Writing for the Novice: Fewer Words, Shorter Sentences

When it comes to writing for the novice, nothing is more important than using words students know, and keeping sentences short. The use of fewer words is self-evident. Shorter sentences, however, help reduce cognitive demand, and likely result in more repeated words from restating the subject, and clearly separating contrasting ideas instead of piles of subordination.

Magister Craft’s latest October Equus is the most understandable novice-categorized Latin video out there that doesn’t establishing meaning in the video itself (though complete subtitles in English are available). There are 127 total words, and 86 unique. If we exclude names, and a handful of words with different forms, that brings it down to about 60 words. The most frequently repeated words are est (6), in (6), et (5), caput (4), and equus (4), with another 5 words repeated 2x. Even this most-likely-to-be-understood video is nowhere near comprehensible to my first year students, or any other students who aren’t familiar with about 58 of those particular words.

How to make this more comprehensible for my students? The first step, without reducing the word count, is breaking up sentences (the longest sentences are 10 words in length). This allows us to restate the subject, or verbs with multiple subjects, and then add one or two words from the original longer sentence. As a result, the novice student has more exposure to the big content words that hold meaning, and increases the chance that any new words are comprehended instead of part of a string of new words all at once. Here are examples:

  • Aeneas, conditor Romae, Troianus fuit.
    • Aeneas Troianus fuit. Aeneas conditor Romae fuit.
  • Sacerdos equum hasta interficit.
    • Sacerdos equum interficit. Sacerdos equum hasta interficit. 
  • Sacerdos caudam et caput equi capit.
    • Sacerdos caudam equi capit. Sacerdos caput equi quoque capit. 
  • Suburaneses in Subura  et Sacravienses in Sacra Via habitant.
    • Suburaneses in Subura habitant. Sacravienses in Sacra Via habitant.
  • Suburaneses et Sacravienses inter se pugnant quia volunt caput equi.
    • Suburaneses et Sacravienses inter se pugnant. Suburaneses et Sacravienses inter se pugnant quia volunt caput equi.
  • Si vincunt Suburaneses, caput ad turrim Mamiliam portant.
    • Si vincunt Suburaneses, Suburaneses caput ad turrim Mamiliam portant.
  • Si vincunt Sacravienses, caput ad Regiam portant.
    • Si vincunt Sacravienses, Sacravienses caput ad Regiam portant.
  • Cauda equi ad templum Vestae portatur.
    • Cauda equi ad templum portatur. est templum Vestae.
  • Tum sanguis ex cauda in ignes cadit.
    • Tum sanguis in ignes cadit. sanguis est ex cauda equi. 
  • sacrificium faciunt.
    • Sacerdotes sacrificium faciunt.

There is no trick to reducing word count. The best we can do (without rewriting) would be to recycle existing words by creating new, shorter sentences that include some of the least frequent words. This technique is used in Recycled Readings (RR) as a way to personalize and increase exposure to seldom-repeated words in textbooks, although we don’t have to insert details about our students just to make October Equus more comprehensible. Breaking up longer sentences and restating the subject, shown above, takes care of recycling some words. Otherwise, we would add more information with the following words:

  • celebratur
  • ceperunt
  • conditor
  • fortasse
  • in memoria
  • belli
  • incipit
  • bigae
  • currunt
  • via
  • turrim
  • sacrificium faciunt

Some of the words above can easily be added to the original text (e.g. “Suburaneses per Suburam currunt. Sacravienses per Sacram Viam currunt,” and “multi festi celebrantur Romae,” etc.), while others would require a little more creativity to recycle (e.g. conditor? turrim?). The result of all this is a more comprehensible text for the novice, which also has the benefit of being longer in total length. All of the simple changes mentioned above would add 41% more total words (53), with per and multi added to the unique count. Once we take care of recycling some of the other words, at least once, the total word count would likely double from the original. There is certainly a risk to overdoing the recycled vocabulary, which Rūfus lutulentus pushes the limit of, with only 20 words of 1200 total length! However, the novice—the true novice—doesn’t feel that repetition the way we do, or even the way most students do. If your students do, however, they’re probably moving out of the novice level! This is a good thing seeing as there’s less of a need for intermediate+ reading material.

If you’re not convinced that shorter sentences are easier sentences and more appropriate for the novice, check out this demonstration (Gellius, Noctēs Atticae XVII 21.3):

Incipiemus igitur a Solone claro, quoniam de Homero et Hesiodo inter omnes fere scriptores constitit aetatem eos egisse vel isdem fere temporibus vel Homerum aliquanto antiquiorem, utrumque tamen ante Romam conditam vixisse Silviis Albae regnantibus annis post bellum Troianum, ut Cassius in primo annalium de Homero atque Hesiodo scriptum reliquit, plus centum atque  sexaginta, ante Romam autem conditam, ut Cornelius Nepos in primo chronicorum de Homero dixit, annis circiter centum et sexaginta.

That’s a 72 word paragraph—wait, sentence—with 54 unique words. 18 of them repeat (dē Homerō (3); the other 16 (2)). Of the words that repeat, very few of them are big content words holding a lot of meaning. In fact, this entire idea could be reduced to the first 4 words, and we can even leave out igitur (i.e. incipiemus a Solone). I probably have an intermediate proficiency level in Latin. To put this into perspective, I couldn’t read the paragraph—sentence—above once through with enough meaning to understand the gist. It took me rereading 3x to get the main idea, and that’s after studying Latin for about 12 years, but only actually reading it for about 4. Had I been given more Latin with fewer words and shorter sentences, there’s a good chance I could read that sentence once through without hesitation, today.

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One thought on “Writing for the Novice: Fewer Words, Shorter Sentences

  1. Thanks for this! It’s good validation for what I’ve been finding about my own writing the last few days. Instead of full-page, single-spaced texts, I have been working on limiting my texts to 12 – 18 single lines of text on a page. I have noticed the cognitive demand on me and my students has dramatically decreased — with more repetition and simplicity in mind, the threshold for acquisition is much easier to attain and not overshoot.

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