Thursday, September 22, 2011

Too. Many. Periods. Make. Reading. A. Bear.

Although I think the title of this post makes my point, I realize it's a bit of an exaggeration and further explanation may be helpful. :)

The Problem of the Short Sentence
Remember Dick & Jane? Perfect example of
short, choppy sentences
that would drive most competent readers crazy!
Everybody knows that a run-on sentence is almost impossible to follow. We read as we speak—taking (and needing) breaks between phrases and clauses to fully understand what is being conveyed. Sometimes, this run-on sentence skittishness can lead to writing sentences that are too short; although they contain complete ideas, they break up ideas that naturally go together. If your writing has too many short sentences too close together, readers will get annoyed at the choppy effect and, perhaps, will quit reading.

How to Identify Short Sentences
Short sentences tend to have the following traits:

  • They contain one subject and one verb.
  • They convey only one idea, rather than several related ideas.
  • When you read them, the flow of the text feels choppy—that is, you are forced to mentally take breaks consistently and often.
  • They contain fifteen or fewer words.
If, when editing and proofreading your work, you consistently notice any of these traits, you should most likely go back and rewrite sentences to create a better flow.

How to Fix Short Sentences
There are many ways to "fix" short sentences, but the easiest and quickest is usually to combine two short sentences with coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) or subordinating conjunctions (to the left).

Typically, ideas that go together will be right next to each, but are separated by periods, creating short, choppy sentences. Combine them by doing the following:
  • Identify two closely related sentences (ideas).
  • Describe their relationship: is one more important than the other (use a subordinating conjunction)? Are they equally important (use a coordinating conjunction)? Is one influenced by the other (use a subordinating conjunction)?
  • Pick the best conjunction to combine the sentences and make them one!

He could see that she was angry. He wanted to fix it. He didn't know how. He felt so lost.

We've got four short sentences and a plethora of conjunctions to fix it, depending on which sentence you want to emphasize.

He could see that she was angry and he wanted to fix it. But because he didn't know how, he felt so lost.


He could see that she was angry. Even though he wanted to fix it, he didn't know how. He felt so lost.


Although he could see that she was angry and he wanted to fix it, he didn't know how. He felt so lost.

Sometimes, you don't even need to add words—a few key punctuation marks placed in the right spots can do the trick:

He could see that she was angry; he wanted to fix it, but he didn't know how. He felt so lost.

Not All Short Sentences Are Bad!
Notice how in the previous examples I consistently kept the last sentence, "He felt so lost." Sometimes, a short sentence can be used for rhetorical effect. The choppiness is what you are looking for—you have one specific idea that you want your reader to be forced to stop and focus on. For example,
  • Opening sentences can be short, since you're still trying to grab a reader's attention. They can be used, metaphorically, as a trail of bread crumbs to entice readers into the bulk of your piece.
  • Punch lines—that is, the essential point you are trying to make—often are great places for short sentences. You've thoroughly explained this theory and now you want to present it as succinctly as possible for readers to mull over.
  • Intentional pauses are best served with short sentences. This is the category that the above example (He felt so lost) would fall into. 

So, don't be afraid to use short sentences—just remember that they have a purpose and too many of them can be as damaging to your piece as run-ons. And there are many ways to spice up a short sentence! I'll come back to this topic later to cover more. 

Until then, what is your take on the short sentence? Is it the one thing that really bothers you when you're reading? Or do you think I'm being too hard on them?

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