Traditional grammar defines “complete sentences” in structural terms, as CLAUSES (subjects linked to verbs) and PHRASES (a group of words lacking either a subject or verb). Even if a sentence is grammatically correct, with a SUBJECT and a VERB, there’s no guarantee it’s clear or readable. A case in point:
- Once upon a time, as a walk through the woods was taking place on the part of Little Red Riding Hood, a wolf’s jumping out from behind a tree caused fright to occur in them.
- It was decided by the committee that the issue of implementing a workplace diversity action-plan would need to be examined in a feasibility study.
If your sentences need to be clearer, start by making sure your subjects and verbs are as concrete as possible and as close together as possible. It helps to think of the subject as a “character.” Ask yourself—Who does what?
- The committee [noun--who?] decided [verb--does what?] to conduct a feasibility study about implementing a workplace diversity action-plan
Avoid using too many noun-heavy structures (nominalizations). Our language’s capacity to transform parts of speech makes it easy to turn actions into more static or abstract concepts. For example:
- A walk through the woods was taking place. → They were walking through the woods.
- My suggestion is that our discussion of the issue be done with care. → I suggest we discuss the issue carefully.
Try not to overuse the verb TO BE—whether by itself or linked with adjective phrases. Too much is/are can make your reader lose track of action—Who does what?
- are representative of → represent
- Unfortunate circumstances surrounding our family are apparent. → Apparently, unfortunate circumstances surround our family.
Use the passive and active voices wisely
The passive allows us to place the GOAL (object of the transitive verb) at the front of the sentence. We can also omit the agent (subject) altogether.
|The committee||will investigate||the high failure rates in these courses|
|AGENT (subject)||ACTION (trans. verb)||GOAL (object)|
|The high failure rates in these courses||will be investigated||[by the committee]|
|GOAL (object)||ACTION||AGENT (former subject, now optional)|
Choose the passive when—the GOAL is clearly the most important part of the “story” (as in much journalistic and some scientific writing); or you don’t know who did it; or your readers don’t care who did it; or it isn’t relevant who did it; or who did it should be concealed.
Pay attention to coherence
A) Use an “old-to-new” information pattern
“Old” (given) information will be something familiar to your readers. Old information may be present in the sentence or two before the one currently being read, or apparent within the context of the sentence, or even part of readers’ general knowledge about a topic.
“New” information will be unfamiliar to your readers or more complex. If it’s presented after the old information, readers will be better able to process it because they’ll see how it fits into what they already know. Using this pattern to structure paragraphs will help make them more coherent.
BEFORE: Critical readers look at texts not just for information but also for structure and argument. To thrive at university and beyond, you need to ask questions about everything you read.
AFTER: To thrive at university [familiar; common knowledge], you need to ask questions about everything you read [new/complex]. Critical readers [familiar; implicitly defined in prev. sentence] look at texts not just for information but also for structure and argument [new/complex].
Begin sentences with old (given) information, and shift new information so it comes after the old. When you start the next sentence, use what was previously “new” as “old.”
B) Pay attention to sentence beginnings
Readers usually expect the first NOUN + VERB to say what the sentence is about: i.e. the TOPIC. Putting your main NOUN + VERB in the first half of your sentence helps ensure that topics connect consistently from sentence to sentence. Sentences without a clear topic may appear vague and unfocused.
BEFORE: The fact that streaming video as opposed to watching TV programs is on the increase requires realization of consumer preferences on the part of cable companies.
TOPIC = "The fact ... requires..." Huh??
AFTER: Cable companies [key noun] must realize [key verb] that more consumers prefer streaming video than watching TV programs.
TOPIC = "Cable companies must realize [something]. . ." That makes sense!
Don’t worry too much about whether consistent topics will create monotony. Told to achieve more “variety,” writers may create overly complex, unclear sentences. Avoid repeating the same subjects/topics using exactly the same words each time, but err on the side of consistency in expressing topics.
CAUTION: Frequently starting sentences with “This/There/It” constructions and nominalizations can create a “monotonous” effect. What’s really happening, though, is a lack of coherence and focus. The solution is to revise the sentences so that the topics are up-front.
- Purdue University OWL – Improving Sentence Clarity
- Finnish Virtual University – The Given-New Principle (an interactive tutorial)
Materials on clarity and coherence adapted from Williams, J. M., & Nadel, I. B. (2005). Style: 10 lessons in clarity and grace (Cdn. ed.). Toronto: Longman.