Short and Long Sentences

Another technique for fending off monotony in an essay is to vary the length of sentences. Long sentences (like this one) demand greater effort from readers because, while stepping from one part of the sentence to the next, they must keep track of more words, modifiers, phrases (not to speak of parenthetical asides), and clauses, without losing the writer’s main thought, which may be buried amid any number of secondary, or less important, thoughts, while short sentences are usually easier to grasp. A brief sentence can make a point sharply because all its words concentrate on a single point. Take, for example, the last sentence in this passage:

    For three days, my parents and I sat in our SUV and drove from college to college to college in search of the perfect place for me to spend the next four years. For seventy-two hours we lived as one person, sharing thoughts and dreams, stating opinions about each campus we visited, taking guided tours, interviewing students and admissions officials, asking directions a hundred times, eating together in town after town, and even sleeping in the same motel rooms. But mostly, we fought.

A terse closing sentence following a windy, forty-six-word sentence produces a mild jolt. Indeed, its purpose is to startle the reader. The technique is easily mastered but should be used sparingly. Overuse dilutes its impact.

A series of short sentences can be as tiresome as a succession of long ones. A balance works best. If you have strung together four or five sentences of equal length, try to reformat them. Here, to illustrate, is an overweight sentence that needs a complete makeover:

    In the 1870s, the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann dug in the correct spot and discovered not only one ancient city of Troy, but nine of them, one lying on top of the other, since every few centuries a new city had been built upon the ruins of the old, causing Schliemann to dig right past the layer containing the ruins of the famous city of the Trojan Horse without realizing he had done so, a mistake not corrected until almost fifty years later by Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati, by which time, unfortunately, it was too late for Schliemann because he had been dead for forty years.

The sentence is perfectly grammatical, but it carries a big 108-word load. Cut it down to size. Break it into pieces, rearrange it, add verbs, drop an idea or two, change the emphasis, and delete words. When you’re done, the restyled sentence might sound something like this:

    In the 1870s, the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann dug in the correct spot and discovered not only one ancient city of Troy, but nine of them, one lying on top of the other. He figured out that every few centuries a new city had been built upon the ruins of the old. Without realizing it, he had dug right past the layer he was seeking, the layer containing the ruins of the famous city of the Trojan Horse. His mistake was corrected fifty years later by Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati. By then, however, it was too late for Schliemann. He had been dead for forty years.

Likewise, a string of four or five equally long (or short) sentences can be combined to create a more balanced and varied paragraph. Here, for instance, is a paragraph, also about an ancient city, made up of short, choppy sentences:

    Pompeii was an ancient city. It belonged to the Roman Empire. It was near the base of Mount Vesuvius. In 79 A.D., the volcano on Vesuvius erupted. Tons of hot, wet ash fell on Pompeii. In less than a day, the city was buried. It just vanished. More than seventeen centuries later, an Italian peasant found Pompeii. His discovery was accidental. He was digging in a field. His shovel struck the top of a wall. That was two hundred years ago. Pompeii is still being excavated two hundred years later. About two-thirds of the city has been unearthed. It must have been a beautiful city.

With repetition eliminated and some ideas subordinated to others, here is what you get:

    The ancient Roman city of Pompeii lay near the base of Mt. Vesuvius. In 79 A.D., Vesuvius erupted, burying the city with tons of hot, wet ash. In less than a day, the city vanished. More than seventeen centuries later, an Italian peasant digging in a field with a shovel accidentally struck the top of a wall. He had found Pompeii. Today, two hundred years later, the city is still being unearthed. The excavation reveals that Pompeii must have been a beautiful city.

For more details and practice in sentence combining, turn to Part V.

Varying Sentences—A Summary

Use a variety of sentence types: simple, compound, and complex.

Create variety by starting sentences with a:

Prepositional phrase: From the start, In the first place, At the outset

Adverbs and adverbial phrases: Originally, At first, Initially

Dependent clauses: When you start with this, Because the opening is

Conjunctions: And, But, Not only, Either, So, Yet

Adjectives and adjective phrases: Fresh from, Introduced with, Headed by

Verbal infinitives: To launch, To take the first step, To get going

Participles: Leading off, Starting up, Commencing with

Inversions: Unique is the writer who embarks…

Balance long and short sentences.

Combine series of very short sentences.

Dismember very long sentences.

Practice in Varying Sentences

Directions: The following passages need greater balance. Divide some of the long sentences and combine some of the short ones. Try to preserve the original meaning of each passage.

1. Mr. Finn is the teacher. He’s a good teacher. He runs the class like a dictatorship, however. He has no use for “democracy.” He knows nothing about freedom. He announced his rules on the first day. He doesn’t allow talking. He forbids gum chewing. He won’t permit the wearing of hats. At the bell, he locks the classroom door. After-school detention is a consequence of lateness to class. His homework is compulsory. A girl once came without homework. Mr. Finn lowered the boom. The girl turned colors and almost wept. No one dares to come unprepared to class.


2. I have taken numerous science classes. In science classes we mostly talked about experiments. We didn’t do experiments. The equipment was too costly. We had to make do with obsolete equipment. Scientific theories were taught. The theories were not practiced in labs. They were not demonstrated. The science department needs $1 million. With a million dollars it could give students a better education in science.


3. By dumping garbage, sewage, and other hazardous waste products into the sea, many nations are polluting the world’s oceans, and in doing so are making beaches and swimming dangerous, poisoning fish with toxic materials that end up in fish, lobsters, clams, and other sea life that we humans eat, causing the toxins to enter our bodies.


4. The earth has experienced a sharp increase in natural disasters, from about 100 per year in the 1960s to five times that number in the early part of the twenty-first century, the reason being not that earthquakes, droughts, huge storms, and floods are happening more frequently and with greater intensity but that the population of the world has increased and people in greater numbers now occupy areas that are prone to natural disasters, such as flood plains, coastal lands, and cities built on subterranean fault lines. The planet has not changed. Humans have.


5. The American Dream is a popular concept in American life. It has different meanings for different people. It commonly means finding a good job. It also means getting married. Dreams also consist of having a couple of kids and owning a home. The home has a white picket fence and a two-car garage. Some people think that such a dream is shallow. They say that the dream should also include a good education, friends, a feeling of well-being, good health, and above all, the blessings of liberty. By that they mean freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The dream must also have the freedom to choose to be part of an untraditional family made up of same-sex partners or any other combination of adults and children.