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I wrote my opinion essay using a lot of different complex grammatical structures, linking words and so on, and some of the sentences were even over 4 lines long.

However, I was afterwards told by my English teacher that this is a bad habit, and any sentence one has to read twice to grasp is simply badly formulated. I was told to use short sentences instead, always.

Well, I was a bit disappointed by that, and it also seems a bit strange to me: If I'm able to formulate lengthy sentences in a good manner, why shouldn't I do so?

Are complex sentences uncommon or unwanted in English?

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Mar 23 '11 at 14:49

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

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@Dafr I don't think this is true at all. A well-formulated complex sentence is a wonderful thing. But if you are depending on a teacher for a grade, go with what he or she wants on their assignments (at least if you want the best possible scores/grades). –  jgbelacqua Mar 21 '11 at 20:45
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I think four lines is, maybe, a bit much. –  advs89 Mar 21 '11 at 22:00
    
Also, I think Occam would side with your teacher. –  advs89 Mar 21 '11 at 22:01
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Go long sentences! Short is bad! I like long sentences! –  muntoo Mar 21 '11 at 23:34
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It's awfully tempting to write an extended answer in one sentence, but I have nothing to say that hasn't been said well already. –  Neil Fein Mar 22 '11 at 3:07
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17 Answers 17

I think the problem with long sentences is not length per se, but poor construction. A well-written long sentence carries you along with it, and is a joy to read.

Consider this long sentence, the opening line of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

That's fifty four words, and you're never lost for a moment. Not only that, but by the end of the sentence, you know you're in the hands of an author who's a master of his craft. (Though, to be fair, you probably knew that when you saw his name on the cover.)

Here's a longer sentence from Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Prior to this sentence, Clare has bumped into Henry in the library. She’s met him many times, but he’s never met her. (It’s a time-travel thing, yo.) Clare asks Henry out to dinner. Then comes this:

We plan to meet tonight at a nearby Thai restaurant, all the while under the amused gaze of the women behind the desk, and I leave, forgetting about Kelmscott and Chaucer and floating down the marble stairs, through the lobby and out into the October Chicago sun, running across the park scattering small dogs and squirrels, whooping and rejoicing.

This delightful sentence, fifty-nine words long, skips and dances and flutters in exactly the same way that Clare skips and dances and flutters. It's lyrical and rhythmic and floaty. Try to do that in a short sentence. Again, as you read this, you are never lost even for a moment.

As these two examples show, there are things you can do with long sentences that you simply cannot do with short ones (and vice versa). The question is: What are you trying to accomplish with sentence length? Or: What are you trying to accomplish that can be accomplished only with long sentences? Finally: Are your sentence length choices achieving the effects you want to achieve?

A few years ago I created this exercise for my writer's group, to explore the effects of sentence length, and to be mindful of our choices:

Sentence Length Exercise

  1. First draft. Draft a scene or section in your usual way, about 500 words. Include activity of some kind, but no dialogue.
  2. First rewrite: Short sentences. Rewrite the piece using sentences no longer than 10 words.
  3. Second rewrite: Long sentences. Rewrite the piece using sentences no shorter than 25 words.
  4. Analyze the effects of sentence length. Analyze your three drafts to identify the effects of sentence length. Make notes about what you observe.
  5. Final draft. Write your final draft however you wish, but give particular attention to sentence length. Apply everything you have learned about sentence length during this exercise.

Additional guidelines for the exercise

As you revise, notice the changes you make about how to shorten, lengthen, slice, or combine sentences. Notice the effects of each choice, and whether you like each effect.

If writing 10-word sentences is too easy in step 2, use a maximum of 7 words per sentence. If 25-word sentences are too easy in step 3, use a minimum of 30 words, or 35. The idea is to challenge yourself. Within these restrictions, write the best sentences, the best paragraphs, and the best piece you can.

When you've finished revising, consider:

  • What challenges did you experience? What was difficult? How did you solve the problems?
  • What surprised you? What meaning do you make of your surprise?
  • What patterns do you notice in the structures of your short sentences? Of your long sentences?
  • What patterns do you notice in the types, lengths, and arrangement of phrases and clauses in your long sentences?
  • In your final version, what similarities and variations do you notice in sentence lengths and structures? What patterns do you see in the arrangement of short and long sentences?
  • Read each version aloud. What makes a sentence easier or harder to read?
  • How did focusing on sentence length affect other elements of your writing?
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There have been very good answers before, but I'd like to point out that English doesn't use lots of commas. (E.g. compared to German, from where I started to learn English and which is infamous for endless sentences. It was pretty hard for me not to put commas into English sentences at the beginning. For example, a common mistake is putting a comma before "that".) So complex sentences can get very confusing in English because you don't know exactly where dependent sentences start or end.

