Break it up

We’ve all been there. You’re writing or editing a sentence, and there are just too many parts. No matter what punctuation you add, it’s still confusing. In these situations, it’s usually better to break up the long sentence.

Again, perhaps Strunk and White said it best:

When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the terrible odds of syntax. Usually, what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point. The sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.

Example 1

CONFUSING: First, select Options, and then, when you see three new options, Display, Audio and Power, select Audio, and when it’s highlighted, tap OK to go to the next screen.

CLEARER: First, select Options. Then, you’ll see three new options: Display, Audio and Power. Select Audio. When it’s highlighted, tap OK to go to the next screen.

Example 2

CONFUSING: Dr. Jane Doe, an infectious-disease specialist at Harvard Medical School, who was also the study’s lead author and the doctor who treated the patient experiencing the strange symptoms, said that more research is needed to investigate whether the giant rash was related to the virus or another cause, such as an allergen — and to see if the treatment would be effective over the long term.

CLEARER: More research is needed to see whether the giant rash was related to the virus or another cause, such as an allergen, said Dr. Jane Doe, the doctor who treated the patient experiencing the strange symptoms. Moreover, further research will investigate whether the treatment will be effective over the long term, said Doe, an infectious-disease specialist at Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author.

Also feel free to throw out conventional “rules” stating that you can’t start a sentence with “and,” “but” or other conjunctions. Indeed, it can be effective and clearer to do so. For example:

Example 3

(Sort of) CONFUSING: SpaceX is scheduled to make its 39th attempt to land a rocket on a floating platform, dubbed Of Course I Still Love You, this month, but failure is likely, as company CEO Elon Musk doesn’t even think it will succeed.

CLEARER: SpaceX is scheduled to make its 39th attempt to land a rocket on a floating platform, dubbed Of Course I Still Love You, this month. But failure is likely, as company CEO Elon Musk doesn’t even think it will succeed.

As you can see, breaking up these sentences makes the ideas clearer. It can also save you a lot of aggravation.

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