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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