For example, in the accepted post was a sentence I had to read several times:

Most style guides agree that a sentence that one has to read twice in order to understand it is inferior to rephrasing the same such that one may understand it in one read.

If that was a German sentence, it would contain 6 commas:

Die meisten Anleitungen für guten Stil stimmen überein, dass ein Satz, den man mehrmals lesen muss, um ihn zu verstehen, schlechter ist, als denselben Satz umzuformulieren, so dass man ihn beim einmaligen Lesen verstehen kann.

It is still a pain to read, but rather because you're thinking "come to a point!"; you don't necessarily have to read it twice to understand it.

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I know what you mean. Being a native Russian speaker it is rather unusual for me to rely on word order alone either. In Russian you can change the word order and retain the meaning because it is determined by using cases. Commas are also frequently used. However, all the word modifications are also what makes the language so tough to learn for the non-native speakers. –  Malcolm Mar 22 '11 at 22:53
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As always, think of your audience. Would you rather read something brief and clear, or long and convoluted? As a writer, it is harder to be brief, but I think your readers will appreciate the effort.

It is more than just a matter of personal preference. In many cases your reader may not be a native English speaker. Keeping it short and simple can avoid misunderstanding and frustration.

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Read Hemingway. Then read Henry James. These are both considered great English writers, so presumably both have acceptable writing styles. I looked at the first paragraph of two of their most famous stories, and extracted the first two sentences of each. Compare.

James:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him.

Hemingway:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him.

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Long sentences contain a lot of opportunities for ambiguity, which is a potential source of intrinsic confusion.

Even if you avoid the ambiguity trap, there is a less concrete issue: when you use a very complex sentence, you are making certain assumptions about the readers ability and willingness to pay attention. Look at it this way, if you are an expert on some subject and still have to concentrate to form a information dense sentence correctly, are your readers going to be able to grasp the whole idea in one pass? If not, you can—and should—make it easier for them.

The other side of the issue is that a few long, difficult sentences may contain more information in fewer words than a lot of short choppy sentences.

So, you need to judge your audience.

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Well, it's nice to see such a question and after reading it I think that your teacher actually told you to write the sentences that are easy to understand because what is required is to facilitate the reader; however it depends how long you want your sentence to be but conciseness is always appreciated and it may be that your teacher only told you to write small sentences because (s)he thought that at that time that you are unable to write long sentences in simple way.

Now, if you've noticed the above paragraph I wrote is a single sentence. So now decide yourself how you'd feel about writing it? No matter what language we're talking about, the purpose when writing is to avoid being overly complex to serve readers.

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I was reading a book written in the USA during the 1890s, and there were some very long sentences.

For example on page 17;

"After the different ceremonies of the Indians were over, Sir Alexander made a speech to them, acquainting them with the fact, that he was clothed with authority from the Great King George, who loved them, and that he had come a great way to demand of Moy Toy (the Chief of the Cherokees), and all the Chieftains of the nation, to recognize the authority of the King and become his subjects."

(Colonial and Revolutionary History of Upper South Carolina, by John Belton O'Neal Landrum)

One advantage to shorter sentences is that the subject gets referenced more often. Repetition aids learning. Longer sentences sometimes loose track of the subject. For example: Try remembering who made a speech to the Indians in the above sentence (no peeking). On the other hand, Longer sentences allow for better narrative; What happened in the above (long) sentence about the Indians?

Conclusion:

  1. Use short sentences for facts and figures and when emphasizing the subject.
  2. Employ longer and more complex sentence structure when narrative is the purpose.
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I've done a fair bit of tech writing and would put a lot of effort into writing simple, short sentences devoid of ambiguity and profligacy. I am currently reading a Richard Ford novel (The Sportswriter) and it is the total opposite. The sentences twist and turn, they infuse exposition in the descriptions, feelings in the narrative and vary the sentence structure making it impossible to skim. In short, his book is a joy to read.

Context is everything.

