The Sentence — Simple and Clutter Free?

Cleaning the sentence

The secret of good writ­ing is to strip every sen­tence to its clean­est com­po­nents.” William Zinss­er — On Writ­ing Well (1990) and… “to write clean Eng­lish you must exam­ine every word you put on paper.”

This is the sec­ond part of a series on the use of the sen­tence, please click here to read the first part.

Stripped Down

Every writer enhances their work or demon­strates their per­son­al style by adding extra phras­es, say­ings etc. In craft­ing sen­tences, it is all too easy to become too expres­sive, pad, explain, and over indulge. Thus writ­ers do at times fail to get to the point or mean­der along in a way the read­er fails to under­stand the pur­pose of the piece.

One of the first tasks of edit­ing your own work is to strip it down to the bare bones. Take it, then make sure it only says only what it should, before build­ing it back up again. You shouldn’t be afraid of the knife.


Keep Sentences Short, Sweet and Simple?

Simple SentenceWeb­site Eng­lish For Stu­dents rec­om­mends keep­ing sen­tences short to aid under­stand­ing. It rec­om­mends keep­ing the “aver­age sen­tence length 15 to 20 words.” They also argue that “mud­dle is more like­ly in a long sentence.”

The prospects to cre­ate mud­dle cer­tain­ly exist in longer sen­tences. But mud­dle can exist else­where too. For exam­ple: the read­er can also be con­fused by a poor­ly con­struct­ed para­graph made pure­ly of short sen­tences that dis­plays mud­dled thinking.

Writ­ers owe it to their read­ers to pro­duce clear, sim­ple, and eas­i­ly under­stood writ­ing. Corinne Rodrigues from Every­day Gyaan believes it is nec­es­sary to “keep read­ers focused on your mes­sage by writ­ing short sen­tences. Short­er sen­tences tend to have more impact.” Shar­ing, of course, a belief in the 15 – 20 word rule.

While edit­ing, should we look for “and,” “but,” “how­ev­er,” or “yet” then seek to split the sen­tence into two parts? Should sen­tences con­sist of, at most, two or three phras­es sep­a­rat­ed by com­mas? The short sen­tence can be some­what like a uni­cy­cle, sim­ple to con­ceive, less than sim­ple to use. Per­son­al­ly, I have been sus­pi­cious of stan­dard­ised rules and feel a need to break out, be adven­tur­ous, be a rebel, be cre­ative and do some­thing dif­fer­ent. I agree rules and guides do serve a pur­pose, how­ev­er, as they are the guide to good writing.


Plain English

I am all in favour of using plain Eng­lish, it should be cen­tral to sen­tence con­struc­tion. Is it true that all words with three or more syl­la­bles are hard to under­stand? The word “under­stand,” for exam­ple, is very well known. Syn­onyms like, “know,” “find out,” “grasp,” or “realise,” don’t have exact­ly the same mean­ing and lack precision.

Here are a few com­plex words with a sim­pler, alternative:

  • Advan­ta­geous — helpful.
  • Com­men­su­rate — equal.
  • Endeav­our — try.
  • Expe­di­tious — fast.
  • Lever­age — use.
  • Remu­ner­a­tion — wages.

barnWrit­ers may use some words of equal length, such as “nec­es­sary,” “sub­sti­tute,” or “alter­na­tive” which are very eas­i­ly under­stood. The oppo­site are short words that are not a part of nor­mal every­day use, some exam­ples are shown:

  • Bilk — to cheat somebody.
  • Cov­et — to wish, long, or crave for.
  • Dour — poor sense of humour.
  • Edict — a dic­ta­to­r­i­al proclamation.
  • Inane — hav­ing lit­tle intelligence.
  • Vil­i­fy — spread­ing neg­a­tive of hate­ful information.

One aim of plain Eng­lish is using words which allow read­ers (of aver­age intel­li­gence) to realise what is said. For exam­ple avoid­ing those Latin phras­es that pre­dom­i­nate the legal pro­fes­sion, or avoid tech­ni­cal phras­es that every oth­er pro­fes­sion claim as their own are an essen­tial part of plain English.


Making a Sentence Effective

There is more to a sen­tence than mere­ly con­vey­ing the heart of the mes­sage. Each should do so with skill and in a way that invokes the inter­est of the read­er. One rea­son why I con­clud­ed that it is pos­si­ble to have longer sen­tences, that con­vey their mes­sage sim­ply and effec­tive­ly, free from clut­ter, yet show off the cre­ative flair of their writer.

Ulti­mate­ly it is a com­bi­na­tion of long and short sen­tences that make a piece inter­est­ing. Each sen­tence must be effec­tive on its own and must com­bine well with the oth­er sen­tences sur­round­ing it, they must flow or build an idea. Short and long sen­tences are both required for writ­ing to become effective.

Its not just the mes­sage that makes a sen­tence effec­tive, how its told, the into­na­tions, etc. all com­bine to tell the sto­ry. Each sen­tence should be clut­ter free and be stripped down to its clean­est com­po­nents. Writ­ers must exam­ine every word to ensure com­pli­ance as Zinss­er sug­gests. We must be able to iden­ti­fy the ker­nel or core ele­ment and know whether a sen­tence needs to be built fur­ther from there some need much expla­na­tion, while oth­ers use that alone.


The Kernel

Grain of the SentenceThe ker­nel is defined as “the cen­tral or most impor­tant part of some­thing.” Often we com­mu­ni­cate through the cen­tral idea, or propo­si­tion, it doesn’t need any expan­sion. See the following:

  • Clouds dark­ened the sky.
  • The day was windy.
  • He set to work.

Not every idea, how­ev­er, can be dis­cussed through the cen­tral propo­si­tion alone. Pro­fes­sor Brooks Lan­don of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa states “growth starts with… a ker­nel sen­tence, the ini­tial build­ing block to which we will add infor­ma­tion.” Its at the heart of what should be said, it can do an effec­tive job on its own and fre­quent­ly does, it pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty to show the nub of the idea, the brick, which may become the foun­da­tion for some­thing else to be added.

As we know a sen­tence is formed of one, or many words. William Wallace’s cry of “Free­doooom!” in Brave­heart when urg­ing his troops into bat­tle is a great one word sen­tence, it is actu­al­ly mul­ti-dimen­sion­al, the bat­tle cry, the basic human desire, and the open­ing of possibilities.

Must we always be min­i­mal­ist with sen­tence struc­ture? I think not. Many basic con­cepts can­not be explained in 15 to 20 words, caus­ing the sen­tence to grow. Flex­i­bil­i­ty is a part of the art of writ­ing. The option to grow a sen­tence, or keep to the base idea are all choic­es to make.



Buy Peter B. Giblett a cof­fee as thanks for dis­cussing the ques­tion of build­ing sim­ple and clut­ter free sen­tences. Images includ­ed here are from “roy­al­ty free” pub­lic domain image col­lec­tions like Pixabay.
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