more sentences. Or shorten the sentence by removing unnecessary words.

When you write complete documents, vary the length of your sentences. Too many short sentences in a row can become boring for the reader.

And it’s fine to start a sentence with ‘and’. But it’s equally legitimate to start a sentence with ‘but’. You read such sentences every day in the newspaper, in advertising, in letters and in books. Sentences starting with ‘And...’ or ‘But...’ are commonly used by Shakespeare and other literary stars. Be aware that some people frown on this usage in formal documents.

Structure sentences logically

The goal in corporate communications is to write clearly. Don’t try to be literary as you construct your sentences. Write plain, ordinary sentences, not fancy ones. 

In the ordinary English sentence, the words go in this order:

  1. SOMEBODY or SOMETHING (subject)
  2. DOES or IS (subject)
  3. SOMETHING (object or complement)
  4. extra information if any.

Use this as your default sentence structure. Start sentences with their real subject, not some irrelevant or fancy phrase. You’re not trying for the Nobel Prize in Literature. You are trying to write quickly, clearly and correctly.

Whenever you are struggling with a sentence, go back to the basic English sentence structure: ‘Somebody does something.’

How many ideas should there be in a sentence?

One idea in a sentence is enough. Two is plenty. Three ideas usually create confusion. (By the way, a clause is an idea, a sentence, or a sentence-within-a-sentence.) In a two-idea sentence, put the ideas in their logical order.

This is a crude but useful rule of thumb: put ‘if’ and ‘when’ clauses first, and ‘because’ and ‘so that’ clauses second.

In this blog, 'fancy' means not plain. Avoid fancy sentences.

FANCY We will need new uniforms if the coup succeeds.
PLAIN If the coup succeeds, we will need new uniforms.

FANCY Because he is sick, she is visiting Paul.
PLAIN She is visiting Paul because he is sick.

FANCY So that they can use the Internet, they have ordered a modem.
PLAIN They have ordered a modem so that they can use the Internet.

Try this easy fix

Never use more than one of these words per sentence:  although, because, if, since, unless, but, yet.

FANCY Although the roadworks are essential, the noise is disturbing the residents but they are tolerating it without complaint.

PLAIN The noise is disturbing the residents. They are tolerating the noise without complaint because they know the roadworks are essential.

(So ‘noise’ is repeated? In business documents, that’s good.

People read faster when you use the same word for the same thing.) Don’t overuse phrases like ‘It is...’ ‘There are...’ ‘It was...’ ‘It has...’  ‘There is...’ ‘There was...’ ‘There were...’ ‘There has...’ ‘There have...’ ‘It’ and ‘There’ are called false subjects.

Sentences that begin with a false subject:

  • are often hard to finish writing
  • are longer than necessary
  • can lose focus.

Naturally it’s OK to break this rule occasionally. (I just did.) But don’t make a habit of it.

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