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Sometimes, when I show others a long sentence I have written, I am told it is convoluted due to the chaining of dependent clauses.

Is there a way to keep tacking on modifiers and dependent clauses to a sentence without making it convoluted?

In general, how do you write a really long sentence that is not convoluted?

  • This is not a grammar issue, this is a Does this sentence still make sense issue. Even the simplest idea can be obscured under an over-long run-on sentence. If the idea needs to be broken into multiple sentences to keep the message clear, then that is what you need to do. – wetcircuit Mar 9 at 14:26
  • I recommend reading The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker - particularly the chapters on syntax trees and arcs of coherence. – Toby Speight Mar 11 at 8:48
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Sentence rewritten to be convoluted:

"Self-absorbtion could be the real explanation, as I may have mentioned before, regarding certain people's perception of their personal quality in the area of empathy, specifically their supposed superiority in that regard."

Original sentence:

"I have probably mentioned this before, but if you think you are unusually empathetic, the chances are that you are actually fairly bad at empathy, but are too self-absorbed to notice."

Remarks:

It is not the length of a sentence (or paragraph, chapter, etc...) which makes it convoluted. Rather, it's in the flow of the ideas. A sentence will be more difficult to understand if the reader must hold several supporting ideas, or even a conclusion, before the author has delivered the subject being commented on. A logical, linear progression of remarks is easier to follow.

Or, to propose a metaphor, if you start building a building from the roof to the floor, you have to hold everything in suspension until the foundation is put in.

Some ideas, admittedly, are not linear concepts, and finding a logical order of presentation can be challenging, or even impossible. But in most cases, it is possible.

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    I agree the issue is likely topic confusion rather than length. I'd like to add that long sentences give the writer more rope to hang themselves with, with regard to rambling. Direct, clear sentences are easier to achieve when they are shorter. That's not to say short sentences are always better or preferable, only that it's easier to avoid being convoluted by shortening up your sentences. So if the goal is to avoid being convoluted, start with shorter sentences, then allow them to get longer as you get better at staying on topic and focused in your writing. – Dmann Mar 9 at 16:33
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Break the really long sentence down into smaller sentences using punctuation and check the Thesaurus all the time for correlate words, they are powerful and choosing the right word that can imply more meaning with less keystrokes, like a site where I found short horror stories.

Oh, wait. That's too long and convoluted.

Break long sentences into smaller ones. Keep a Thesaurus close by so you can check it. There are words that can convey more meaning with less effort. Examples online of very short stories showcase the power of choosing the right words.

You won't make them as dry and mechanic as I did here. This is just a hapzardly assembled example.

It is more a matter of style and ease of conveying the message. Unless you are being paid for keystroke and don't care about delivering your ideas across the bridge between minds that is the written word, you can always rephrase a long sentence.

My bet is that you are a non-English primary speaker, probably coming from a culture where long sentences are normal, like some Romance languages (pun intended). If that's the case, reading a lot of works from good native authors is a good way to grasp how you should write.

Break down the key ideas the convoluted sentence should convey. Structure them and then write each one into their own sentence. Punctuation is your friend.

You might also be suffering from over-explanation. If you are not writing a technical essay, you can leave some small details out for the reader to fill in.

P.S.: Here is the link to the short horror stories.

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Solutions:

  1. Write in a linear way, with causes mentioned before affects. Example: "As he was crossing the street, he turned his head because of a burst of light that caught his attention." Written more linearly, this would read: "He was crossing the street when a burst of light caught his attention. He turned his head."

I changed two things.

A) First, I put the burst of light before his attention being caught. Explain the cause first, and then the affect.

B) Second, I removed the word "as" from the beginning and instead put a "when" on the end of that dependent clause. I find that clauses start with "as" tend to make the reader feel as if you have to hold onto that piece of information while trying to comprehend the rest of the sentence...think carefully about your prepositions.

  1. Organize your clauses such that a modifying clause comes shortly after the thing it's modifying. Example: "The subject did a verb; it was a pitiful subject." can be simplified to "The pitiful subject did the verb."
  2. Same thing for verbs. Have the verb be close to the subject. Example: "The fox, quick and brown, jumped..." can be made more clear as: "The quick brown fox jumped..."
  3. And also, of course, there's the solution of breaking up long sentences into small ones.

When I write I try to break up all sentences into short ones first, and then employ these other techniques on the remaining ones that simply must be long.

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