Less Is Not More: How to Write Longer Sentences (if you really have to)

Writing

 

Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is a classic, a compendium of pithy advice for writers who want to get their ideas across clearly and succinctly. Their Rule # 13, "Omit needless words," sounds like a slam-dunk: just do it. But how do you decide what's needless? Where do you start?

 

Well, sometimes working your way backwards helps – like taking apart a clock so you can figure out how to put it together – so let’s start with a simple sentence and add more and more needless words. (The inspiration for what follows came from K. McGinty’s “Nine Easy Steps to Longer Sentences.”)

 

A well-crafted sentence communicates the writer’s viewpoint clearly. (Starting word count: 8.)

 

Step 1: Add Weasel Words

 

Weasel words are words or phrases so vague that they suggest rather than state, even as they appear to lend credibility to whatever you’re saying.  Here are some of the more useful weasel words:

 

·         It has been claimed that

·         Questions have been raised

·         There is some evidence that

·         Up to … or more

·         Many scholars today

·         In most respects

·         Somewhat

·         Seem

·         Indicate

 

When you want to lengthen your sentences, referring to research is always a good start.  For our purposes, let’s simply allude to a body of evidence, which for all anyone knows, could be scribbled notes on a paper napkin. But who’s checking? And “would seem to indicate,” for all its suggestion of nuanced consideration, commits us to absolutely nothing. 

 

A growing body of evidence would seem to indicate that a well-crafted sentence communicates the writer’s viewpoint clearly. (Word count: 18.)

 

Note: While numerical weasel phrases may or may not not add length to your sentences, they are a highly effective smokescreen disguised as scientific integrity: “up to 50 per cent” (49.99 per cent? – or maybe just 0.1 per cent?) or “more than 60 per cent” (95 per cent? – or maybe just 60.01 per cent?). And then there’s the weaseliest of them all: “up to XX per cent or more.” What’s that supposed to mean?

 

Step 2: Add Empty Phrases

 

In an empty phrase, words are added – but not meaning. Thus, they do not burden readers who want to avoid the latter. Here are some particularly useful empty phrases, each followed by the unsatisfyingly short word or phrase it can replace:

 

·         in order to (to)

·         because of the fact that (because)

·         at that point in time (then)

·         in the final analysis (finally, lastly)

·         in spite of the fact that (although, even though)

·         for the purpose of (for)

·         give the appearance of (look like)

·         in my personal opinion (in my opinion)

·         a number of (some)

 

As we saw in the case of weasel words, any suggestion of mathematics can inject your sentence with credibility. Because “a number of” can denote any number from zero to infinity, you’re always on solid ground. And “in the final analysis,” while suggesting thorough investigation, likewise commits us to nothing.    

 

With these two empty phrases added, our sentence now looks like this:

 

A number of studies in a growing body of evidence would seem to indicate that, in the final analysis, a well-crafted sentence communicates the writer’s viewpoint clearly. (Word count: 27.)

 

Step 3: Add Redundancies

 

Like empty phrases, redundancies add weightiness without substance to your writing. In a redundancy, a word or phrase contains an unnecessary, self-evident modifier.

 

·         Big (small) in size

·         Many in number

·         Difficult dilemma

·         Exactly the same

·         Final completion

·         Period of time

·         True fact

·         Free gift

 

Redundancy can also be achieved by stating the obvious, so for our sentence, let’s redundantly add that the nebulous body of evidence referred to actually relates to our topic. (Note the wholly superfluous add-on “at hand.”) While this may seem unnecessary, it is in fact a courtesy to readers – a reassurance that the so-called research is not related to, say, seventeenth-century Estonian folk dances or the life span of eels.

 

A number of studies in a growing body of evidence relevant to the subject matter at hand would seem to indicate that, in the final analysis, a well-crafted sentence communicates the writer’s viewpoint clearly. (Word count: 34.)

