Sticky Sentences and How to Avoid Them

Sticky sentences are long sentences that contain more words than they need to. More precisely, these sentences have a number of "glue words," the most common words in the English language which we use to connect our nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

For example, frequent glue words include conjunctions such as "and", "but", and "that".

Sticky sentences typically consist of several parts joined by conjunctions and could be separated into individual sentences. In other cases, they simply have excess words which serve no other purpose than to make the reader go through more text before understanding the point the author is trying to make.

Sticky Sentences and How to Avoid Them

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Consider the following sentences for example:

  • With regard to that event you mentioned yesterday, I would like to say that I almost certainly will not be able to attend the event.
  • Some hours ago, my mother called me and told me that she is going away on a trip, and I asked her where she was going on a trip, but she did not say, and I was worried.
  • It was a very good day for Max and Sarah yesterday because they were in London and they saw many good things and this made them very happy.
  • We can surely conclude that John was only slightly late for the early meeting, and therefore it would not be necessary to forcefully make him do more work later today.

All these sentences can be considered "sticky". They use many words. A shorter sentence could make the same point more effectively. Spotting such long and confusing sentences and knowing how to rewrite them are essential skills every good writer should have.

Why are sticky sentences bad?

Sticky sentences significantly increase your word count. This means the reader has to go through more text to get the same message he or she could otherwise understand in fewer words – and less time.

That said, sticky sentences can be considered as empty space in your article or essay. When the number of glue words is high, the entire article becomes long and dry (boring). Articles filled with sticky sentences will not normally be considered as good pieces of writing.

Why should you avoid sticky sentences?

The fewer sticky sentences you have, the clearer your writing is. It is easy for a reader to get confused and lose focus when they encounter numerous sentences that go on and on without making any clear points.

Writing concise sentences polished with strong adjectives and verbs helps to makes one a good writer. If you can produce an article without any sticky sentences, you will surely come across as a skilled writer and editor.

How can you identify and rewrite sticky sentences?

Writers often find it hard to detect a sticky sentence in their own writing. Sometimes, a sentence can make perfect sense to the person who wrote it, but leave most readers confused.

For this reason, it is always wise to read your text out loud. If it is hard to follow the overarching argument or to understand what you are reading, you may be dealing with sticky sentences.

In sum, writers who make the following four mistakes end up with sticky sentences:

  • Using too many conjunctions in one sentence
  • Using too many words in one sentence
  • Overusing words without an important meaning
  • Overusing adverbs

Multiple Conjunctions

Conjunctions are words we use to connect our thoughts and form more complex sentences. Still, writers often use more conjunctions than they should in one sentence. No sentence should have two or more "and", "but", or "that".

When you see a sticky sentence which does not follow this rule, think about whether it could be split into two or more sentences. If not, then you should identify words which are unnecessary – meaning that your sentence would not be harmed if you lose them – and take them out.

For example:

Original sticky sentence: Some hours ago, my mother called and she told me that she is going away on a trip and I asked her where she was going on a trip but she did not say and I was worried.

Word count: 37.

Glue words: and, but, that, some hours ago.

Revised sentence: My mother called me to say she was going away on a trip. When I asked where she was going, she did not say, which made me worried.

The original sentence contained too many conjunctions and too much information for one sentence. Once you have identified multiple conjunctions, you should try to keep the same meaning, yet divide the sentence into two or more parts. Words such as "some hours ago" are not necessary in this case, as it is clear the event happened in the past.

Long Sentences

Another useful way to find and fix a sticky sentence is to check the word count. You can do this manually, or by selecting a specific sentence in the document. Alternatively, online writing programs and tools can also tell you how long your sentences are on average.

The unofficial rule suggests you should keep most of your sentences at or under 16 words. Whenever you write a sentence that contains 20 or more words, it's probably sticky.

Improving your writing is not only about knowing what sticky sentences are and how to identify them, but also being confident that you can rewrite your sticky sentences without losing meaning. The last thing you want is to delete important bits and end up with a shorter, yet even more ambiguous sentence.

For example:

Original sticky sentence: With regard to that event you mentioned yesterday, I would like to say that I almost certainly will not be able to attend the event.

Word count: 26.

Glue words: with regard to, I would like to, that, almost, certainly.

Revised sentence (bad example): I certainly will not be able to attend.
While the word "event" is mentioned twice in the sentence, it would be wrong to completely eliminate it from the revised sentence because the meaning would be lost.

Revised sentence (good example): I'm sorry but I won't be able to come to the event you mentioned yesterday.

This revised sentence is much shorter (it contains only 15 words). Yet, all the important information (the event, yesterday, won't be able to make it) is still there.

Redundant Words

We often use words that we believe will make our article look good without realizing they are vague and carry no important meaning. These are called redundant words. Many words can be considered redundant depending on the context.

In short, you should be looking for:

  • repetitive words
  • words that are implied (for instance, if it is clear that you are discussing your future plans, you don't have to say "in the future")
  • Redundant phrases that would only make your article wordy (e.g. by way of example, with regard to, following from that, etc.)

Consider this example:

Original sticky sentence: It was a very good day for Max and Sarah yesterday because they were in London and they saw many good things and this made them very happy.

Word count: 28.

Glue words: very, good, many, very.

Revised sentence: Max and Sarah had a great day yesterday. Being in London and seeing many amazing sights made them elated.

We chose to turn this long sentence into two sentences, but it could also be one shorter sentence containing the same amount of information. What is important is to lose redundant words. Words such as "good" and "very" are usually redundant and can be replaced by stronger adjectives ("very happy" becomes "elated", "very tired" becomes "exhausted" etc.)

Keep in mind that overusing words such as "thing", "stuff", "a lot", or "something" also contributes to creating unclear, sticky sentences.
For example: They saw many good things.

It is not clear what it is that they saw, so we rephrased it as "amazing sights."

Overusing Adverbs

Adverbs can help you make your writing richer, but can also confuse the reader. You will often find that the combination of verb + adverb you are using can be replaced by a single strong verb.

For example:

I ran so quickly to make it on time. => I sprinted to make it on time.
Using too many adverbs frequently leads to sticky sentences.

For example:

Original sticky sentence: We can surely conclude that John was only slightly late for the early meeting and therefore it would not be necessary to forcefully make him do more work later today.

Word count: 30.

Glue words: surely, only, early, forcefully.

Revised sentence: Since John was not too late for the meeting, we won't make him do extra work today.

In this sentence, it is important that John was only a little bit late for the meeting, so we should keep that piece of information. Other adverbs such as "surely" and "forcefully" do not modify the meaning of the verbs they follow, so they can be deleted.

Certain adverbs make your sentence weak (e.g. slightly, merely, barely) while others do not change the meaning at all (e.g. forcefully make someone do something).

Of course, not all adverbs should be deleted all the time. Sometimes an adverb is absolutely necessary to describe something accurately or give important information.

For example: Nora has secretly been working on a new book.
For this sentence, it is important that Nora is doing something in secret.

Final Thoughts

Sticky sentences are a common trap every writer occasionally falls into. They can be harmful because they make articles long, dry and, unfortunately, boring. Still, with these few tips, you should be well-equipped to spot a sticky sentence and successfully rewrite it, making your writing concise and engaging.

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