We’re often told that the secret to making writing clear and accessible is to use active verbs, simple words and short sentences. There’s something in that advice. But what really makes a sentence easy to parse for a reader is not what’s in it, or how long it is, but the structure.
Keep your eyes firmly on the main clause. What’s the subject of the sentence? What’s the main verb? Can the reader easily see the connection between the two? These are the spine of your sentence: lose sight of them, and you’re lost.
At root, a tricky sentence is one that demands a lot of cognitive work from the reader – and we know, roughly, what this consists of. It has to do with the concept of “working memory”. This is to your brain as the “clipboard” on your computer is to its hard-drive: it acts as a sort of mental holding-pen. As a sentence unfolds on the page or in the ear, you hold its elements in working memory as you wait for the clues that tell you how to interpret it. And the road-map to a sentence is that subject-verb connection: the longer it takes to become clear, the harder the brain is working.
And working memory has limited space. Remember how Microsoft Word sometimes bleats: “You placed a large amount of text on the clipboard”? So does the brain. In an influential 1956 essay, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, the psychologist George Miller argued that the average person is capable of storing only between five and nine pieces of information in working memory.
What linguists call “right-branching sentences”, sentences which give you the subject and verb up front, are therefore easier on the brain. Sentences tax the working memory when you have to wait a long time between subject and verb, or fight through a thicket of modifying clauses before you even reach the subject.
English has advantages here. Unlike German, where you have to put the verb at the end of the sentence, you can put subject and verb close to each other. Keep them there, if possible. And if you can manage subject-verb-object order – the default position in English — so much the better.
Crime writing is a good place to look for examples of right-branching sentences: its first job, after all, is to make readers keep turning the pages. Even high-falutin literary writers can learn from Lee Child in this respect. Most of his sentences are brisk and businesslike and right-branching. Here’s a representative extract from Worth Dying For (my italics and bold; italics for subject, bold for main verb):
Sixty miles north Dorothy Coe took a pork chop from her refrigerator. The chop was part of a pig a friend had slaughtered a mile away, part of a loose cooperative designed to get people through tough times. Dorothy trimmed the fat, and put a little pepper on the meat, and a little mustard, and a little brown sugar. She put the chop in an open dish and put the dish in the oven. She set her table, one place, a knife, a fork, and a plate. She took a glass and filled it with water and put it next to the plate. She folded a square of paper towel for a napkin. Dinner, for one. Reacher was hungry. He had eaten no lunch. He called the desk and asked for room service and the guy who had booked him in told him there was no room service. He apologized for the lack.
This is tough-guy prose. Child is idiomatic and informal – as witness that curt verbless sentence: “Dinner, for one.” A grammatical stickler might insist that the last three sentences read: “He had eaten no lunch. He had called the desk and had asked for room service and the guy who had booked him in had told him there was no room service. He had apologized for the lack.” In context, though, the pluperfect would have been horribly unwieldy. There’s a methodical and unfussy feel about it, too, artfully produced. There are structural parallelisms – “She put… she set… she took… she folded”; “He had… he called… he apologized”. There are repeated words and simple connectors: “and a little… and a little… and a little”.
One of Child’s stylistic quirks, though, is that he goes completely to town when his hero thumps somebody. Here’s the equivalent of slo-mo, or “bullet-time”, and it can produce quite absurdly long sentences.
Then Reacher’s blow landed.
Two hundred and fifty pounds of moving mass, a huge fist, a huge impact, the zipper of the guy’s coat driving backward into his breastbone, his breastbone driving backward into his chest cavity, the natural elasticity of his ribcage letting it yield whole inches, the resulting violent compression driving the air from his lungs, the hydrostatic shock driving blood back into his heart, his head snapping forward like a crash test dummy, his shoulders driving backward, his weight coming up off the ground, his head whipping backward again and hitting a plate glass window behind him with a dull boom like a kettle drum, his arms and legs and torso all going down like a rag doll, his body falling, sprawling, the hard polycarbonate click and clatter of something black skittering away on the ground, Reacher tracking it all the way in the corner of his eye, not a wallet, not a phone, not a knife, but a Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol, all dark and boxy and wicked.
That second sentence flouts conventional wisdom about making it easy on the reader. It is 168 words long and contains no main verb — and yet it is as easy to parse as any sentence you’re likely to come across. Technically, it isn’t a sentence at all – it’s a set of modifiers for these four words: “Then Reacher’s blow landed.” Full stop or no (you could as easily recast it with a colon), here’s an extreme right-branching construction. It’s easy to follow because the logic of what it describes moves from clause to clause: this happened, then this happened, then this happened. The first couple of phrases are appositive – the moving mass, the fist, the impact – and then we have a trail of consequential effects – moving, with loosely parallel constructions, from zipper, to breastbone, to chest cavity, to lungs, to heart, to head, to shoulders and so on. The kneebone’s connected to the anklebone. Each gobbet of information is entire; the working memory isn’t working all that hard. Reacher rules.
(c) Sam Leith
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