 

Step 4: Add Definitions

 

A well-placed gratuitous definition will imbue your writing with authority and precision. In our example, lest readers be in doubt about what constitutes a sentence, let’s give them everything they need to know. Because we’re quoting the Canadian Oxford Dictionary verbatim, we can now add a footnote to insinuate academic rigour:

 

A number of studies in a growing body of evidence relevant to the subject matter at hand would seem to indicate that, in the final analysis, a well-crafted sentence – that is, a set of words complete in itself as the expression of thought, containing or implying a subject and predicate, and conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command1 – communicates the writer’s viewpoint clearly. (Word count: 63!)

 

1Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2004).

 

 

Step 5: Add Synonyms – the More, the Better

 

Never underestimate the powerful, impressive, and compelling impact of synonyms – that is to say, words with the same meaning – to accentuate, underscore, and emphasize your point. Using as many multisyllabic words as possible to say the same thing signals to your readers that you are, if not highly intelligent, at least smart enough to find the Thesaurus function in Word.  

Since we have so far improved only the subject of our sample sentence (“a well-crafted sentence”), we’ll now turn our attention to the predicate and use synonyms to enhance “communicates,” “viewpoint,” and “clearly”:

 

A number of studies in a growing body of evidence relevant to the subject matter at hand would seem to indicate that, in the final analysis, a well-crafted sentence – that is, a set of words complete in itself as the expression of thought, containing or implying a subject and predicate, and conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command1articulates, imparts, transmits, and communicates the writer’s ideas, position, opinion, and viewpoint clearly, lucidly, precisely, intelligibly, and unambiguously. (Word count: 76!)

 

1 Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2n ed. (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2004).

 

 

Step 6: Add Foreign Words

 

Sprinkling your writing with foreign words and phrases, especially less well-known Latin ones, will lend it a whiff of scholarship with a minimum of effort. Here are some terms that are not only handy but also weaselly into the bargain:

 

·         ceteris paribus (all things being equal)

·         inter alia  (among other things)

·         et similia  (and the like)

·         implicite  (by implication)

·         pro tempore (for the time being)

·         lato sensu (in a broad sense)

·         paucis verbis (in few words)

·         non sine causa (not without reason)

 

Randomly choosing the last one, we now have the following:

 

A number of studies in a growing body of evidence relevant to the subject matter at hand would seem to indicate, non sine causa, that, in the final analysis, a well-crafted sentence – that is, a set of words complete in itself as the expression of thought, containing or implying a subject and predicate, and conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command1 – articulates, imparts, transmits, and communicates the writer’s ideas, position, opinion, and viewpoint clearly, lucidly, precisely, intelligibly, and unambiguously. (Word count: 79!)

 

1 Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2004).

 

Step 7: And Now, the Final Touch

 

One last fine point: Why use only one word when a phrase would work just as well? “Viewpoint” is fine, but “point of view” is even better. And if we change “clearly” to “with clarity,” not only does it sound more posh, it also forces us to change all the ensuing adverbs to nouns – and that gives us a chance to replace the prefix “un-” with three words (“a lack of”), thus cleverly transforming the single bulky noun “unambiguousness” into the elegant four-word phrase “a lack of ambiguity.”   

 

A number of studies in a growing body of evidence relevant to the subject matter at hand would seem to indicate, non sine causa, that, in the final analysis, a well-crafted sentence – that is, a set of words complete in itself as the expression of thought, containing or implying a subject and predicate, and conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command1 – articulates, imparts, transmits, and communicates the writer’s ideas, position, opinion, and point of view with clarity, lucidity, precision, intelligibility, and a lack of ambiguity. (Word count: 85!!)

 

1 Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2004).

 

 

Voilà!

Our new and improved sentence ends on a note of triumph – a lack of ambiguity, absolutely in keeping with the spirit of the original sentence. And, not counting the footnote, we’ve not only increased our word count more than tenfold – going from 8 to 85 words in seven easy steps – we’ve also added 20 commas. Now that you’ve seen how it’s done, you should have no difficulty whatsoever in producing prose of exceptional brilliance and verbosity. So sharpen your quills and get writing!