Sentence length history


One of the key factors of good readability is determined by sentence length. How has sentence length changed over time, and what’s the best way to write sentences for readability? 

Sentence length: a downward trend 

The availability of information has been a major factor in why sentence lengths have reduced in writing style. The first major shift in literacy rates happened in the Victorian era:

“At the beginning of the Victorian era, circa 1830s, the literacy rate amongst Englishmen was hovering just above 60%. The literacy rate amongst women was roughly below half. Decades into the Victorian Era, in the 1860s, the literacy rate amongst women and men finally becomes equal at approximately 90% in 1870.” (Source)

When reading became more accessible to all, the writer was forced to read the room. No longer could he write in an overly formal, inaccessible style reserved for the elite. In addition, with more people to educate came the necessity for regulation of materials. Learning materials being easier to understand meant the education system was able to handle the additional strain. 

In English language history, sentence length is thought to have declined as much as 75% in the last 500 years. In addition, there have been studies of US presidential inauguration addresses. This is a useful study because they are consistent in purpose and tone. The analysis of these speeches suggests a 50% reduction in sentence length since the founding of the republic. 

Is the reduction of sentence length in English a good or bad thing? 

There is much debate as to the merit of short sentences and what they mean for the English language. Many people cite Twitter as an example of a character limit degrading the art of the sentence and limiting nuance. But, whether the Twitter limit is 140 or 280 characters, a writer can choose to use one long, winding sentence or several short sentences. The critique is more focused on the limitation of idea-expression in the realm of microblogging. With this being said, the extension of the character limit and tweeters’ tendency to create tweet threads on a topic shows people’s natural resistance to the format. 

This doesn’t mean the internet is irrelevant. The internet has revolutionised the way we read. Now we scan for information, rather than reading every word, because of the sheer volume. This has forever changed the way writers write. In addition, many people are less trusting of sources because of widespread fake news. Fake news has a way of being easy to ‘understand’ – so credible sources have to compete with this. Readers distrust jargon, so being clear and direct is more important than ever. 

All too often people assume that long, complex sentences express complex ideas. This isn’t necessarily the case. If your passage contains too many long, winding sentences, your reader will lose focus. You’ll then lose your reader. Don’t confuse complex sentences with complex ideas. Long sentences should be used judiciously, and when stylistically appropriate.

It is true that sentence complexity has changed over the years. This is because more delimiters were used in the past, such as colons and semicolons. Writing style has simply evolved. In part, this is due to journalism, which has become more and more like spoken language. This is to appeal to a wider audience. 

The reduction of the English sentence is a positive thing as long as our approach to it isn’t reductive. For example, stopping a sentence and starting another only improves readability when it’s grammatically correct to do so. It’s no good simply chopping up your sentences in a way that doesn’t make sense. This defeats the object of proofreading your text. Sentence length is also not the only factor of readability, so it’s not a quick ‘hack’ to improve the effectiveness of your writing.

Varying your sentence lengths 

This leads nicely to the next point on varying your sentence length for readability. 

It would be all too easy to write as many ultra-short sentences as possible to improve our readability score. But think about it. If you’re only using very short sentences over and over, they lose their impact. Reading in this way, it’s difficult to tell which sentence is meant to be the most important. Writing has a rhythm. What is your key message? If you want to draw attention to it, keep the key message snappy. But, surround the short sentence with some other sentences of varying length. This way, it will stand out.

Enchanting Marketing highlights an excellent Apple example of how to do this. They refer to the surrounding, varied sentences as a ‘spotlight’ on the snappy key messages.