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Complex, long sentences are less common in modern English than in modern German, or in the English of a century ago, or in Latin.

Most style guides agree that a sentence that one has to read twice in order to understand it is inferior to rephrasing the same such that one may understand it in one read. (Did you enjoy reading the previous sentence? I think it is a bit ugly, but I feel too lazy to make it easier to read.) However, there are some topics that might be nearly impossible to understand without reading several sentences twice. Nevertheless the ideal must always be to save the reader as much time and effort as possible.

That said, complex sentences can be quite readable if structured well; linking words help a lot, as do conjunctions. There are many authors who can get away with very long, complex sentences without forcing their readers to reread anything.

I suppose it all depends on how you do it; perhaps it might prove useful if you added a few examples to your question of complex sentences that your teacher disapproved of. On the one hand, the modern trend of writing in very short sentences by using full stops everywhere, depreciating semicolons and colons, has always seemed excessive to me, as you can see; on the other, I do agree that many writers of dubious skill tend to write sentences that are too long.

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As a German native speaker, I’d like to comment on the prevalence of long sentences in Germany. It’s true that there is still very much a bias in favour of long sentences, much more than in English. But luckily that’s changing. Like in English, long-winded sentences are rarely clear and desirable in German. Their existence just shows that most writers frankly don’t pay enough attention. –  Konrad Rudolph Mar 21 '11 at 21:36
    
"Most style guides agree that if a sentence needs to be read twice in order to understand it is better to rephrase it" ? –  Quibblesome Mar 21 '11 at 23:05
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@Quibblesome: That would be an improvement! But perhaps it might be better to leave the convoluted sentence as it is, to support my point about convoluted sentences. Oh, and don't you think you'd need a comma? I think I'd put a comma before "if" and another one after "understand". –  Cerberus Mar 21 '11 at 23:30
    
I find that spanish too tends to have longer sentences. –  Trufa Mar 22 '11 at 1:19
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The audience matters. An Internet audience means short attention. An inattentive audience prefers pith. Even so, compact writing doesn't have to be simple — long sentences can be broken up with punctuation besides the period. –  kojiro Mar 22 '11 at 2:28
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You are hitting an interesting question here. I am a native French speaker and I struggled with the same issue when I learnt English.

My English writing used to reflect my French upbringing. It is considered a skill to be able to craft long, complex sentences in French, using encapsulations and appositions.

Fortunately enough, my English teacher explained to me that he was more interested in the substance of my arguments rather than by my ability to show off grammatical skillfulness.

I now get strange looks from French colleagues when I use four-word sentences to answer their queries. My word of advice: value concision over circumlocution.

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A rich and full application of English is the tapestry of poetry and well written prose. Its uses include:

  • Making text more interesting and entertaining to read
  • To fully or more concisely express the attitude or opinion of the writer
  • The application of a specific rhythm or timbre to improve the "sound" of the text (e.g. Shakespeare, poetry, rap)

Most failures occur in texts that are not appropriate for its use. Complex and delightful arrangements of English are primarily for entertainment. As an example, this type of language would not be suited to technical documentation.

A good way to check for poorly applied complexity is to look for tautologies (repetitions of the same meaning) and ways to express your meaning using less words. It might be that your English is describing things in a "round about" fashion as opposed to being direct and concise.

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Some good answers above, especially satanicpuppy's. Also, consider the matter of register. What is appropriate to one setting may fail in another. If the requested format is "short and concise," then write to that requirement.

Your dissertation on Victorian phrasing in the instruction manuals of penny-farthing velocipedes will probably let you stretch your literary legs a bit longer.

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I'm assuming that an opinion essay is one where you articulate your opinion about something or attempt to persuade others to share your opinion. In such an essay, using complex grammatical structures can be a liability rather than a benefit, as the complexity of the language distracts from the message you are trying to get across.

That said, I disagree with your English teacher. I don't think all sentences should be short. The best writing I've read has a good variety of sentence lengths, with each sentence representing a relatively complete thought. Using a short sentence to represent a long thought can be as detrimental to your purpose as using a long sentence to represent a short thought.

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+1; The point and purpose of the paper or essay should determine how you write the paper. Creative writing will tend to have longer and more artistic sentences. Opinion pieces or descriptive essays should be short and condensed. Exceptions abound, obviously, but if you must err, err with short sentences. –  MrHen Mar 21 '11 at 18:59
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This depends a lot on the preferences of the individual reader, editor, or teacher. There is nothing inherently wrong with long, elaborate sentences in English, and many of the best writers in English are known for using sentences of this type.

