English grammar gives you a wide variety of ways to cram more and more information into a sentence. That kind of flexibility is a good thing, but like all good things it creates a temptation toward overindulgence. (Which reminds me: Happy Mardi Gras, everybody. Please behave yourselves.)
Most of the impossibly complicated sentences you run into are grammatically correct. The language allows all kinds of foolish behavior. If a sentence is too convoluted to connect with readers, it doesn’t much matter that the sentence is technically correct. So how do you un-convolute a convoluted sentence?
Every time your readers encounter a sentence, they want to know WHO DID WHAT? To that end, their eyes are peeled for Subject, Verb, Object. Whatever else happens in your sentence, your reader should be able to get from subject to verb to object with relative ease. Usually, this means getting to your subject early in the sentence, and not having too many words between the subject and the verb. To phrase it another way, mkae it your default to get through the subject-verb nexus early. After your reader knows who did what, they’re surprisingly tolerant of all kinds of complexity through the rest of a sentence.
When you compose and edit sentences, know where the subject and verb are—for every sentence. When you’re trying to fix a sentence that seems overly complex, your first move is to see if you can get the subject and verb closer together.
The following sentences show what I mean. In each the grammatical subject and verb are highlighted.
The processes involved in shaping the channel in places where the turns swung from side to side, as the water flowed across the floodplain, mesmerized me.
There are twenty-two words between the subject (processes) and the verb (mesmerized) of the main clause—six prepositional phrases and one subordinate clause. That’s a lot of information for readers to keep in their brains while they’re waiting to find out what the processes are actually going to do in this sentence. (Bonus tip: See that comma just before the verb? If you feel the need to put a comma before the verb, you’ve got a problem. The solution isn’t a comma; the solution will be to get the verb closer to its subject.)
If you can get the verb closer to the subject, this sentence is going to fix itself. The easiest way to do that, I think, is to employ the passive voice:
I was mesmerized by the processes involved in shaping the channel in places where the turns swung from side to side, as the water flowed across the floodplain.
I know passive voice gets a bad rap, but this instance of the passive voice closed the subject-verb gap from twenty-two words to zero words. And suddenly, this sentence works a whole lot better. Nothing else changed. The six prepositional phrases and the subordinate clause are still there, in exactly the same order, but now that they don’t intervene between the subject and the verb, they don’t cause any heartache. There is still work to be done on the sentence, but at least now you can understand the sentence well enough to know where to get to work. (I think my next revision would read, “I was mesmerized by the processes that shaped the channel where the river swung from side to side as it flowed across the floodplain.”)
Here’s another sentence in which the subject and verb are too far apart:
The feeling, familiar in those years, that I was of a different species than the people around me surged up again.
There are sixteen words between the subject and the verb. How do you get them closer together? One possible fix uses an appositive, that is, a noun that restates a previous noun:
A familiar feeling surged up in me—a feeling that I was of a different species from the people around me. I had that feeling a lot in those days.
From a sixteen-word gap to a zero-word gap. Also, notice that you always have the option of splitting an awkwardly long sentence in two. Often two short sentences are better than one unwieldy one.
One last sentence:
On the far edge of the town where I grew up sat the aluminum factory.
In this sentence the subject and verb are actually pretty close to one another, but we don’t get to the subject-verb nexus until the end of the sentence. And the subject and verb are inverted.
Making this sentence more straightforward and clear is an easy enough task:
The aluminum factory sat on the far edge of the town where I grew up.
This revised version is clearer and more direct, getting through the subject-verb nexus by the fourth word of the sentence. Is it better? Not necessarily. As I said earlier, it’s good to make it your default to get through the subject-verb nexus early in a sentence. But the writer of this sentence may have good reasons for writing the sentence the way he does. That inversion creates an interesting effect; if the writer has chosen that effect knowing that he is losing some clarity—and if he thinks it’s worth the trade-off—I’ve got no complaints.
It’s important to know that you’re asking your reader to do a little extra work any time you write a sentence that doesn’t get to the subject-verb nexus early. When you make extra work for the reader, be sure you’re giving them enough extra interest or meaning to be worth the extra effort. If so, you have my blessing to write that more interesting, less straightforward sentence. Just be conscious of the trade-off you’re making.