Write Short Sentences, They Say

Andrew Oswald, in his article contending that British higher education has been slumping and that Britain needs to confront this problem rather than publishing league tables that everyone knows are bunk, advises on the side, “Write short sentences.”

All well and good. This he does some of the time, and well enough that idea flow is pretty good, with almost a one-to-one correspondence between sentences and ideas in a logical chain:

Let us instead, a bit more coolly, do what people in universities are paid to do. Let us use reliable data to try to discern the truth. In the last 20 years, Oxford has won no Nobel Prizes. (Nor has Warwick.) Cambridge has done only slightly better. Stanford University in the United States, purportedly number 19 in the world, garnered three times as many Nobel Prizes over the past two decades as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge did combined. Worryingly, this period since the mid 1980s coincides precisely with the span over which UK universities have had to go through government Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs). To hide away from such inconvenient data is not going to do our nation any good.

(Personally, I would combine composite and equally important ideas with a semi-colon, but since the sentences are not so short that they chop up all coherent thought, it’s not bad.)

If you examine the article more closely, however, you see that some of the sentences are rather long, like the first sentence above in this post:

Using these league table results on your websites, universities, if in private you deride the quality of the findings, is unprincipled and will ultimately be destructive of yourselves, because if you are not in the truth business what business are you in, exactly?

Now does Oswald mean that sentences should be as short as possible without cutting vital information or blocking idea flow, or does he mean that sentences should almost always be short? If the latter, the sentence I quoted above is a rather long one, and it isn’t the longest one in the article.

I have no problem with short sentences. In fact, sentences are best kept as short as is tenable and justifiable under the need for truth to be represented accurately and precisely. But as Oswald’s article itself demonstrates, chopping up one thought for the sake of “comprehension” isn’t always good: it may lead readers to comprehend something other than what was intended.


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