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Is there a Perfect Sentence Length?

August 25, 2014

Henry_James_by_John_Singer_SargentIn a word, no.

I read with some bemusement an article on the Inside GOV.UK blog that you shouldn’t write sentences of more than 25 words in length.

(Inside GOV.UK describes itself as ‘a product blog about developing and iterating the GOV.UK website. For the people who publish content to the site and anyone else who is interested.’)

Inside GOV.UK is, of course, providing guidance primarily for government information websites. That means it is applying its rules to the specific context of a broad base of constituents who are trying to find information as quickly as possible.

Apparently, sentences that are longer in length than 25 words are very difficult to read, and the optimum length of a sentence is just 14 words. (That last sentence just broke the rule of 25 words, so most readers didn’t undertand what I just wrote.)

The problem is that these sorts of pronouncements are often conflated to apply to broader contexts, such as business to business communications, and that’s not always helpful. Government websites with the primary goal for users to skim read and find the information they need as quickly as possible is a totally proposition to content that needs to engage business stakeholders, clients and partners.

In fact, the problem may be even worse.

I remember studying Henry James at university and being struck by the length of his sentences yet how his prose was very ‘readable’. In doing a search online for “Henry James sentence length” I found this in the Washington Post:

Several English department chairs from around the country have e-mailed her to say their students are having trouble reading the classics.

“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

Wolf points out that she’s no Luddite. She sends e-mails from her iPhone as often as one of her students. She’s involved with programs to send tablets to developing countries to help children learn to read. But just look, she said, at Twitter and its brisk 140-character declarative sentences.

“How much syntax is lost, and what is syntax but the reflection of our convoluted thoughts?” she said. “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

– Washington Post, ‘Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say‘, b, 6 April 2014

I sometimes receive feedback that the sentences in my case studies are “too long”; but the most important thing is to engage the reader and convey meaning, which is often best achieved with a conversational tone – and we don’t tend to speak in staccato, 14-word sentences. In fact, variability is always my numer one priority, particularly with the long form case study.

To put it to the test, I ran the latest draft of a case study I am currently working on through an online word counter and text analyser. Here are the results:

  • 1357 words, with 557 unique words used
  • An average length of 27 words per sentence, with the shortest sentence at 10 words and the longest at 61 words
  • No common word sequences apart from “of the” and “in the”

I think that with the simplification of content, we are in danger of not just losing reader engagement, but also meaning. In a blog post that refers to the Washington Post article above (‘Social media more complex than great literature‘), there is a great infographic included entitled ‘Tweets are harder to read than great literature‘. The blog post also provides a great conclusion that works just as well for this post:

Henry James despised sentences that were a “mere seated mass of information”.  Without syntax, words would just sit there like lumps. It’s syntax that gives them backbone. There’s meaning in the way they come together.

 (Pictured above: “Henry James by John Singer Sargent cleaned”, Public Domain, sourced from Wikipedia)



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