I used to have Word Vomit Syndrome. I always felt that what I had to say was so important that I had to say everything in one sentence. The problem with that was, by the end of my speech, no one knew what I was talking about. Either that or they were wincing at my poor use of grammar and punctuations (if it was written). I want to help you avoid that mistake if you can relate to this feeling. I want to help you learn how to keep your sentences short and still get your message across (which also leads to making less grammar errors).
Short Sentences ≠ Short Essays
First off, short sentences don’t necessarily mean short essays. You can write a long essay full of short, precise sentences. Compare the following sentences below:
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Sara, who had two cats and one puppy that she loved to play with all of the time, especially when it was raining and she couldn’t go outside to play.
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Sara. She had two cats and a puppy. She loved to play with them all of the time, especially when it was raining and she couldn’t go outside to play.
Both short paragraphs deliver the same message. The first makes your head spin with the flood of words. The other is simple and much easier to follow. The difference is...short sentences. You want to deliver your essay in the simplest and shortest possible sentence. Why? You can get anyone to read a short sentence. It’s harder to get someone to finish a long sentence.
Why are short sentences important in essay writing?
Both in and outside of an academic environment, writing is a very big part of the English culture. Unless you only use Skype or Whatsapp audio messages to communicate with people, you have to write. Short sentences enable you to do that.
Now, with essay writing, there is no way to escape sentences. The person who gets to read your essay can only read what you’ve written, not what you intended to write. So, you want to make as easy as possible for them to see your thoughts through your words.
Long sentences aren’t bad. As you can see in this article, I’ve used a few long sentences myself. The only problem, especially for those still learning the language, is the propensity for grammatical errors and misuse of punctuation with longer sentences. If you’re chatting to a friend, this would not be a problem. But, if you’re writing an essay for your teacher or a more formal reason, like a job application or an examination, you want to minimize those errors.
One wrong assumption that most English students make is to think that essays are only about content, and that is all the teachers will mark. Teachers give points for content, organization of the essay, use of expressions, and mechanical accuracy (that is, punctuation, grammar etc.). And it is with mechanical accuracy that most students lose marks. The solution? Shorter sentences!
How to Use Shorter Sentences: Examples
I have one generic rule for essays; if it can be said in fewer words, use fewer words. In other words, keep it short and keep it simple. To put it in Bonnie Mills’ words in her article, Sentence Length, if you read your sentence but can’t remember what happened at the beginning, the sentence is too long.
As an example, I am going to use the longest sentence in E.B. White’s “Stuart Little.”
“In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elms trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink of sarsaparilla.”
Now, this is a beautiful sentence from a beautiful book, but the sentence is 107 words! Authors have editors and proofreaders to check spelling, punctuation and grammar. Most times, you are not afforded that luxury. There is too much room for error in this long sentence. Now, let’s break it up into multiple short sentences.
“In the loveliest town of all, the houses were white and high and the elms trees were green and higher than the houses. The front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about. The streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge. The lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures. The pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky. In this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink of sarsaparilla.”
It is important to note that there are no hard and fast rules to this. What I tried to do was break this up without adding to the words used by the author. In a real scenario, you are not likely to use the exact same words as I did with this one. But the idea is simple. Break up that long sentence and keep it simple.
What’s the difference? The words flow better. You can take time to appreciate the sentence and it’s value before moving on to the next one. With long sentences, there seems to be a rush to reach the end of the sentence. You want your reader (or teacher) to be able to enjoy each sentence as they read.
Using short sentences does not mean your essay has to be short. Using short sentences reduces room for error, grammatically or in sentence construction. There is no hard and fast rule to it, for example, short sentences should be shorter than 7 words (NOT the case). Rather, focus on saying what you need to say with as few words as possible.