How Long Should a Sentence Be?

By Mark Nichol

A few years ago, I wrote a post titled “How Long Should a Paragraph Be?” which argued that various pronouncements that dictate paragraph length (expounded for the benefit of beginning writers, who presumably are aided by the introduction of a circumscribed formula for success in composition) should be ignored in favor of a commonsense approach to organizing paragraphs according to the ideas expressed within; the correct answer, I argued, is that a paragraph has to be long enough to reach its end, meaning that a paragraph can be as short or as long as is required for a writer to express an idea.

Did the preceding paragraph seem too long? It’s not especially lengthy, but if it exhausted you to read it, that’s because it consists of a single sentence that is more than a hundred words long. Although I am known to write long, complex sentences, that one, which I deliberately stretched out to an excessive extent, is an example of a statement that could use some reorganization.

How long should a sentence be? Like a paragraph, it should be long enough to reach its end, but, as with a paragraph, that objective should be balanced with aesthetic considerations. A sentence can consist of one word or be infinitely long, but what will serve the reader while expressing a complete thought?

Generally, it’s more productive to provide a sequence of sentences of naturally varied length than to dictate how many words one is permitted to use in a given sentence; a succession of sentences of equal or similar length will distract readers, as will a series with wildly divergent word counts. Take care not to repeatedly overwhelm sentences with multiple forms of parenthesis (interjecting words or phrases—or entire sentences, for that matter, using commas, parentheses, or dashes). The previous sentence includes the three basic forms, but note that, aside from a single semicolon, I have refrained from introducing anything more complicated into this paragraph.

Don’t overthink the issue, of course. Write naturally, but when revising your work, attend to sentence length and combine or separate sentences that seem too abrupt or unwieldy (unless that is the effect you want to create). If you want a ballpark figure, go with a range of twenty to twenty-five words as a benchmark, though average length will vary depending on the literacy of your readership.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


5 Responses to “How Long Should a Sentence Be?”

  • Jim Porter

    I have a friend who owns a small publishing company. Years ago, he was ghostwriting a book for a professor, a full-blown academic. His book today has good sales annually.

    But when my friend, a former newspaper sportswriter and columnist, did the first draft of the book he professor was appalled to see all of the short paragraphs with all of the eye-catching white space. He voiced his protest to my friend, asserting that academic writing does not consist of short, pithy paragraphs, but long, academic ones filled with prose of a sophisticated and–my word–haughty nature.

    My friend asked the prof a simple question: “Do you want to impress your peers? Or do you want to sell books?”

    As I said, the book is an annual best-seller, both in mail order and the list of my friend’s publishing company.

  • Roberta B.

    Wow! That’s one way to make your point. The only way I kept reading was because I recognized by the title of the article of that point being made. However, that was not a good way to start. Then I realized the rest of the article was like that, too. It’s a good thing it was a short article. Holy cow!

    My rule of thumb is based on something called a “fog index.” It’s just a tool. I don’t remember the formula right now, but it rates paragraphs by word count and reading levels. So, if the audience has a very high reading level, paragraphs with long sentences are acceptable. They say (or used to say) newspapers write at a 6th or 7th grade level. I’m old school and don’t know which standards they use now. Unless the objective is literature as art, most people are looking to discern the point with enough background information in the least amount of time with the least amount of effort.

    I had a professor once say to try to keep your sentences to 10 words or less. For most writers with any level of proficiency, that’s almost an impossible task, but there is an art to that, and it’s still a good goal to get to as close as possible without sounding unnatural. Now go back and re-write some of those sentences, and maybe I’ll try reading through it again.

  • Agua Caliente

    Needed a laugh today and got it from that first sentence/paragraph. A colon in there somewhere would have made it “perfect”!

  • Dave Rissik

    American novelist Philip Roth must be one of the masters of the long sentence and long paragraph. But, consummate wordsmith that he is, the fog index stays low, and each idea holds together in beautifully constructed narration.

  • Mark Nichol

    Roberta B.:
    Thanks for mentioning the fog index, which is discussed in this post.

Leave a comment: