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Sentence Length

时间:2008-4-8栏目:英语写作指导

After World War II the wire services asked readability experts to examine their stories in an effort to improve them. Briefly, the experts determined that, on the average, short sentences (17 to 20 words) of short or common words built around active verbs are the best. What resulted was the popular idea that all sentences could be no more than 20 words. Many people ignored the word "average."

From The Bulletin in Bend, Ore., comes a good example--a story with sentences averaging 18.6 words. The writer, Dave Swan, achieved that by writing only 10 of 37 sentences longer than 20 words. Here are four unrelated paragraphs to show some of Swan's pace:

Henry "Hank" Bostleman, 532 NW Riverside, Bend, has been blowing glass for 25 years. He is now 70.

Bostleman is a neon sign blower. He works for the Carlson Co., 1605 NE Forbes Road.

"I really enjoy having something to do," he said. "A lot of people my age don't have enough to keep them busy."

"The new modern equipment has quite a few refinements on it," he said. "But I've used this for years and it still works. In fact, I just had a sign come back in for repair that has been working for over 17 years. I think that's pretty good!"

What should not escape you--whether you are in print or broadcast journalism--is that some of the most effective sentences are direct quotations. People don't talk in long sentences. A sentence is too long if it can't be spoken in one deep breath. If your sentences make people gasp for air between the beginning and end, they are too long. Stop run-on sentences, such as this one:

And yet, at this writing, there are only nine days left before the fiscal year runs out and the state is still without the essential financing to

make it run efficiently and without the complete waste of funds which might result if there's no budget and revenue plan before July 1 and

institutions will have to borrow money at high interest rates in order to keep going.

The run-on sentence stumbles because by saying so much it ultimately says nothing. The reverse of the run-on is a string of short sentences say, 10 words and

under. A story built on such short sentences will read like a parody of journalistic

writing. A good journalist can let fly with a length of words that have flow, rhythm and stamina and that count toward a meaning rather than a quota.

Cutting the Length Naturally, when writing against a deadline, you cannot measure the length of your sentences. The secret is learning to write sentences of the right length before deadlines become a part of your life. Compute the average length of your sentences. If the average is high, find ways to reduce it.

Look at what you write; do you go on and on without putting in periods while at the same time ignoring commas, semicolons and other devices that might make reading your sentences easier or do you spot natural breaks in your long sentences and stop the sentences before they get out of hand? The preceding sentence is 53 words long. To make it read comfortably, change it to three sentences.

Look at what you write. Do you go on and on without putting in

periods while at the same time ignoring commas, semicolons and other devices that might make reading your sentences easier? Or do you spot natural breaks in your long sentences and stop the sentences before they get out of hand?

The paragraph has been reduced to an average of slightly more than 17 words a sentence by inserting punctuation marks that indicate full stops--periods and question marks--rather than punctuation marks that merely slow the reader down--commas and semicolons. This sentence should become two:

The agency said Moscow had also bolstered its military presence in Cuba by sending increasing numbers of military advisers and

constructing bases and using the island "as a bridgehead for contention

with the United States, and for infiltration in the Western Hemisphere, especially the Caribbean."

That sentence contains 45 words for the reader to grasp in one breath. A period after bases and some editing would have made the preceding marginally digestible.

Plodding Sentences Trying to say too much at once creates long sentences, as evidenced by these examples from a student's paper:

Bugliosi, a former deputy district attorney for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, made the statement in response to a question from the audience after his speech on the Tate-LaBianca murders for

which he successfully prosecuted Charles Manson and four members of his family.

Although he had been called in 1967 to prepare a search warrant for Sirhan's car, Bugliosi said he had no further involvement with the

case until late 1975 when one of the bystanders accidentally shot during

the REK assassination petitioned to have the murder weapon test-fired again.

More importantly, a number

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