How To Write Better By Chunking Up Your Phrases



“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard

Have you ever had to wait too long for somebody to make a point?

Their sentences run on but leave you hanging and you have to keep it all in your head to try and follow along.

They make you work too hard to follow the information.   Surprisingly, it’s not how long the sentences are that make them complex.  It’s how long it takes to complete the phrases.

Why Some Writing is Harder to Follow

We understand concepts phrase by phrase, not word by word.  As an author, when you know this, you can write simpler and more effectively to make your points.  As a reader, now you know why some writing is harder to follow than others.

In the book Mind Hacks: Tips & Tricks for Using Your Brain, Tom Stafford and Matt Webb write about how chunking up phrases can help simplify writing and make it easier to follow.

We Understand Phrase by Phrase

You don’t comprehend word by word.  You make sense phrase by phrase.

Stafford and Webb write:

“When you’re reading a sentence, you don’t understand it word by word, but rather phrase by phrase.  Phrases are groups of words that can be bundled together, and they’re related by the rules of grammar. 

A noun phrase will include nouns and adjectives, and a verb phrase will include a verb and a noun, for example.  These phrases are the building blocks of language, and we naturally chunk sentences into phrase blocks just as we chunk visual images into objects.”

It’s How Long We Wait for a Phrase to be Completed

It’s waiting to complete a phrase that makes sentences hard to understand.

Stafford and Webb write:

“It’s now how long a sentence is that makes it hard to understand.  It’s how long you have to wait for a phrase to be completed.  

What this means is that we don’t treat every word individually as we hear it; we treat words as parts of phrases and have a buffer (a very short-term memory) that stores the words as they come in, until they can be allocated to a phrase. 

Sentences become cumbersome not if they’re long, but if they overrun the buffer required to parse them, and that depends on how long the individual phrases are.”

An Example of Increasing Complexity

Stafford and Webb share an example of increasing complexity:

  • The cat caught by the spider that caught the fly the old lady swallowed.
  • The fly swallowed by the old lady was caught by the spider caught by the cat.
  • The fly the spider the cat caught was swallowed by the old lady.

Sentences are More like Lego Blocks

You add details to phrases more like adding Lego blocks than weaving like scarves.  Add details.

Stafford and Webb write:

“Human languages have the special property of being recombinant.  This means a sentence isn’t woven like a scarf, where if you want to add more detail you have to add it at the end.  Sentences are more like Lego. 

The phrases can be broken up and combined with other sentences or popped open in the middle and more bricks added.”

Examples of Noun and Verb Phrases

Stafford and Webb show an example of noun phrases:

  • This sentence is an example.
  • This boring sentence is a simple example.
  • This long, boring sentence is a simple example of sentence structure.

Noun Phrases

In a noun phrase, the noun is the object of the sentence.

Stafford and Webb write:

“The way sentences are understood is that they’re parsed into phrases.  One type of phrase is a noun phrase, the object of the sentence. 

In ‘This sentence is a an example,’ the noun phrase is ‘this sentence.’  For the second, it’s ‘this boring sentence.’

Verbal Working Memory

As you read, words sit in a buffer until you assemble the phrases.

Stafford and Webb write:

“Once a noun phrase is fully assembled, it can be packaged up and properly understood by the rest of the brain. 

During the time you’re reading the sentence, however, the words sit in your verbal working memory – a kind of short-term buffer – until the phrase is finished.”

Verb Phrases

In verb phrases, the verb is the focus.  Phrase boundaries around verb phrases and noun phrases make sentences easier to understand.

Stafford and Webb write:

“Verb phrases work the same way.  When your brain sees ‘is,’ it knows there’s a verb phrase starting and holds the subsequent words in memory until the phrase has been closed off (with the word ‘example,’ in the first sentence in the previous list). 

Similarly, the last part of the final sentence, ‘of sentence structure,’ is a prepositional phrase, so it’s also self-contained. 

Phrase boundaries make sentences much easier to understand.  Rather than the object of the third example sentence being three times more complex than the first (it’s three words: ‘long, boring sentence’ versus one, ‘sentence’), it can be understood as the same object, but with modifiers.”

Very Small Trees that are Completed Quickly

Phrases are like trees within trees.

Stafford and Webb write:

“A sentence takes on a treelike structure, for these simple examples, in which phrases are smaller trees within that. 

To understand a whole phrase, its individual tree has to join up. 

These sentences are all easy to understand because they’re composed of very small trees that are completed quickly.”

Finding Phrase Boundaries

Word order plays a key role in finding phrase boundaries.

Stafford and Webb write:

“To find phrase boundaries, we check individual word meaning and likelihood of word order, continually revise the meaning of the sentence, and so on, all the while the buffer is growing.”

Good Speeches Minimize the Amount of Working Memory

Speeches need to be simpler than written text because you can’t skip back and reread them.

Stafford and Webb write:

“A characteristic of good speeches (or anything passed down in an oral tradition) is that they minimize the amount of working memory, or buffer, required to understand them. 

This doesn’t matter so much for written text, in which you can skip back and read the sentence again to figure it out; you have only one chance to hear and comprehend the spoken word, so you’d  better get it right the first time around. 

That’s why speeches written down always look so simple.”

You Can’t Ignore the Buffer size for Written Language

If you want to increase simplicity, then pay attention to buffers even in written language.

Stafford and Webb write:

“That doesn’t mean you can ignore the buffer size for written language.  If you want to make what you say, and what you write, easier to understand, consider the order in which you are giving information in a sentence. 

See if you can group together the elements that go together so as to reduce demand on the reader’s concentration.  More people will get to the end of your prose with the energy to think about what’ve said or do what you ask.”

