Business English Quick Tips: long sentences

Business English Quick Tips

Quick tips to help you write better for business

If you need to write for your job or business in English, these quick tips will help you succeed…

Most of us have, at one time or another, clutched our brows in horror at the hideously long sentences you so often see in legal documents, like the following 97-word doozy I cut and pasted from one of my book publishing contracts:

“The Publisher reserves the right to terminate this Agreement at any time, for non compliance by the Author to the terms of this agreement, by giving notice of termination referring specifically to this clause, and if it does so in reliance on this clause, then the Publisher shall relinquish all rights to the completed or part completed work as detailed in this Agreement, and the Publisher shall have no further liability to the Author whatsoever in respect of the non-publication of the Work, and may arrange for another author to write a work on the same subject.”

If you were to read that aloud you would be suffering from oxygen starvation by the penultimate line. And even reading it silently, because it drones on about so many different notions you need to read it two or three times before you can understand it fully (unless you’re a lawyer…)

Lawyers argue that punctuation in legal documents can be dangerous because it can alter the meaning, or at least the interpretation, of a clause so opening it up to uncertainty. So instead they’ll often write 100-word whoppers without so much as a comma, and leave it to more lawyers to decide just what the hell it actually does mean.

If you have time for a quick (well, not so quick) chuckle, check out this link

It’s from one of my favourite organizations, “Plain English Campaign” and shows you examples of sentences running at 630 words and 513 words. Utterly mind-blowing.

In business we can’t afford to mess around with meanings, but at the same time we can’t afford to mess with the brains of customers, staff, suppliers, etc. by expecting them to winkle out what we’re saying to them from a pile of words the size of a haystack. So, in the main, long sentences are a no-no.

Golden rule of sentences

Here we borrow a maxim from the advertising world and say, “only one main thought per sentence.” OK, the occasional use of a second clause in a sentence is forgivable, but be careful. It doesn’t take much to split a long sentence into two much more powerful ones (you can guess what your challenge is going to be, can’t you?) And don’t forget what I wrote about bullets and lists earlier in this series.

As I’m sure you know, clarity is vital in business communication. But it’s not just clarity: it’s clarity, quickly. The faster your reader absorbs your message, the more powerfully it will affect him or her; it’s that simple.

For a really useful 200-page guide to business writing in English, check out “Business Writing Made Easy” – you’ll find it very, very helpful! Click here

And for something a bit different, try the exercises associated with this article in my “30 Day Business Writing Challenge” – Click here

More after the Holidays … and if you have any questions about business writing in English please add them here in the comments section; I will try to answer them as well as I can!


photo credit: ohsarahrose via photopin cc




  1. Writing online has definitely helped break me of the too-long sentence. 🙂

    • Absolutely, Mary. Online writing has to be short and sharp because readers, frankly, are too busy to hang around and read anything long-winded. And frankly, I have to agree with them!

  2. Such an important point. The writer is fascinated by their content and understands it perfectly. The reader may not be interested enough to be motivated to plough through long sentences. And they want to understand it quickly, or they may not bother reading further. I like to think this is something I’ve improved on over the years, but a reminder is always useful.

    • Thanks Jane – especially for reminding us that no matter how much we find our writing fascinating, for it to be successful it must be equally fascinating to our readers. And that applies as much to fiction and social writing as it does to the business variety.

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