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5a. Reduce the number of clauses per sentence.

  • If your sentence already has at least one subordinate clause (such as those beginning with who, when, where) turn the other subordinate clauses into separate sentences.
  • Remove the least significant clause altogether, tweaking the rest of the sentence to preserve the meaning.
  • Remove a who, which, or that clause, if you can, turning it into a separate sentence—or move the clause to the end of the sentence.
  • When you have removed all but one subordinate clause from the sentence, move the remaining subordinate clause to the end of the sentence, if possible.
  • Turn a clause into an introductory or parenthetical phrase, if you cannot remove it, or move it.















Complex syntax distracts the user from the task and taxes his or her memory. —Horton (1990)

Sentences become more complex by embedding other sentences within them. And just a few methods of embedding can account for all the complexity. The ability to combine sentences is an important way to control pace and emphasis. Editors have to learn to disembed sentences, because technical prose is highly embedded. —Bush and Campbell (1995)

User: "I prefer informal writing because I like to read fast. I don’t like reading every word, and with formal writing, you have to read every word, and it slows you down." —Morkes & Nielsen (1998)

A common thread between conciseness, scannability, and objectivity is that each reduces the user’s cognitive load, which results in faster, more efficient processing of information.

Concise text contains less information to process.

Scannable text calls attention to key information.

Questioning the credibility of promotional statements seems to distract users from processing the meaning, our earlier studies showed.
Morkes & Nielsen (1998)

The longer a sentence becomes, the harder to read it becomes. —Kilian (1999)

Readers make more comprehension errors with embedded relative clauses—clauses that contain a relative pronoun such as who, that, or which, and that are embedded in the middle of another clause ("The report that John wrote won an award")—than with relative clauses that appear at the end of a sentence ("The society gave an award to the report that John wrote") (Creaghead and Donnelly, 1982). Larkin and Burns (1977) also found decreased recall and comprehension of information in embedded relative clauses. … In contrast, when relative clauses are placed at the end of a sentence as opposed to being embedded within the sentence, the information they contain is more likely to be recalled.—Spyridakis(2000)

In broadcasting, the basic sentence structure Subject-Verb-Object works every time.  The audience grasps what you are saying straight away.  Anything more flamboyant, such as a subordinate clause, is a potential barrier to understanding. BBC

See bibliography: BBC (2003), Bush and Campbell (1995) Creaghead and Donnelly (1982), Galitz (1985), Heckel (1984), Horton (1990), Isakson and Spyridakis (1999), Kilian (1999), Larkin and Burns (1977), Lynch & Horton (1999), Rayner, Carlson, and Frazier (1983), Roemer & Champanis (1982), Spyridakis (2000).


Original Paragraph from Bush & Campbell

Visual observation of the waterflood displacement mechanisms after asphaltene precipitation are shown to be similar to the mechanisms of displacement of the unprecipitated crude oil.

Revised Paragraph from Bush & Campbell

After asphaltene precipitation, visual observations show, the waterflood displacement mechanisms resemble those of the unprecipitated crude oil.

Bad Example

I am not sure whether I yet made bold to say it, but I should surely be good for nothing, all my days, if not for projecting into the concrete, by hook or by crook—that is my imagination shamelessly aiding—some show of (again) mere life. This impression was not in the least the flag I publicly brandished; in fact I must have come as near as possible to brandishing none whatever, a sound instinct always hinting to me, I gather, that the time for such a performance was much more after than before—before the perfect place had been found for the real planting of the standard and the giving of its folds to the air. No such happy spot had been marked, decidedly, at that period, to my inquiring eye, in consequence of which the emblazoned morsel (hoisted sooner or later by all of us, I think, somehow and somewhere) might have passed for the hour as a light extravagant bandanna rolled into the tight ball that fits it for hiding in the pocket. —Henry James, Notes of a Son and Brother

Other ways to make your text easier to understand:

5b. Blow up nominalizations and noun trains.

5c. Watch out for ambiguous phrases a user might have to debate.

5d. Surface the agent and action, so users don't have to guess.

5e. Make a positive statement.

5f. Reduce scrolling.

5g. Let users print or save the entire document at once.

Resources on thoughtlessness

Taking a Position on Thoughtlessness

Heuristic Online Text (H. O. T.) Evaluation of Cognitive Burdens




Audience Fit
If visitors want... How well does this guideline apply?
To have fun Keeping it simple, stupid, or KISS, was developed as a guideline for business correspondence, not entertaining prose.  You can play around with this rule, if you know you're amusing.
To learn One idea at a time works best.  Disembed, move, or remove.
To act One meaningful action per instruction.  No more.  No extra explanations, either.  Just the action.
To be aware If you have something profound to say, it will come out simply.  On the other hand, if you are selling a cult, use more clauses, because they act like incense smoke, to blind and ensnare.
To get close to people Would you use complicated syntax when talking to a friend?  Probably not, unless you were pontificating--or lying.

Ready for some challenges?


Don't make me think.


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