30 June 2022
Do English speakers consider short sentences to be childish?
A reader sent us a message asking about that very question.
In today's Everyday Grammar, we will explore an area of connection between sentence length, writing style, and grammar.
Question and answer
Are short sentences childish?
The answer is this: it depends.
Are the sentences clear? Do the ideas connect to each other? Are there different kinds of words – verbs, nouns, pronouns – and different kinds of sentence structures?
If the answer to these questions is "yes," then the writing is not childish.
The quality of a sentence does not depend on its length. Short sentences can be clear, direct, and powerful; they can also be boring or childish. Long sentences can be interesting, artistic, and intelligent; they can also be confusing and unclear.
Ben Blatt is a writer. In 2017, he wrote a book called Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve. In the book, he explores how famous writers use language.
Blatt studied the opening lines of many books. Some writers used very short sentences, while others used very long sentences. Toni Morrison, Blatt notes, had a median sentence length of five words. In comparison, Jane Austen had a median sentence length of 32 words.
Consider these lines from A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was a famous, Nobel Prize-winning writer from the United States.
You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too.
These lines have 62 words and seven sentences. On average, there are just under nine words per sentence.
Some English writing guides suggest sentences of around 15 words are likely to be understood. Sentences beyond 25 words risk becoming difficult to understand. This is because longer sentences usually have more clauses – subject and predicate groups. The greater the number of clauses, the greater the risk the sentence loses clarity.
Using short statements to make longer sentences
Yet it is useful to write sentences with more than one clause. Such sentences create variety – and variety, as the expression goes, is the spice of life.
One useful way to keep clauses separate and clear is by joining them with a semicolon.
But first, consider the independent clause. An independent clause can stand on its own as a sentence ending with a period. For example:
Tom likes salad.
This independent clause has a subject and a predicate.
The subject is "Tom," and the predicate is "likes salad."
You can combine two or more independent clauses that carry similar ideas. You can separate them with a semicolon (;)
A semicolon can be used to form a compound sentence.
Tom likes salad.
Betty likes pizza.
These two short statements — three words each — can be put together to make the following sentence that has six words:
Tom likes salad; Betty likes pizza.
More information can be added to one of the clauses to make longer statements.
Tom likes salad; Betty likes pizza, but she hates vegetables.
Tom likes salad but doesn't like tomatoes; Betty likes pizza.
These sentences have 10 and 11 words, respectively.
Compound sentences can also be used to describe actions, as in:
The shark came close to the boat; the passengers yelled and took pictures.
Three clauses could be combined along with a connector – a conjunctive adverb such as "however," "unfortunately," or "therefore."
Such a sentence might go like this:
Tom likes salad; Betty likes pizza; unfortunately, Joe refuses to eat vegetables.
Note that this example combines three clauses yet only has 12 words.
The central idea of this report is that sentence length and sentence quality are not the same thing.
As a very general suggestion, try to keep sentences around 15 words on average. Try to minimize the number of clauses per sentence. If possible, include sentence variety.
If you want to write sentences with several clauses, experiment with the semicolon idea. It is a useful way to create sentence variety and still keep thoughts clear and separate.
For those of you reading online, we will end our program with a question. We used a complex version of the semicolon structure two times earlier in this report. Can you find these sentences? How are they similar or different from what you learned about in today's report? Write to us in the comments section of our website, learningenglish.51voa.com.
I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
style –n. a particular way in which something is done, created or performed
boring – adj. dull and uninteresting : causing boredom
median – n. mathematics : the middle value in a series of values arranged from smallest to largest
bar – n. a building or room where alcoholic drinks and sometimes food are served
dignity – n. a way of appearing or behaving that suggests seriousness and self-control; the quality of being worthy of honor or respect
clause – n. grammar : a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb
predicate – n. grammar: the part of a sentence that expresses what is said about the subject