Join Judy Steiner-Williams for an in-depth discussion in this video Simplify sentence structure, part of Writing in Plain English.
- Go. Stay. Stop. Sit. Stand. Look at those words again. How many sentences with those five words? If you said five sentences, you're correct. Each isa verb with an understood subject of you. They're called commands. Now take a moment to look at this group of words. How many sentences? One, with 94 words. This was professor Butler's first place prize sentence, in Further Reflections on the Conversations of our Time, an article in the scholarly journal, Diacritics and this sentence won first place.
For what, you may be wondering? The bad writing contest. Your next question may be, "What difference does it make "if a sentence is one word or close to 100?" The readability of your writing, of course. The average sentence length is part of how readability is measured. Depending on the study, the average sentence should be between 15 and 20 words. More than that, and your sentence probably is trying to do too much, to discuss more than one idea, and is hard to read.
Your goal is to keep all readers reading with readable-length sentences in plain English. Shorter sentences have more impact. They emphasize the key idea. In that 94 word example, we have no idea what the main point is. Those one word sentences, go, stay, and stop, are of course on the other extreme. Writing in only one or two word sentences is as unacceptable as writing 94 word sentences. A common, simple sentence arrangement is subject, verb, object.
Frank is going home. "Frank" is the subject, "is going" is the verb, and "home" is the object. Jane ate five snacks. Subject is "Jane" the verb is "ate" "snacks" is the object. If we kept repeating that simplistic sentence structure, we would have a highly readable score, but our reader would most likely be bored. So, let's examine a compound sentence and a complex sentence. My grammar fundamentals course examines all the sentence structures, but a quick definition here.
A compound sentence is two complete sentences with a connecting word such as and or but. A complex sentence is a group of words that has one complete sentence and one incomplete sentence, but with a connecting word also. Here's a complex sentence: Because the new president of the company wants more social activities for employees to help employee morale, she has asked for volunteers to form a committee that will meet once a week to analyze ideas that employees have submitted in the suggestion box.
44 words in a complex sentence. Let's simplify the sentence structure. Our new company president wants more employee social activities to help improve employee morale. She has asked for a volunteer committee to meet weekly to analyze employee suggestions. Two 14 word sentences. Much more readable and understandable than the 44 words. Here's another example: a compound sentence. Our company's new branding policy to help emphasize what we stand for described in our mission statement needs to be advertised more effectively, and we need to decide where to most effectively advance the new branding policy at the lowest cost.
A 41 word sentence. Let's simplify it. Our company's new branding policy needs to be advertised in the most effective and low-cost method as possible. 17 words in the basic simple sentence structure. Certainly more readable, and clearer. I don't want to leave you with the impresson that compound and complex sentences should be avoided. A variety of sentence structures can aid the flow and make the writing more interesting. But start with simple sentences and then branch out from there.
Albert Einstein's quote comes to mind: "Any fool can make things bigger, "more complex, and more violent. "It takes a touch of genius, "and a lot of courage, "to move in the opposite direction." The opposite direction is shorter, simpler, and yes, more readable sentences, all goals of plain English.
If you can write in plain English, you can save time, save money, and save face in communications. Start watching to learn how to make your writing more "plain": stronger, clearer, and more concise.
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- Explain how to make your writing clear, concise, and straightforward.
- Recognize the average reading level for most audiences.
- Identify commonly overused words.
- Recognize how strong verbs can help avoid passive writing.
- Explore the benefits of deleting extra words.
- Define “weasel words.”