Nineteen Words


Nineteen Words

NOT a life-altering news flash: authors must always consider their audience. Depending on your company, department, and the type of content you create, you define your audience ranges in any of the following ways:

  • Expert to Beginner
  • Well Educated to Less Educated
  • Supportive to Hostile
  • Decision-maker to Influencer to Information Gatherer

In the digital age, use a more macro view to reach the widest global audience possible.

A Different Level of Understanding

Your global audience falls into one of these higher-level categories:

  • Native speakers of English*
  • Non-Native speakers of English
  • Translators
  • Users of free online Machine Translation engines

*I assume you’re writing in English. Substitute your source language for “English” if I’m wrong.

Native Speakers: That you write for native speakers of English requires no explanation. That you write for native speakers who possess varying levels of education should always be considered.

Non-Native Speakers: Unless your translated content and products ship in every language where your users/customers live, you write for this audience. When it comes to internal emails, presentations, and communications, you almost certainly write for this audience on a daily basis. In either case, this large, highly important audience is woefully ignored.

Translators: If translators had infinite time and money to do their jobs, this audience wouldn’t merit discussion. All translators, vendors, and internal localization personnel do, however, face the following challenges:

  • More demanding turnaround times
  • Localization budget constraints
  • Higher quality requirements

Treat translators as an audience to see how much faster, better, and more cost effective their deliverables can be. Or don’t, and keep trying to understand why you still have challenges in this area. 

Users of Machine Translation (MT) Engines: We all use these free engines. People who don’t read the source language, don’t have access to translation, and are interested in your information use them, too. Failure to understand these engines’ idiosyncrasies results in failure to reach this audience. If nothing else (and useful at cocktail parties), remember that online MT engines are by far the largest translation providers in the world. 

Noteworthy: Companies who actually study employee use of free machine translation engines all receive a shock. To better understand company-internal content, the number of employees using these non-secure engines is breathtaking. This further amplifies the importance of writing for the Non-Native Speaker audience.  

The Single Rule to Help You Best Communicate with Your Audience*

*With apologies, the rule only applies to English

The Nineteen-Word Rule

Limiting sentences to nineteen words is the most effective thing you can do to successfully communicate with your global audience. When sentences exceed nineteen words, split them into two sentences. 

To maximize understanding, generic online advice indicates that writers should use no more than twenty to thirty words per sentence. Harder academic research believes that 22-24 words is the proper limit. So why do we call it the Nineteen-Word Rule?

  • We accept the actual range to be 22-24 words. Nineteen is easier to remember.
  • Everyone cheats. I cheat in this article. No one wants to count the words in their sentences. Once you begin to get a feel for it, you’ll know when you’re approaching the limit. “Nineteen” gives you the ability to cheat 10-20%, not overthink it, and still communicate as effectively as possible.
  • Fewer words are better than more words. Never exceeding nineteen words is more effective than never exceeding twenty-four words.

The most memorable objection to this rule came from a Content Manager: Why do you want us to dumb it down?!! Incorporating the Nineteen-Word rule does take a bit of practice. By no means, however, does it force authors to write in a less interesting way. Your “interesting” might mean that you’re not completing your mission of creating the best possible communications for your audience. 

How the Nineteen-Word Rule Helps Specific Audiences

Native Speakers of English

As an essayist friend of mine puts it, reading a run-on sentence is like having a stone in your shoe. You’ll probably make it to your destination, but the journey would have been much more pleasant without it. 

  • Sentences exceeding nineteen words invariably contain too many commas, semicolons, pronouns, dependent clauses, etc. for a reader to quickly comprehend. 
  • In the ubiquitously up-tempo business world, no one wants to read an email they can’t immediately digest and act upon. Ditto support content, technical requirements, second-level marketing blurbs, and internal communications. 
  • Users don’t always read content, they consult it. It’s better if your readers actually read what you’ve written. Make it easier for them to do so.

Non-Native Speakers of English

  • If Native Speakers have more difficulty when you break the Nineteen-Word Rule, consider the impact on Non-Native speakers.  
  • “English is our company’s language, and everyone speaks it extremely well!”. Really? If you’ve traveled to your worldwide offices, you see your colleagues asking each other what a certain email means. People ask you to help them understand that recent, highly important internal communication. And those extremely intelligent non-native speakers sitting in your US offices? Help your worldwide (and local) colleagues by writing shorter, more easily comprehended sentences.
  • The same logic applies to Non-Native speaking users and customers. Especially when your work is not available in translation, make sure your content is as understandable to this audience as possible. Follow the rule.

  Translators 

  • Questions from translators on unclear source content slow localization projects more than anything else. Translators are in different time zones, and authors might wait until tomorrow (or Monday) to answer their questions. When you impose can’t-miss dates for deliverables, translators might have to guess at YOUR meaning to meet YOUR deadline. Abiding by the Nineteen-Word Rule greatly reduces localization turnaround times. It also ensures better translation quality.
  • The best translators want to translate well written English. Doing so gives them the opportunity to quickly arrive at the best possible translation; it helps them be the artists that they are. Breaking the rule forces translators to spend their energy trying to grasp and convey the most basic meaning of your content. It’s the best they can do given their own business reality (which is all about volume and deadlines). Additionally, poor source content often yields the perception that the translation is bad. Enough bad source content and enough “quality” complaints frustrate great translators to the point where they’ll search for better clients.

Users of Machine Translation Engines

  • Yes, Machine Translation (MT) has greatly improved. Yes, MT will continue to get even better. Yes, MT always does better with shorter sentences. The fascinating thing is that MT does better with shorter sentences for the same reason humans do. As stated, sentences that break the Nineteen-Word Rule have more commas, semicolons, ad nauseam than those that don’t. They contribute to less certainty of a sentence’s meaning for all audience members…including machines. If the machine doesn’t understand your source sentence, it can’t provide a reasonably good translation.
  • When a sentence exceeds nineteen words, split it into two sentences. When an extremely popular online engine detects that a single sentence exceeds X characters (not words), it splits the sentence into two. The people responsible for this engine always want users to get the most useful translation. At some point, their only chance to provide a useful translation is to break the original sentence in half. Even if you don’t split your rule-breaking sentences in two, the machines will do it for you. The result won’t be as good as two shorter sentences, but what’s a machine to do? 

A Realistic Note for Professional Business Authors

Even when you follow the Nineteen-Word Rule, Product and Legal review your content. Those two departments are notorious for adding piles of additional words to a perfectly good sentence. If Product and Legal want the content to be 100% understood (not always the case, as you know), you’ll need to educate them. The Nineteen-Word rule means you’ll need to do something that few writers feel supported in doing: pushing back on Product and Legal. I suggest that you massage their version to meet the rule before returning it to them for additional review. And I hope your boss and your boss’ boss are reading this.

The Nineteen-Word Rule is the most important of the Ten Writing Rules to Reach your Global Audience. Interested in the other nine? Let’s talk.