The long and the short of it

Typically, I write long sentences.  Not that last one, mind you, but I have a propensity to write long sentences.  When I edit, I don’t typically notice or mark up long sentences, unless I can’t understand what was said on one reading.  At work, we use acrolinxIQ as a tool to help writers improve the quality of our content.  That tool flags more of my sentences due to the long sentence rule than most other rules combined.

As part of my “me time” on Fridays, I started reading a grammar book that I discovered when cleaning up my home office over the holidays.  The grammar book is Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte (who happens to be the mother of Edward R. Tufte, who wrote one of my favorite information design books, Envisioning Information, especially chapter 3 about layering and separating information).  Each chapter in Artful Sentences explores syntactic concepts surrounding sentences.  The first chapter, the first syntactic concept?  Short sentences.

Most of her examples are from fiction, but every now and again she shares a non-fiction example.  I’ve heard it said that inside every technical communicator is a frustrated creative writer of some kind, who’s just trying to make a living.  (I’m not sure that generalization is completely true in these days of the geeks ruling the world, but I digress (again!).)  I learned so much from this first chapter.  She really has a way of making me see syntax as style or art, and she inspires me to want to write artful sentences, right off the bat with the first chapter on short sentences.  But, there I go again, writing a long sentence.

She suggests that you can divide short basic sentences into four types (p. 10):

  • Equations with be
  • Equations with linking verbs
  • Intransitives
  • Transitives

She talks about rhetorical figures like synecdoche and syntactic shapes like metaphors.  She shows how these forms help make our writing sing with style. She explains how the syntax of short sentences and these forms can create urgency or signify importance.  She talks about using short sentences as topic sentences and using them as “syntactic punctuation” (p. 24).  I’m hooked.

I love that she argues that a short sentence can stand on its own or be a key element within a long sentence.  She says that good writers vary the length of their sentences.  Her conclusion is thus:  “Creating a succinct base clause — a short sentence around which a long one is built — is a technique every writer needs to know” (p. 34).  So, there you have it.  Long sentences aren’t necessarily bad, as long as they include a short sentence.

As I continue to review and edit my long sentences, I need to make sure that my short sentences within those long sentences are readily identifiable… and readable… and are artful and sing with style!

Happy editing everyone!

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