Thursday, October 20, 2011

The periodic sentence (5)

A periodic sentence is a sentence in which essential information comes late. In other words, the reader has to wait a long time before he can understand where the writer is going.

The opposite of a periodic sentence is a loose sentence, a sentence in which essential information comes early. A loose sentence is what we tend to think of as a normal sentence.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using a periodic sentence. However, it does make your reader work harder than a loose sentence does. In everyday writing, you should use periodic sentences sparingly if at all.

Example of a periodic sentence

Here’s an example of a periodic sentence:

“This government has decreed those who believe in the rule of law; the right to self-determination; the right to defend themselves; veterans who have or might awaken to the tyranny; those who support political candidates who oppose criminal government and those who believe killing a living being to be murder, the enemy.”


It is a 52-word sentence. The reader must read all 52 words, especially the last two words (“the enemy”) before he understands the meaning. That’s too long to make the reader wait.

The sentence is also cumbersome.

Loose version

Here’s my suggested loose version:

This government says you are its enemy if you believe in the rule of law, the right to self-determination, or the right to defend yourself; or if you believe it is murder to kill a living being; or if you support political candidates who oppose criminal government; or if you are a veteran who has awoken – or who may awaken – to the tyranny.

My version is less cumbersome, but still cumbersome.

The Takeaway: Use periodic sentences sparingly, if at all, in business writing, technical writing and most other non-fiction writing. The more words the reader has to take in before understanding the sentence, the more likely he is to become confused. But keep in mind, loose vs. periodic is not a matter of right vs. wrong. It is a matter of context; periodic sentences are good for building suspense, and many writers use them effectively in poetry, drama and oratory.

See disclaimer.

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