When it comes to sentence length, less is more. So stop rambling
and embrace the full stop, says Graham Hopkins.
While reading something in a paper, magazine or book, have you
ever found yourself lost – and having to go back and start a
sentence again? Chances are that you’ve been reading a long,
convoluted sentence and your brain has just given up.
Unlike Labour’s prison policy, social care writing should be
into shortening sentences. It makes things easier to read. But we
should be careful not to over-egg the parsnips. For example: “The
home is called Acid House. It is a home for older people. It has 25
residents. They are all female.”
It’s easy to understand, but its rat-a-tat approach is deadly
dull. A sentence can serve as much information that is manageable
in one bite. The above example could read, “Acid House is a home
for 25 female residents.” The four pieces of information are
eminently chewable in one sentence.
A good guide would be to average about 15-17 words a sentence.
That’s average, mind. Indeed, you should look to vary sentence
length as much as possible. It makes your writing more
But once your sentences start hitting the late 20s or mooch into
a 30 or 40 word count, you need to consider employing the services
of an honest-to-goodness full stop (or three). Take the following
29-word sentence: “You could also pick up a leaflet called
‘Suggestions, comments or complaints about Social Services’ at your
local office, which explains how to comment in writing or by
A sweetly placed full stop after “office” and a shift from
“which” to “This” and, hey presto, we have two lean sentences
(averaging 14.5 words) rather than one flabby one.
The example also highlights a couple of other points. If you
have an overlong sentence, read it back. In there, somewhere, will
be punctuation (possibly a semi-colon or colon but more than likely
a comma). There’s a good chance this could become a full stop.
Similarly, look for conjunctions – words that join pieces of
information together in sentences, such as “and”, “but”, “because”,
“however”, “although” – to see if a full stop can be used. You
might need to re-jig the start of the next sentence for it to make
sense, but it’s a small price to pay. The full stop should be the
most popular piece of punctuation on your page.
Some things taught at school about English (there is no one
quite like grammar) are at best dubious. But the old one about
being able to get to the end of a sentence in one breath (unless
you’re Jacques Cousteau) is a good ‘un. If you need a stop to
breathe, so does your sentence.
– All contributors of amusing quotes, jargon, gobbledygook and
management-speak will win a copy of either Plain English for Social
Services or The Write Stuff both by Graham Hopkins and both
published by Russell House (www.russellhouse.co.uk). Please send
contributions to email@example.com
– “Peter is obviously becoming aware of toileting, but is not
being pushed into anything.”
From a child’s form, thanks to our anonymous West Country
“However, it is acknowledged that in other cases the sequel may
only have reached the stage of being anticipated or intended, but
not yet implemented. This return should include all of these
sequels, and recognises that in some instances the actual sequel
may eventually differ from the intended one.”
From Information on Referrals, Assessments and Packages of
Care, Department of Health.
Thanks to Tony Hubbard, performance assessment officer,
Staffordshire Social Services