© Damen, 2002

5. Choppy Sentences.

Small sentences are boring to read. Many of them strung together look bad. They appear simple. Your thoughts look simple, too. It's like you can't sustain an idea for more than a few words. You can think in only trivial, simplistic ways. Small thoughts seem to come from small minds. You will leave your reader with the impression of simplemindedness. Is that what you want?

Many short sentences in succession make it appear that a writer is incapable of sustaining a complex thought. Rather than small, choppy sentences, construct ones that have some weight and depth. That doesn't always mean length, but formal academic writing tends to avoid, for instance, more than three sentences in a row with fewer than ten words in them. While an occasional short sentence is good because it delivers a strong "punch"—it does indeed!to have that punch, the short sentence must be set off by longer ones so its brevity stands out.

If you find that you readily write in choppy sentences, it's a very easy problem to solve. Add some "and's," "or's" and "but's." In other words, push some of the sentences together and make compound sentences linked by conjunctions.* Or, even better, throw in some subordination, that is, clauses. Clauses are sentences units introduced by words called subordinating conjunctions, like "When . . .," "Since . . .," "Although . . .," and "Even if . . ."**

The lesson here is to turn your choppy sentences into longer, more complex ones by making them compound sentences with several subjects and verbs. The reason for doing that in formal writing is simple. When your writing is more intricate, it makes your thinking look that way, too.

It's a very easy thing to do really, as a revision of the choppy sentences at the opening of this section shows. By adding subordination and creating compound sentences, I can quickly and easily improve the presentation of these same thoughts.

Small sentences are boring to read and, in fact, many of them strung together look bad because they appear simple. If your thoughts look simple, it will seem like you can't sustain an idea for more than a few words and can think in only trivial, simplistic ways. Since small thoughts seem to come from small minds, you will leave your reader with the impression of simplemindedness. Is that what you want?

In sum, here is a good guideline for whether you are writing in choppy sentences or not. If over the course of four or more successive lines, there are more periods than lines (i.e. fewer lines than sentences), your syntax are too abbreviated and you need to add something to make your sentences longer.


*Conjunctions, such as "and," "but," "or," "however," and "therefore," link nouns, clauses and sentences.

**Though clauses have their own subjects and verbs, they cannot stand alone because the subordinate conjunction introducing them delivers a thought which is basically unfinished, such as "When it rains hard, . . ." This is a clause which cannot stand by itself as a thought, because it does not make sense all alone. It needs another subject and verb to give it sense, e.g. "When it rains hard, I sometimes think I ought to build an ark." Now the clause is part of a full sentence, and the thought is complete.


Click here to test your comprehension of this section of the Writing Guide (PowerPoint file)

*** If you don't have PowerPoint on your computer, click here and the test will come up as a pdf file (Adobe Acrobat)***


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