Write short sentences, like The New York Times

How long should sentences be?

How long should sentences be? Take a tip from the pros at The New York Times, and keep sentences short.

Write short sentences, like The New York Times

How long should sentences be? The New York Times sentences averaged 23 words in one recent edition. How does your sentence length stack up? Image from iStock.

We analyzed 99 stories in a recent edition of the Times. (We skipped the sports pages.) On this day, Times sentences:

We recommend that you aim for an average of 14 words per sentence, based on American Press Institute research.

So how long should sentences be?

1. Aim for an average of 14-word sentences.

So aim for an average sentence length of 14 words, like these from the Times:

Some companies that do approve business-class travel do so only in one direction, however.
— Airlines Use Fuel Windfall to Pursue Premium Flier
Its broadband package is also the home to the sports broadcaster ESPN in Britain.
— British Telecom Company BT Is in Exclusive Talks to Buy EE
They added that the plaintiffs’ side lacked actual people to say they were harmed.
— Lawyers in iPod Trial Await Jury Decision

2. Make some sentences even shorter.

Build drama, create rhythm and make points powerfully by sprinkling in some super-short sentences like these, from the Times, which range from 5 to 1 word:

Mr. Abadi swung into action.
— Iraq’s Premier Narrows Divide, but Challenges Loom
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
— Court Rules for a Mistaken Police Officer
He was 84.
— David Garth, 84, Dies; Consultant Was an Innovator of Political TV Ads

— A Buried Past Springing Into the Light

3. Break up long sentences.

Break up long sentences like these, from the Times, which weigh in at 66 to 81 words:

A liberal Democrat, Mr. Garth generally worked for liberal or moderate candidates: He cut his political teeth on Adlai E. Stevenson’s short-lived 1960 presidential race; he went on to represent Governors Carey of New York, Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut, Brendan T. Byrne of New Jersey and John J. Gilligan of Ohio; as well as Mayors Koch of New York and Tom Bradley of Los Angeles.
— David Garth, 84, Dies; Consultant Was an Innovator of Political TV Ads
In addition to Belvedere’s inclusion in “Spectre” — the 24th film in the Bond series, dating to 1962 — Mr. Gibb outlined extensive plans for the partnership that include worldwide advertising and public relations campaigns; two types of limited-edition bottles, both with 007 themes; promotions and events in locales like nightclubs, bars and stores; a presence in social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; and a drink named the Belvedere Spectre martini.
— Bond’s Martini Will Be Shaken With a Different Vodka
From October 2013 to last June, the nursing home received poor ratings in a number of care benchmarks: 74 percent of patients had depressive symptoms, compared with 11.7 percent statewide and 6.2 percent nationally; 16 percent of residents lost too much weight over the course of their stay, almost three times the state average and more than twice the national average; and 4.8 percent had catheters inserted into their bladders and left there, compared with a state average of 2.6 percent.
— Death in Bronx Shows Vulnerability of State’s Nursing Home Residents

Note that these three sentences are actually lists. Break up sentences like these by bulleting any series of three or more items.

Take a tip from the Times.

Hmmmm … Those long sentences makes me wonder what Philip B. Corbett, deputy news editor for the Times, who’s in charge of revising the newsroom’s style manual, would have to say about this.

“Times readers are sophisticated and don’t expect ‘Run, Spot, run’ syntax,” he writes in “Tangled Passages,” a post in the Times’ grammar, style and usage blog, After Deadline.

“But news is read in a hurry, and we should strive for clear, sharp prose that aids rapid comprehension. Long, complex sentences slow readers down and can lead our syntax astray.”


What’s your average sentence length? What sentence length do you aim for?

  • Cut Through the Clutter

    Measure, monitor and manage clarity with a cool (free!) tool

    Would your message be twice as good if it were half as long? The research says yes: The shorter your piece, the more likely readers are to read your message, understand it and make good decisions based on it.

    Cut Through the Clutter

    But most communicators (and, let’s be fair, their reviewers) ignore the research and keep piling on the paragraphs. The result? “You’re not more informed,” writes Tom Rosenstiel, former media critic for the Los Angeles Times. “You’re just numbed.”

    Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics and leave with targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.

    So how long is too long? What’s the right length for your piece? Your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?

    At Cut Through the Clutter — our in-house clear-writing workshop — you’ll learn how to:

    • Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics — and leave with quantifiable targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.
    • Increase reading, understanding and sharing with five techniques for cutting your copy significantly.
    • Avoid discombobulating readers. Leave this workshop with 11 metrics for reducing sentence length and increasing comprehension.
    • Stop getting skipped. Find out how long is too long — and leave with three ways to shorten paragraphs.
    • Eliminate multisyllabic pileups from your copy. They’re the No. 1 predictor of poor readability.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

Free writing tips
  • Get tips, tricks & trends for Catching Your Readers
  • Learn to write better, easier & faster
  • Discover proven-in-the-lab writing techniques