However, the more complex your sentence is, the more difficult it will be for others to understand. Therefore it may be advisable for less experienced writers to try and keep things simple and not to overestimate their skill at composing such elaborate sentences.

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I would argue that many of the best writers in English are known despite using sentences of this type. True, they had the skill to pull this off. But looking at older texts (by good writers!) I never fail to notice that their texts would have been even clearer had they used shorter sentences. –  Konrad Rudolph Mar 21 '11 at 21:39
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Short, forceful, sentences are clear and pleasant to read.

Long sentences (full of description and unnecessary circumlocution), while capable of containing more information than a much shorter sentence, have a tendency to indulge in bad habits like the passive voice, and oftimes the reader, upon reaching the end of a monstrously long and verbose sentence, doesn't remember what the sentence was supposed to be about.

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The only way this answer could be better is if the second sentence didn't read so well. :) –  Jason Orendorff Mar 21 '11 at 19:13
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The sentences don't tend to indulge in bad habits, but the use of very log sentences may give the writer opportunities to indulge in bad habits. That being said, sometimes the only difference between a long sentence and a collection of shorter ones is that the pauses -- as indicated by punctuation -- are more pronounced in the stops between the smaller sentences. –  jgbelacqua Mar 21 '11 at 23:02
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Oh great, another person who thinks passive voice is inherently bad. –  Kosmonaut Mar 21 '11 at 23:58
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You can easily write short sentences. It is easy to write them using the subject, verb, object order. You can fill a whole book with such sentences. Such books are dull. It is much better to vary your sentence structure. You can do this without making your sentences long and confusing. You should also sometimes use introductory words or phrases at the beginnings of your sentences. This connects your sentences. Your writing will seem rather choppy otherwise. –  Peter Shor Mar 22 '11 at 13:40
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@Satanicpuppy: I would argue that it is not wishy-washy or dull unless you use it in that way (or inappropriately). People shouldn't say "more passive voice is needed!" any more than they should say "more subjunctive!" My main point is, when looking on a case-by-case basis, I feel that "because it's passive" is not a good enough reason to change a sentence. There needs to be another reason. –  Kosmonaut Mar 22 '11 at 14:17
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There is nothing inherently wrong with using rich phrasing and complex structure in English. Doing so correctly can indeed enhance your writing and the enjoyment of people reading it. That said, your teacher has a very valid point.

The purpose of language, broadly speaking, is to communicate. If your writing style is so convoluted that it gets in the way of people understanding what you've written, then it isn't achieving that aim. Long sentences packed with ideas are particularly prone to causing problems. People can in general only hold a limited number of things at the front of their minds, ready for immediate use, and it's quite easy for a long sentence to exceed this limit. If by the end of the sentence the reader has forgotten what the beginning of the sentence was about, you've got trouble.

The answer is to be moderate!

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Agree, but it is also true that -on average- English uses shorter sentences than other languages, such as French or Italian. See also: english.stackexchange.com/questions/3602/… –  nico Mar 21 '11 at 19:00
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Moderation/variety is key. Too many short sentences just start to seem boring, choppy, unintelligent...The point of your paper is the most important thing, obviously, but if it's not interesting linguistically, it affects the whole paper and not at all pleasantly. –  kitukwfyer Mar 21 '11 at 22:11
    
Sentences in Italian are longer for the fact Italian words are generally longer than English words; other factors contribute to make Italian sentences longer, as the fact that, or the is normally not omitted in Italian sentences (compare I think you are right with penso che tu abbia ragione) and the genitive is rendered with of (compare Michelle's book with il libro di Michela). –  kiamlaluno Mar 22 '11 at 1:24
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It's hard to opine on this without some examples of the sentences you wrote. But generally, you shouldn't write complex sentences just because you can do it well. When a particular idea really requires a complex sentence in order to be conveyed accurately and fully, then I see no problem with it. But this is rarely the case. I can't tell you how many elegantly convoluted sentences I've hacked to pieces in the editing phase of a paper. :)

Another thing to consider: Sometimes, needing to use a complex sentence structure indicates you don't yet have the best grasp on the ideas you're writing about. Being able to whittle that sentence down to a more readable length means your understanding has matured.

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