Short Clear Sentences Please!

Paul KrugmanI was planning on writing about something else, but this issue came up and I feel I must address it. It’s about writing. It is possible to write really long sentences that are both beautiful and clear. But unless we really know what we are doing, long sentences muddle reader understanding. And I believe this is because long sentences are simulacra of our spoken sentences.

This is a problem because a spoken sentence has a huge amount of extra information in it that allows the listener to understand. And even then, I’ve never found it easy to understand anything but the most simple stuff aurally. This is one reason why I think the lecturing model of teaching is ridiculous. But we’ll leave that for another time.

I found a really good example of what I’m talking about in a blog post by Paul Krugman, Hangups of the Heterodox. Try not to get hung up in the jargon:

There’s a long if bizarre tradition among some left-leaning economists that sees the notion that factors of production are paid their marginal products—or even that this is a useful first cut when thinking about the factor distribution of income—as somehow implying an acceptance of the moral right of capitalists to keep their spoils.

That’s 56 words by my count. And that alone doesn’t doom it. But the structure of the sentence is madness: “There is [insert very long ancillary exposition] acceptance of something.” I like Krugman and think he is a good writer. This is just from a blog post, and I put up crap all the time myself. So this isn’t an attack on him. Plus, since people like me look forward to reading his thoughts on matters economic, he can depend upon readers taking the time to parse him.

But his sentence really should be broken down into smaller segments to lead the reader along. I think three sentences ought to do it:

Among some left-leaning economists, there’s a long if bizarre tradition. They don’t like the notion that factors of production are paid their marginal products—or even that this is a useful first cut when thinking about the factor distribution of income. They think this somehow implies an acceptance of the moral right of capitalists to keep their spoils.

Of course, this could be a single sentence, simply with colons connecting these sentences. And it would be three words longer! But what I’ve done is separate the ideas: (1) people think weird thing; (2) what they think; (3) why they think it. Instead we are left with this structure that gives lots of details without any idea of where we are going.

Consider, “He had what many said was red—but others claimed was purple—and made of the finest wood, and he used it all kinds of cold weather to hit small black, although they were sometimes grey, disks that many called pucks, and the ‘it’ that I referred to that he was using and had was a hockey stick.” Extreme, but not far off. “He had a hockey stick. Many said it was red but others said it was purple. It was made of the finest wood. And oh how he would use it in the coldest of weather to hit black and even grey disks many called pucks.”

Not very artistic, you say? I know! And if this were poetry, you’d have a point. But even in a novel, clarity trumps all. Nonfiction and fiction share a purpose: to tell a story. If the reader gets hung up parsing what you’ve written, you’ve failed. As it is, I didn’t finish Krugman’s article. But I will now!

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