Tag Archives: The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier

How Many Words Should Your Sentences Contain?

Dear Honored Readers,

How long should a sentence be? I love the quote from Joyce Griffith, Griffith Publishing “How long should a sentence be? As long as it needs to be but no longer.” http://jgwritingtips.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/how-long-should-a-sentence-be/

In the opening page of The Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens first paragraph is a sentence with over 100 words. Many sentences in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling are near 40 words.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said, sentences should average 15-20 words and be no longer than 40 words:

For newspapers, Christy Rakoczy says a sentence should not have more than 25 words.  In Grammar Girl‘s Quick and Dirty Tips.com, Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, said that sentences longer than 30-40 words should be trimmed:  Emma Darwin wrote an article in praise of the long sentence: http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2008/09/in-praise-of-the-long-sentence.html. She says long sentences help a story to flow.  If readers are confused by your extremely long sentences, it won’t help your story to flow.

Long sentences that are not clear in meaning should be rewritten and simplified to engage your reader’s interest. In writing a long sentence it is important to have the subject and verb close to the front and the added clauses afterward.  The Yahoo Style Guide says to write the most important information at the front of the sentence and anchor all the rest to it. If the meaning is not clear, perhaps the sentence is too long. That is what Mantex/Clifton Press said in 1995.

Torkil Christensen in his Writing Right Column on ELTNEWS.com entitled “Sentences, Paragraphs, How Long and How Many?” warns English Teachers in Japan against having too short of sentences. He says to have at least 10 words in each sentence: http://www.eltnews.com/columns/writing_right/2010/05/sentences_paragraphs_how_long.html.

If all the sentences in your story are the same length, I believe it might put your reader to sleep.  Having a short sentence after a few long ones, makes it stand out. It adds power.  Dialogue can be shorter sentences when you are showing intense moments, anger, disagreements.  No matter how long or short your sentences are, vary their length. Make sure your meaning is clear no matter how long you make your sentence.  If you have trouble remembering what your long sentence is about, chances are your readers will be clueless about it, too.

If you’re writing a children’s book, the older the child, the longer the sentence can be.  With picture books having the shorter sentences and the young adult having the longer sentences.  Reading 50 books similar to the one you’re writing is a good way to figure out the readability the book has to have.

I’ll leave you with these three quotes to further inspire you:

Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.

Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

William Strunk and E.B. White said, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell. ”

I hope this view of how many words your sentences should contain was helpful to you. Please share your comments, questions, and/or resources below. I’d love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading my blog.

Here’s a link to another post of mine about sentences:

“How to Write a Good Sentence:” https://www.joanyedwards.com/2013/01/08/how-to-write-a-good-sentence/


Thank you for reading this blog post. I’d love to hear from you.

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Joan Y. Edwards
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Updated September 4, 2016