Both in my native tongue (Hungarian) and in my originally first foreign language (German) it is common in formal texts to use complex noun phrases instead of multiple separate clauses. At least this is my experience, but it might be based on older texts or occasional legal documents, which have their own language style. I am engineer by trade with no linguistic training since grammar/high school.

I am looking for some input regarding how correct the sentences below feel and how formal they sound. I would also be grateful for any good guidelines regarding formal writing. All I have found listed is either way too trivial or too abstract. Despite my initial dedication, I was not able to get a good grip on the explanations.

I am really unsure how I should approach editing my writing for publication. The strict length restriction and the aim to be concise pushes me towards more complex noun phrases; on the other hand, this structure is more complex and needs more effort to understand. The texts I write are intended for scientific publications; therefore, I should aim for more formal language instead of informal, everyday parlance.


  1. The more than 10% difference between the planned and the final overall costs is attributed to in the meanwhile increased labour related expenses.
  2. The difference between the planned and the final overall costs are more than 10% and it is attributed to the labour related expenses, which has increased in the meantime.
  • It's really depressing to see unnecessarily complicated constructions in so-called "formal" writing. I find the first sentence a little more informal than the latter, because this sort of lumping of things into modifiers is characteristic of informal style (it's evocative of things like My never-really-that-much-appreciated piece of art...). It might just be me. I suggest you focus on clear writing: there's nothing informal about the second sentence except for the first mistake, which many people make in longer sentences, while the second mistake simply confuses the reader. – user3395 Jun 8 '20 at 19:21

I do not think that this question fundamentally relates to formal and informal registers.

It is true that many "formal" documents contain complex sentence structures. Sometimes that is because the thoughts being expressed are complex. Sometimes that is because the thoughts being expressed will not bear critical examination. And sometimes that is because the writer has been too lazy to state a simple thought simply.

Actual costs exceeded estimated costs by over 10% primarily because the actual increase of 30% in wage rates of skilled labor was greater than the expected increase of 18%.

Now you have actually explained in a relatively short sentence how much actual costs exceeded expected costs, the primary reason for the discrepency, and that the original estimate did not materially underestimate the labor involved, something that engineers should be able to avoid, but rather underestimated the increase in wage rates, something engineers have no expertise in. The proposed sentence above is no longer than your second sentence and gives far more information than either of your sentences does.

There is a tendency to treat matters of meaning and clarity as matters of grammar. Nonsense can be uttered grammatically. Obscurity can be phrased grammatically.

English is not as agglutinative a language as German (or as I suspect Magyar is). If you want to be as clear as possible, avoid phrases such as "to in the meanwhile increased" because they are not at all natural in English. English can be concise and exact, but not by imitating German phraseology. Notice that my suggested sentence is not much longer than yours and conveys considerably more information. If I wanted to convey merely the information conveyed in your sentences, I'd say

Actual costs exceeded estimated costs by over 10% because labor costs increased more than estimated.

That is 15 words. Your sentences contained 23 words and 29 words respectively.

In short, it is usually possible to avoid German-like constructions in English while being concise and clear.


My recommendation is not to dismiss advice that seems too trivial.

Writing clearly is difficult, and when writing in a formal style, it is still important to be clear in what you are saying.

The sentence structures in English tend not to be as complex as in German.

Of your two examples, the second sentence is clearer, but six words longer, and in the passive voice.

A good recommendation is as follows:

The more than 10% difference between the estimate and final cost is attributed to labour costs which have increased in the meantime.

  • There's generally nothing wrong with passive constructions, or with using extra words... Your suggestion looks a bit weird without the comma before which because it implies there are labor costs that haven't increased (not that that might not be the case – it's just an unnecessary but conspicuous implication). As an aside, as a general rule, don't put a comma before the main verb, unless it's used to set off a parenthetical (Writing clearly, is difficult – this is ungrammatical if there's such a thing as the grammar of punctuation). – user3395 Jun 8 '20 at 19:30
  • You are correct in part. The comma after "clearly" was a typo, and I will edit it. While there is nothing wrong with passive constructions, it is better to avoid the passive voice in English. It is also more elegant when one is less verbose, as in my suggestion. I believe the comma before "which" is optional. Feel free to ask about it. – Benjamin Godfrey Jun 8 '20 at 19:44

In my opinion, the best and most concise book on writing good English is Strunk and White, "The Elements of Style."

Use the active voice.
Use simple constructions.
Be brief.

"The unexpected 10% cost overrun was due to unexpectedly high labor costs."

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