Writing Style and Language Complexity


Writing style comprises four characteristics:

  1. Formality
  2. Language complexity
  3. Objectivity, and
  4. Information depth.

The purpose you are trying to accomplish, the readers’ needs, your relationship with the reader, and the type of document affect the style in which you write. Style is a strategy for effective writing, not a goal.

Levels of Language Complexity 

Some writers use simple, straightforward sentences with few modifying phrases and clauses. Others use complex sentences with many modifiers, interjected descriptions, and multiple clauses and phrases.

Simple sentence example: “Lisa bought a red car.”

This simple sentence contains a simple subject (“Lisa”) and a simple predicate with an object (“bought a red car”). This sentence has two modifying words (“a,” “red”) but no other phrases or clauses.

Moderately complex sentence example: “When the day ended, Lisa, a sales clerk at the downtown market, bought a red car.”

This moderately complex sentence has an introductory descriptive clause (“when the day ended”), a simple subject (“Lisa”), an appositive for the subject (“a sales clerk at the downtown market”), and a simple predicate with an object (“bought a red car”).

Very complex sentence example: “When the day ended, which couldn’t have happened soon enough, given the type of day she had had, Lisa, a sales clerk at the downtown market, a grimy, dark nook in an old building, bought what she mistakenly thought was a new, or, at the worst, slightly used, red car.”

This complex sentence has an introductory descriptive clause (“when the day ended”), a description of the introductory clause (“which couldn’t have happened soon enough”), a description of the description of the introductory clause (“given the type of day she had had”), a subject (“Lisa”), an appositive for the subject (“a sales clerk at the downtown market”), a description of the appositive for the subject (“a grimy, dark nook”), a description of the description of the appositive for the subject (“in an old building”). And then we finally get to the predicate, which is similarly complicated.

Key Features of Language Complexity

As these three examples show, the 2 key features of language complexity are

  1. the number of descriptive phases and clauses and
  2. the levels of description (such as description of description).

A careful writer considers sentence complexity in light of the readers’ needs. Simple sentences can be read quickly and understood easily. As sentences become more complex, they contain more information and “flavor,” but they require more work from the readers and increase the potential for misunderstanding.

Advice for Writers

As with all style issues, the level of language complexity needs to fit the readers’ needs. Simple sentences are the most easy to understand. They present minimal information in a straightforward manner, with no interruptions in the main thought being communicated. On the other hand, using too many simple sentences, or a string of simple sentences, makes the writing appear amateurish.

For technical manuals, lists of instructions, user guides, and other documents that present single action steps, stick with simple sentences. For most other types of documents, the writer can present more complex information and create better reader interest and engagement by using a mix of simple and moderately complex sentences.

If your goal is reader understanding and interest, avoid very complex sentences. Overall, you will communicate best by

  • using a mix of simple and moderately complex sentences,
  • limiting the number of descriptive phrases,
  • presenting only one descriptive phrase at a time, and
  • avoiding descriptions of descriptions.
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