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Better Sentences: Managing Length and Complexity

Writing clearly doesn’t mean always keeping sentences short and simple. To communicate sophisticated ideas, you may need to create complex and even lengthy sentences. This handout focuses on techniques for crafting longer sentences while maintaining clarity and control.

Get to the point

Two common sentence problems often undermine clarity: “interruptions” and “sprawl.” Here’s how to avoid them:

  • When starting a sentence, get to the MAIN SUBJECT quickly
  • Connect the main subject directly to its verb, and the verb to its object (if it has one)
  • Extend the sentence after the verb phrase.

How does this work? Try to make the grammatical subject the same thing as the topic of the sentence—what the sentence is about. Whenever you reasonably can, use a concrete or active verb instead of "TO BE." Move readers quickly to the subject/topic, then to the verb and the object with as few interruptions as possible. Finally, position new or complex ideas after the verb, making that information easier for readers to assimilate.

SPRAWLING: Moving (subject is not the topic) through a paragraph from a cumulatively coherent point of view (interruption) is made (TO BE verb) possible by a sequence of topics that seem to constitute a set of related ideas.

CONTROLLED: Readers (subject = topic) consider (concrete verb) a paragraph to be coherent (object) if they feel the sequence of topics constitutes a set of related ideas

Extend sentences with modifying phrases

Sentences that sprawl may contain a lot of relative clauses (i.e. beginning with that or which). Too many relative clauses convey the effect that you’re “tacking on” information, and readers might not easily discover your point.

Example: Studies have shown that using mobile phones while driving significantly increases the chances of causing an accident, so legislation which would make “phoning while driving” illegal and that sends a tough message to anyone using a mobile phone while driving is needed.

As an alternative to tacking on relative clauses, you can use a device called a running modifier to extend your sentences.  There are three kinds of running modifiers:

Resumptive modifier: repeats or reiterates a key noun from the previous clause.

Example: Since studies have shown that using mobile phones while driving significantly increases the chances of causing an accident, we need legislation to make “phoning while driving” illegal, legislation that sends a tough message to anyone using a mobile phone while driving.

Summative modifier: creates a noun “summarizing” the previous clause.

Example: Wireless communication has made it easier not only to keep in touch with people but to let others find you “anywhere, anytime,” a trend contributing to high stress levels in workplaces today.

Free modifier: begins with “ing” or “ed/en” constructions (participles) or with an adjective, and can be placed at the beginnings or ends of sentences.

 Example :  Driven by an insatiable desire to watch The Walking Dead wherever they travelled, Elmer decided to add TV downloads to the already enormous number of features on their phone.
—OR—
Elmer decided to add TV downloads to the already enormous number of features on his phone, driven by an insatiable desire to watch The Walking Dead wherever they travelled.

You can also control long sentences by repeating or reiterating key words, using balanced opposites, and employing correlative conjunctions: e.g. not only/but also, neither/nor, either/or.

Recognize common problems

Faulty parallelism

. . . means that two or more parts of a sentence equivalent in meaning incorrectly have a different grammatical structure.

PROBLEM:  The committee recommends revising the current legislation to recognize the correlation between mobile-phone use and automobile accidents and that new laws be drafted to penalize mobile-phone users involved in accidents.

REVISION:  The committee recommends revising the current legislation to recognize the correlation between mobile-phone use and automobile accidents and drafting new laws to penalize mobile-phone users involved in accidents. [Equivalent phrases now have the same grammatical structure.]

Dangling modifier

. . . means that the implied subject of an introductory modifier differs from the explicit subject of the clause following it.

PROBLEM:  Hoping to avoid being bothered during evenings and weekends, the messaging service was temporarily discontinued. [Only a human subject can perform the action of “hoping.”]

REVISION:  Hoping to avoid being bothered during evenings and weekends, Elmer temporarily discontinued the messaging service. 

Misplaced modifiers

. . . means that a modifier is connected to the wrong sentence element. A common example: “They only work on weekends” should likely be “They work only on weekends.” Why? Logically, "only" would restrict when they work, not the action of working. 

Take your sentences to the next level

  • Judiciously use “of + noun” at the ends of long sentences for a climactic effect: “Though they have already seen hundreds of strange and beautiful galaxies, the immortal alien in the blue police call-box is doomed to roam until the end of time.”
  • Reiterate or “echo” words/phrases or sounds you’d like your reader to remember:  “Manner is indissolubly linked to matter; style shapes, and is shaped by, substance.”
  • Use punctuation not only correctly but consciously. Be aware of its effects: even a simple comma, by creating pause or emphasis, can shape meaning.


Acknowledgement:  These techniques are adapted from Williams, J. M., and Nadel, I. B.  (2005).  Style:  10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Cdn. ed. Toronto: Longman.