How long should a sentence be to effectively deliver an idea?

Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

I would like to share my reply to two intriguing questions about written and spoken English that were raised by Mwita Chacha, a Tanzania-based member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum.
His first question: How long should we make our sentences to effectively deliver our ideas?

My answer is that to clearly convey an idea in our mind, a sentence should only be as long as it needs to be. It could be as short as two or three words, as “That’s all” in that old Nat King Cole song or “Call me Ishmael” in the opening line of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. On the other hand, it could be all of 4,391 words, which is how long Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is ( in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses; this formidable wordage, however, pales in comparison with a 13,955-word sentence in British novelist Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club, which Wikipedia says appears to be the longest sentence in English literature.

My point in citing these highly disparate sentence lengths is that there really isn’t any rule as to how long a sentence should be. It all depends on how simple or complex the mind of the writer runs, on the personal writing style that he or she has developed, and on the kind of audience being addressed. For practical purposes as opposed to literary purposes, however, I would recommend brevity in sentence construction every time for clarity’s sake. In particular, I do think that a newspaper reporter would be making a hateful imposition on the reader by habitually writing news-story sentences far in excess of, say, 20-25 words; that a TV news writer would cause consternation among news readers and TV audiences alike by even just occasionally foisting 30-word sentences on them; and that a lecture-circuit speaker would make audiences doze off by droning on and on with sentences way beyond 30-40 words.

Admittedly, though, the preceding 75-word sentence above would seem to contradict my very own prescriptions for sentence length. Well, it does, but I suggest that we look at this contradiction as another important aspect of sentence word-counts. Punctuation does change the sentence-length paradigm altogether. Indeed, the judicious use of punctuation—the comma, semicolon, colon, dash, ellipsis, and parenthesis—makes it possible for us to write high word-count, many-idea sentences without overwhelming our readers or listeners.

Now to the second question: Is the advice credible that too much focus on grammar can hamper learning how to speak fluently in English?

Yes, that advice makes a lot of sense. Focusing too much on grammar just makes the learner too self-conscious and too fearful of making mistakes to the point of being tongue-tied.

Let’s keep in mind that even without formal grammar lessons, the child learns to speak and become adequately fluent in a particular language simply by listening to members of the household using it. The child learns to speak a language primarily by imitation, and the more fluent the people around the child are in that language, the faster the learning process and the better will be the child’s command of it.

When it comes to writing, however, the situation becomes different: the learner should first learn enough of the vocabulary, grammar, semantics, and structure of the language to be able to put his ideas in clear, understandable writing. This is a longer and much more painstaking process than learning to speak the language, of course, so it’s no wonder that we sometimes meet professionals who speak English very fluently but whose English grammar is so atrociously faulty that they couldn’t even write a decent sentence longer than five or six words. Every nonnative English speaker thus needs to undertake a continuing self-improvement program in English grammar and usage, for not to do so is to risk making do with faulty spoken and written English for life.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at Follow me at @J8Carillo.


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1 Comment

  1. According to Carillo: “…we sometimes meet professionals who speak English very fluently but whose English grammar is so atrociously faulty that they couldn’t even write a decent sentence longer than five or six words.”

    In the interests of parallelism, shouldn’t “..who (can) speak Englishj very fluently…” be matched with “…they can’t even write a decent sentence….”?