Sentences: Streamline them online

And activate passive voice online

Simple sentences — subject, verb, object — are easiest to read, online or off.

Sentences: Streamline them online

Keep it simple, Sweetie Subject, verb, object is most readable, in print and online. Image by Pedro Nogueira

That’s why Jan H. Spyridakis, professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, suggests that you:

1. Activate the passive voice online

People understand the active voice more easily than the passive voice. They:

  • Remember active sentences verbatim better. (Blount and Johnson, 1971)
  • Read active sentences faster. That may be because active sentences are usually shorter than passive ones. (Bostian 1983)
  • Preferred the active voice and found it more familiar. (Bostian 1983)
  • Found active copy easier to read. (Kintsch 1993)

So write about people doing things:

“Homeowners must make mortgage payments …”

Don’t write about instead of things being done unto:

“Mortgage payments must be made …”

2. Avoid embedded relative clauses.

Simple sentences are easiest:

“The boy fell down.”

But slip a relative clause within another clause, and you make your sentence harder to read:

“The boy, who is tall, fell down.”

(Remember: A relative clause is one that contains a relative pronoun, like who, that, or which.)

Move relative clauses to the ends of sentences. Readers have trouble reading embedded relative clauses and have to look back to the beginning of the sentence to make sure they understand it. That may be because embedded relative clauses interrupt the syntax, or the structure, of the clause they are embedded in.

But readers find relative clauses at the ends of sentences:

  • Easier to read. (Rayner, Carlson, and Frazier, 1983)
  • Easier to understand. (Creaghead and Donnelly 1982)
  • Easier to remember. (Larkin and Burns, 1977; Creaghead and Donnelly 1982; Isakson and Spyridakis 1999)

So instead of embedding these clauses, move them to the ends of your sentences.


The report that John wrote earned an IABC award.

At the end:

IABC presented an award for the report that John wrote.

3. Use independent clauses.

Independent clauses are easier to understand than dependent clauses.

Independent clauses are so-called because they can stand on their own, independently, as sentences. Dependent clauses cannot.

Independent clause:

“The report earned an award.”

Dependent clause:

“that John wrote”

Independent clauses are:

  • Easier to understand. (Creaghead and Donnelly, 1982; Townsend, Ottaviano, and Bever, 1979)
  • Easier to remember. (Isakson and Spyridakis, 1999)

Simply lovely

Want web visitors to understand and remember your copy? Write mostly simple sentences.

  • Cut Through the Clutter Online

    Because “short is too long for mobile”

    “What’s slightly annoying” on a desktop can be “overwhelming” on a smartphone, according to the authors of User Experience for Mobile Applications and Websites.

    Cut Through the Clutter Online in Chicago


    • It’s 48% harder to understand messages on a smartphone than on a laptop.
    • People read 20% to 30% slower online. But they read about 30-milliseconds-a-word slower on mobile devices than they do on desktops.
    • Attention spans on mobile devices are 50% shorter than on laptops. So while mobile reading takes longer, people spend less time on a page when reading on their phones.
    Learn three tweaks that will increase webpage usability by up to 124%.

    How do you avoid overwhelming mobile visitors?

    At Writing for the Web and Mobile — our two-day hands-on web-writing master class on June 12-13 in Chicago — you’ll learn proven-in-the-lab best practices for increasing webpage usability up to 124%. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Pass The 1-2-3-4-5 Rule for online paragraphs. Tip: Test it on your smartphone for best results.
    • Increase usability by 58% with one simple step.
    • Make long webpages easier to read on a smartphone with three quick tips.
    • Use a cool — free! — tool for testing your webpage’s clarity. Get a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of ways you can measurably increase readability.
    • Avoid The Mobile Paradox: The No. 1 activity for mobile users is wasting time. But mobile users get “visibly angry” at verbose sites that waste their time. How do you avoid enraging readers?


Source: Jan H. Spyridakis, “Guidelines for Authoring Comprehensible web Pages and Evaluating Their Success” (PDF), Technical Communication, August 2000

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