Skip to navigation | Skip to main content | Skip to footer

Breaking up long sentences

Sentence length and complexity: too much information

A reader can only absorb a certain amount of information in a single unit. It is therefore essential not to overwhelm the reader by introducing too much information in each sentence. Information is more readable and easy to assimilate if it is presented as several units.

Long sentences, short sentences, sentences of varying lengths

A common feature of academic writing is the joining of strings of ideas of approximately equal weight to form long compound sentences. This sometimes produces unmanageable chunks that readers cannot absorb comfortably. Better readability is produced by the use of comparatively simple sentences, of varying lengths, and consisting of a main statement plus one or two qualifications. However, going to the other extreme of producing a staccato effect of short, simple sentences is also undesirable.

Information load: subjects separated from verbs

We must always keep in mind the information load that our readers will be able to accept in each sentence. Since academics are trained to be cautious in their observations, they tend to attach conditions and reservations to statements. This may result in complex sentences with subjects well-separated from main verbs. Readers may not be able to hold comfortably in mind the amounts of interrelated information they are given in single statements. In summary, if sentences are overlong, the reader’s short-term memory cannot retain all of the words. Therefore, the reader will need to go back to the beginning of the sentence to start again. If all of your sentences are long, this puts great strain on the reader. This often results in incomplete understanding of the text, or incorrect understanding of the content. It may also result in your work not being read.

Examples

Example: Until relatively recently, the idea of focusing on the concept of ‘citizenship’ in a British context would have seemed rather eccentric to both historians and political theorists alike, for in the immediate post-war decades, in the 1950s and early 1960s, despite the publication in 1950 of arguably the most famous and influential of all British works on the subject (T. H. Marshall’s Citizenship and Social Class), politicians and intellectuals largely avoided the term, mainly because of the perceived unity and homogeneity of British society that seemed to be the lasting legacy of the Second World War, and which many saw as being guaranteed by (relatively) full employment and a welfare state that offered genuinely universal benefits for the first time. (118 words).

This sentence above is a poorly constructed sentence. Although the content of the sentence is not difficult to understand, the problem is that the reader’s short-term memory cannot retain all of this information. Therefore, when the reader comes to the end of the sentence they have to reread the first part again. Too many such sentences cause strain on the reader and result in impenetrable text.

The following example shows what can be done to make the sentence more reader-friendly.

Example: Until relatively recently, the idea of focusing on the concept of ‘citizenship’ in a British context would have seemed rather eccentric to both historians and political theorists alike. For, in the immediate post-war decades, in the 1950s and early 1960s, despite the publication in 1950 of arguably the most famous and influential of all British works on the subject (T. H. Marshall’s Citizenship and Social Class) politicians and intellectuals largely avoided the term. This was mainly because of the perceived unity and homogeneity of British society that seemed to be the lasting legacy of the Second World War, and which many saw as being guaranteed by (relatively) full employment and a welfare state that offered genuinely universal benefits for the first time. (120 words).

This is better. We now have three sentences of varying length (28, 43 and 49 words respectively). However, the third sentence is still quite long and it would be possible to divide this information into two sentences:

Example: This was mainly because of the perceived unity and homogeneity of British society that seemed to be the lasting legacy of the Second World War. Many saw these features as being guaranteed by (relatively) full employment and a welfare state that offered genuinely universal benefits for the first time. (25 and 24 words).

Although the information in the versions of this text remains the same, a cumbersome and overlong sentence of 118 words has been broken down into four separate sentences of 28, 43, 25 and 24 words.