Key Takeaways

Here are my key takeaways:

  • We understand phrase by phrase.  We don’t parse text word by word.  Instead, we parse by phrases.  It’s the phrases we make sense of.
  • It’s how long you have to wait.  It’s not how long a sentence is.  It’s how long you have to wait for a phrase to complete.  That’s what makes your working memory work too hard.
  • Add details to phrases.  If you need to elaborate, you can add details to phrases.  Don’t weave in and out of details.  Effective sentences are built more like Legos than woven like scarves.
  • Complete your phrases.  Complete your phrases quickly to simplify your writing.  People can only keep so much in their mind at a time.  Chunk your points up into phrases and complete your phrases quickly.
  • You can chunk by noun phrases and verb phrases.  In noun phrases, the noun is the object of the sentence.  In verb phrases, the verb is the focus.  You can think in terms of boundaries around noun phrases and boundaries around verb phrases.
  • Speeches need to be simpler than written text.  You can’t skip back and reread the speech.  If you want to deliver a speech that’s easy to follow, complete phrases as quickly as possible.
  • Pay attention to buffers to simplify your writing.  If you want to simplify your writing, keep buffers and working memory in mind.  Don’t make people work too hard to follow your point.

If you want to make more impact, write simpler sentences.

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  1. This post of yours kind of reminds me of conversations I had with my dad when I was a teen. I’d ask him something simple, and in an effort to justify his point of view he would launch into half an hour explanations…at the end of which I still didn’t know if he had said yes or no. He’s get mighty annoyed when I asked if if meant yes or no. 😉 That could lead to another half an hour explanation. Poor man, I really tested his patience.

  2. Fascinating stuff as usual!

    I appreciate how this discusses speaking, in particular, as I have been doing more of that lately (workshops, presenting, etc.) I will need to keep that simplicity in mind for next time.

  3. Hi J.D.
    Thank you for your post. As a writer, and blogger, I will definately be able to use some of your advice to help my writing to be more effective.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  4. Ah, JD, now I understand your comment on my blog about the ‘perfect phrase’. I consciously keep my sentences short to make them easier to understand, though now that I’ve read this, perhaps I should focus on keeping phrases short instead, and it will be interesting to see if it makes any differences. I like the concept of a reader’s working memory too, and this helps to show why chunking works, not just in writing, but in understanding in general, and why we should chunk more when writing or analysing. Great post!

  5. Brilliant break down of sentence structure. This book sounds like a thick, but worth while read. I’ve been working on my sentence structure, trying to make it more playful and fun. Isn’t that what writing is about? Entertaining people while they learn.

  6. @ Louisa

    I know what you mean. I’m fine if folks want to elaborate, but at least give me the quick answer up front so I can zone out if needed 😉

    @ Christine

    You might check out the book, Say It Like Obama. It’s a fun read and great insights in the finer points of oration.

    @ Melissa

    So true. It’s tough to make a point if you don’t start with clarity.

    @ Giovanna

    Thank you. I like the fact you are always improving and always taking action. That’s how mountains get moved.

    @ Daphne

    It really hit home for me when a colleague once said, “you’re making me work to hard.” Their point was chunk the phrases and it made perfect sense.

    @ Karl

    Edutainment is definitely one of the most successful mediums in today’s landscape.

  7. Uh-oh, now I’ll have to go back over all my posts to see if they pass muster. 🙂

    This is a really great post. I never use, actually don’t remember HOW to use colons and semi-colons so I guess that’s probably a major-plus on being understood better. The part on the spoken word, speeches, is great to know! A much different animal than the written word. If I ever give great oratory I’ll know how to wow ’em!

  8. Hi J.D.

    I have friends like that. I keep wanting to finish their story. I want the short version and not everything that happened from point A to point B.

    I also like reading content that is tight and to the point. When I’m writing my blog posts I’m forever taking words out or rewording sentences as I know others are as busy as me and want me to get to the lesson.

    It’s not always easy, but is a great exercise in editing.

  9. I am sometimes accused of “writing for the web,” meaning I write short sentences, divide my posts to short paragraphs and use simple language.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this type of writing. After spending a few years reading and crafting legal documents, all I want is simplicity and clarity.

  10. @ Jannie

    The fact you write in your conversational way helps keep your writing simple and clear. It’s the conversational Web after all. I find it’s the writers who write to impress that make readers work too hard.

    @ Barbara

    Your writing is a great example of precision. Somehow you manage to always say so much with so little … and that’s a beautiful thing.

    @ Vered

    I’m with you. Writing should help make your point, not obfuscate it. Simple and clear wins in my book. Unless I’m in story mode and want to be razzle dazzled, I’d rather read writing that’s punchy and precise.

  11. Good one – I like it a lot.
    Can I add another one to the list? – “Make a point!”.

    After I started to learn public speaking i realized how many of us miss this simple rule. I witness way too often folks explain, and explain, add details, and then some more details and…. that’s it. “So, …. what’s your point, dude?”

    I like upfront take approach. Say upfront what you want – than observe the opponent and add a details as required. Same w/emails.

    So far it served me very well. I end meeting in less time, I spend less of my own time and the time of the opponent to get to the point.

    Of course, I am not the first one to notice this 😉

    Two building blocks:
    – anecdote, story, sequence of events, raising the question (hook)
    – moment of reflection, “here is the POINT”.

    He says that many lack one part or another. I like his simple yet very practical apporach.


  12. @ Positively Present

    Thank you. English is one of those topics that no matter how much you learn, there’s so much more to know. It’s one of those domains where continuous learning is a must.

    @ Alik

    Make it a point, is a perfect point!

Comments are closed.