How to tame long, unclear sentences

by Maria McCann

Royal Literary Fund Fellow in the Department of Arts and Cultural Industries.

Problem: sheer length

Solution: split them! Oddly, many students never consider this obvious step, which can resolve several problems at a stroke. Remember, however, that long sentences are not a fault in themselves. Good writing employs a variety of sentence forms.

Problem: the subject of the sentence appears very late

By being able to identify human voices from as early as twelve hours after birth, babies are perceptive to the sounds of human language from very early on.

Solution: move the subject to the beginning

Babies can identify human voices from as early as twelve hours after birth, and this makes them perceptive to the sounds of human language from very early on.

Problem: strings of relative pronouns (who, that, which) and over-use of this

Taskill chooses to write in iambic pentameter, which is commonly used in English sonnets. This is surprising, since… These sentences are short, but already there is potential ambiguity: what is surprising? Is it that sonneteers use iambic pentameter, or that Taskill does so?

Solution 1: introduce ‘recap’ words

Taskill chooses to write in iambic pentameter, a metre commonly used in English sonnets. This choice is surprising, since….

This is already clearer. Altering This choice to Her choice would make it better still.

Solution 2: repeat a key word

Smith took measures to keep down public spending, though he believed that the state should be responsible for certain public amenities, which were not fully supported.  

Does which refer to Smith’s measures or to the amenities? Repeating a key word helps:

Smith took measures to keep down public spending, though he believed that the state should be responsible for certain public amenities, amenities which were not fully supported.

The advice above is adapted from Julia Copus’s Brilliant Writing Tips for Students.

If you’d like to book a confidential one-to-one session with me to work on your writing skills email me at Maria.McCann@uwe.ac.uk. I’m in 3S201 on Frenchay on Wednesdays and Thursdays until the 16th June.

 

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