Fixing that terrible sentence

Ford escort RS2000 with a blue stripe

We all have them–those terrible sentences. The great, gnarled, nasty, tangled, incomprehensible, half-a-paragraph-long sentences.  I certainly do.  And today, I’m going to tell you 3 ways to fix them.

Here’s a recent one of mine:

 I intend to suggest that Adorno’s theories enable us to describe, and to connect to wider cultural norms, one of the most difficult to articulate answers in tertiary humanities teaching: “What does an H1 look like? and how do we tell students to develop their writing so they can achieve it?”

Huh?  I wrote it, and I have trouble following it.

1.  In Developing Quality Technical InformationHargis et al. (2004) suggest that sentences should be short, typically about 23 words. In academic prose, I find 25-30 words in a sentence is about right.

A 50 word sentence like the one above is almost always two sentences stuck together. Just put in more full stops.

2. Never have more than two clauses.

In the sentence above, there is the main clause (‘I intend to suggest…), a parenthetical clause (anything between brackets, dashes or two commas, an aside), the second half of the main clause,  a reported question and a second related question.

Making a sentence shorter almost always means there will be fewer clauses.

3. Is there a colon or a semi-colon? A rhetorical question mark? Quotation marks for anything but a direct, attributed quote?

Delete them. They are just like go-faster stripes on your old clunker.

Ford escort RS2000 with a blue stripe

Full stops speed up your writing, they clear it out. Like removing adjectives and claims for relevance, removing egregious punctuation makes your writing sound more authoritative. 

***

Bonus point 4.

When I was working on my most recent article, this was a sentence I wrestled with. In the end, it was more important to get the article in before the deadline, than to get it perfect.

I got it better, and then I submitted it.

I intend to suggest that Adorno’s theories enable us to describe, and to connect to wider cultural norms, one of the most difficult to articulate answers in tertiary humanities teaching: “What does an excellent thesis or essay look like?” Having answered this question, we can then suggest some techniques for students to develop their writing in order to achieve it.

Because 80% is good enough.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you, Katherine. I’ll add your post to my Research Whisperer ‘how to fix a crappy application’ toolbox. When applicants submit incomprehensible prose, I’ll send it to them. It won’t take the edge off my rage, but it’ll be better than yelling obscenities (rage against the mundane).

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