Short sentences are easier to understand than long sentences
Add a word to your sentence, and you’ll reduce comprehension. Add another once, reduce it even further. Add another one and reduce it even more.
There’s almost a one-to-one correlation between sentence length and understanding, according to research by the American Press Institute. The research, based on studies of 410 newspapers, correlated the average number of words in a sentence with reader comprehension.
The study found that:
- With average sentences of 8 words or less, readers understood 100% of the story. (Downside: Copy might sound as if it had been ripped from a Dick and Jane book.)
- At 14 words, they understood 90% of the information.
- At 43 words, they understood less than 10%.
And that 107-word sentence your subject-matter expert made you write? It actually subtracts from the sum of human knowledge. After reading that sentence, your readers not only don’t know what they’ve read, they also forget where they parked the car.
That’s a net loss of knowledge — not exactly our goal as communicators.
So how short should sentences be?
Write short sentences like the Times.
Take a tip from the pros at The New York Times, and keep sentences short.
Times sentences average 15 words, according to our analysis of all of the stories in a recent edition of the newspaper. (We skipped the sports pages to avoid skewing the results.)
So aim for an average sentence length of about 15 words, like these from the Times:
Some companies that do approve business-class travel do so only in one direction, however.
Its broadband package is also the home to the sports broadcaster ESPN in Britain.
They added that the plaintiffs’ side lacked actual people to say they were harmed.
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:
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
He was 84.
“Times readers are sophisticated and don’t expect ‘Run, Spot, run’ syntax,” writes Philip B. Corbett, who’s in charge of revising the newsroom’s style manual. “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.”
How short should a sentence be?
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