I heard from someone that in English, sentences with a long subject are considered confusing and hard to read. Is it true?

An example for such a sentence:

...(Some statements about how mathematics is related to computer science.) Therefore, the PhD courses about conducting research in mathematics I took during my master studies are also relevant for research in computer science.

The context is a motivation letter for a PhD application.

  • Yes. Be sure to read the bit about it being better to place long sentence constructs at the end of a sentence. – Nathan Cooper Jan 24 '19 at 10:00
  • I see your point. It is not confusing or grammatically flawed. But it does come across as clumsy and inelegant... My feeling is, you have to look at the rest of the paragraph and rearrange things a bit. – ashleylee Jan 24 '19 at 15:39

It depends on the larger context.

I've read your example over and over and don't find it confusing. But the word "therefore" is odd. It implies that there's already a discussion immediately before this sentence about those courses. If that's the case, then it would redundant to restate the information about the courses and it would, therefore, appear cumbersome.

If you said "It turns out" instead of "therefore" the long sentence might fit better. But it would still depend on what came before the sentence.

Yes, in general you want to avoid long subjects like that but, if they're necessary, it's okay to use them. The fact that you already took the courses is quite relevant and the fact that they're PhD level courses that you took before you were a PhD student (maybe) is reasonable information. It's just all information that doesn't have to be in the same sentence with the most important part: the utility of courses from one field for another.

So it's less about specific rules and more about the overall readability of your work.

  • I just updated my question with the information regarding the discussion before the sentence and context of this sentence. Would this information change your answer? – Aqqqq Jan 24 '19 at 21:20
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    It doesn't change it, since I deliberately wrote it to be more general. But now I'd say your sentence is fine. You want to emphasize that you took initiative when a masters student and took classes with relevance outside of your field. Computer science is not a writing-heavy field. If you convey what you need to convey in a clear concise manner, it doesn't matter if the flow could be smoother. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 24 '19 at 22:04
  • Thank you. For future reference, would you mind if you tell me how to make the "flow smoother" (whatever that mean) ? – Aqqqq Jan 25 '19 at 11:51
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    I mean that some people will need to read your sentence a couple times to get the meaning and that it's rather long in a way that doesn't allow for a breath (which means commas). You may want to break it up to avoid that. Or not. It seems a fine sentence in this context and I wish you luck with your application. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 25 '19 at 15:34
  • Thank you. Another question: is the field I am applying to that important? E.g. if I apply to a business field (e.g. finance), would this sentence be less appropriate? (Actually I think in the context of research, any field are writing-heavy, including computer science.) – Aqqqq Jan 26 '19 at 10:13

Is It Bad?

This is a subjective question because there is no specific rule which will tell you if the sentence is bad. However, if you are wondering what makes a sentence more (or less) clear to a reader there may be some things that we can use as a guide.

Taking a look at your example sentence we find that there are two different messages communicated:

Therefore, the PhD courses about conducting research in mathematics I took during my master studies are also relevant for research in computer science.

  1. PhD courses about conducting research are relevant for research in computer science.
  2. You took one of these courses during your master studies

Since most readers find sentences that communicate one idea at a a time clearer and more simple to understand you may want to break that sentence into two.

Possibly Less Clear and More Misunderstanding

That also means that your example sentence may be less clear and may lead to misunderstanding and if the author is attempting to achieve clarity and understanding in the reader then this sentence is less good than breaking the sentence into two.

  • while I understand your point, I think one must keep the audience in mind. If it's academic, one's literacy level really should be high enough to grasp sentences with more than one idea (unless those ideas are in themselves particularly difficult to grasp). While purple, winding prose hallmarks an academic who's trying to dazzle an audience and cover their shortcomings, an over-simplified prose means the writer themself is unable to produce more complex (but clear!) sentences. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 24 '19 at 16:46
  • @SaraCosta Agreed, which is why this is a subjective question. – raddevus Jan 24 '19 at 16:49

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