Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style. (Some frequently asked questions are here.)
This week, a guest essay from my colleague Patrick LaForge on a perennial problem — leads (and other sentences) that tax readers’ patience:
No one sets out to write an opening sentence so long that it frustrates and irritates readers. But that’s what we sometimes do.
Writers are not always the culprits. Too often, editors are the ones overstuffing leads with background, context and tangential explanations. It’s a collective effort. We need to do better.
Two recent examples weighed in at 55 words each and actually prompted reader complaints:
MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin signed into law on Friday a measure that will impose heavy fines on people who organize or take part in unsanctioned demonstrations, giving the Russian authorities powerful leverage to clamp down on the large antigovernment street protests that began six months ago and seemed to be re-energized after Mr. Putin’s inauguration last month.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Central Intelligence Agency drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt killed Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, American officials said on Tuesday, dealing another blow to the group in a lawless area that has long been considered the global headquarters of international terrorism but the importance of which may now be slipping.
How long should a sentence be? “As long as it needs to be but no longer,” said one expert.
There’s no magic formula or hard-and-fast rule. Some long sentences, carefully fashioned, are lucid and effective. But that hasn’t stopped some editors and experts from offering guidelines — no more than 40 words, or 35, or even 25.
At least one newsroom long ago tried to enforce a hard limit, requiring writers to count the words in the lead and put the tally in notes. As you might imagine, editors and reporters spent a lot of time counting and arguing. It…