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Better Sentences: Improving Clarity and Flow

Aim for cohesion and coherence

  • Cohesion refers to how ideas fit together within a sentence and between pairs of sentences.
  • Coherence refers to how groups of sentences--particularly paragraphs--interrelate to convey a unified message or theme. 

If your readers have trouble understanding how your ideas fit together, this may mean your sentences lack cohesion. When sentences don't clearly connect, the paragraphs will likely be hard to follow.

Here are four techniques to address problems with cohesion:

Use an “old-to-new” information pattern

One way to improve cohesion is to put old information near the beginning of a sentence (the first half) and shift new information to the end or second half of the sentence. 

  • “Old” or given information is anything familiar to your readers.  Old/given information may be present in a previous sentence or two, or apparent within the context of a sentence, or simply part of readers’ general knowledge of a topic.
  • By contrast, “new” information tends to be unfamiliar to readers or more complex: something readers can’t anticipate.

Using this pattern, your sentences can incorporate highly complex ideas without losing clarity or flow:

Sentence Beginning (1st half)

Sentence Ending (2nd half)

Topic/Subject—what you’re talking about (topic should be the same as the grammatical subject)

Action/Verb (should be the same)

Old/Given information

New information

May be short, or simple, or familiar

May be long and/or complex

 

Stress or climax — what reader will take away

Turn subjects into topics

When sentences have clear topics, readers can more easily see connections among ideas and trace the evolution of a topic within a paragraph. Sentences without clear topics can seem unclear and unfocused:

Needs improvement: It [subject] is anticipated [verb] that the new policies governing laboratory health and safety will mean that an improvement of our test results will occur.

  • Why? The grammatical subject “It” does not convey what the sentence is about. The passive verb “is anticipated” does not convey action. The ending may not stress the most important part of the message. A paragraph of sentences like these would impede flow and focus.

Try: The new policies governing laboratory health and safety [subject=TOPIC] will improve [verb=ACTION] our test results.

TIP: Convert noun and prepositional phrases into topics or actions, or else delete them. Ex: "an improvement of our test results will occur" becomes "will improve our test results." Ending the sentence with "test results"  emphasizes that important idea.

Start sentences directly

Avoid unnecessary, indirect phrases or “throat-clearing”:

  • Before:  And, therefore, politically speaking, the candidate’s decision made good sense.  
  • Revised:  The candidate’s decision made good sense politically. [Start with the topic]
     
  • Before:  However, it is important in arriving at such a conclusion to recognize. . .
  • Revised: Our conclusion recognizes the importance of . . . [Convert “it is” and prepositional phrases into a topic and action]
     
  • Before:  We think it useful to provide a detailed illustration of our plan.
  • Revised: This illustration provides details about our plan. [Express the “real” topic and action]

Avoid over-using “this is, it is, there is/are.”  Frequently relying on these constructions (known as expletives) makes it harder for readers to recognize the topic of a sentence. This in turn makes it difficult to trace the main topic or theme within a paragraph (see “Turning Subjects into Topics” above).

Finish sentences emphatically

Complex ideas: 

Shift unfamiliar language, concepts, or new terms toward the end of a sentence.  This “new” concept or term then becomes “old information” when starting the next sentence.

Stress

The end of a sentence is usually the best place for “stress” or emphasis (sometimes called climax).  The principle is that people remember the endings best.  So look closely at the last few words of sentences.  Do sentences end with the words or phrases deserving the greatest attention?

Endings:

Options include trimming “wordiness,” turning a secondary or peripheral idea into an introductory phrase, or shifting a deserving idea to the end of the sentence.

  • Before:  The arguments made by the committee are incomplete, for the most part.
  • Revised:  For the most part, the committee’s arguments are incomplete. [Turn a secondary idea into an introductory phrase; reduce wordiness by using the active voice]
     
  • Before:  The way we deal with the hostile reactions of the delegates is important.
  • Revised:  It’s important how we deal with the delegates’ hostile reactions. [Shift the deserving idea to the end of the sentence]

One last thought: You may have been told to show more variety in your sentence structures. But this advice can backfire if, for the sake of variety, you lose track of your topics and actions or don’t check your sentences for flow. If you focus on clear topics and actions and follow the general principles of “old/given + new” information, your writing will seem clear and readable rather than boring or monotonous.

Learn more about “Connecting Paragraphs and Sentences” (Student Learning Commons). If you'd like more practice recognizing cohesion and coherence, try these activities created by the University of London.