Sentence Structuring – Basics


Variety

Expressing your message by using simple sentences will help you focus on individual key details and concerns. Yet a series of simple sentences alone can result in a dull, choppy rhythm:

Prakash is a competent manager. He often achieves his goals. He should be promoted.

Rather, these ideas can be combined to produce a more graceful flow of ideas:

Prakash, a competent manager who often achieves his goals, should be promoted.

Effective sentences are varied according to length and construction. All sentences need not begin with the, a, an, it, there, or here because the reader will soon weary of the monotonous repetition. The best sentences combine or interweave precise words and well-constructed phrases to create graceful, flowing rhythmic thought patterns.

Length

Sentences that average 10 to 20 words will convey your thoughts most effectively. Of course, shorter length alone is no guarantee of clarity. Still, sentences of 25 words or more have a greater tendency to confuse and disorient your reader or delay your message.

For example:

I would appreciate it very much if each of you remember that if there are any future occasions when it is necessary to bring matters like this regarding refunds to my attention to send your message to the Customer Service Department with a copy to me rather than sending the message directly to my attention. (55 words)

A sentence such as this contains quite a few de tours that make the reader’s journey longer than it needs to be. If time is money, both writer and reader are paying too much. Simply stated, the message could read:

Please send all future messages regarding refunds directly to Customer Service and forward a copy to me. (17 words)

Prefer Active to Passive Voice

Poor passive voice is so often maligned by writing instructors. Even grammar checkers consistently alert us to the dangerous presence of a “passive construction.” So what’s so bad about passive voice and just what is it? The truth is that there’s nothing wrong with passive voice. Rather, it’s a question of when and how to use it. Anyone trained in the technical professions learned to appreciate the value and preference for passive voice sentences to convey objectivity in reports, tests, and other studies. The engineer learned to write “A problem was found” rather than “I found a problem” to avoid using the pronoun “I” and to convey information from a distance, so to speak, that underscored the validity and objectivity of his or her observations.

In active voice, the emphasis is placed on the subject or doer of the action:

The manager wrote the report.

The active sentence is constructed according to basic English subject-verb-object sentence structure. Passive reverses the order and places the emphasis on the recipient of the action:

The report was written by the manager.

Both active and passive voice sentences are grammatically correct. It’s a question of which one is most appropriate to the purpose and tone of your message.

Passive voice is best used when:

  • You want the reader to focus on an activity or occurrence rather than who or what caused it to happen:

    Procedures have been written to ensure safety.

  • The doer is unknown:

    The copy machine is broken.

  • You don’t want to assign blame:

    A mistake was made in processing the data.

  • A process is described:

    The powder is added to the mixture.

When writing instructions for the operator or user, always use active voice and place the verbs in the beginning of the sentence for emphasis:

Insert the card.

Do not write the weaker and less direct sentence:

The card is to be inserted.

I have often visualized active voice sentences as being similar to the quickest auto route, be it by highway, turnpike, or freeway. Passive voice, when appropriate or well constructed, is the scenic route. It takes a little longer to get there but it’s worth it for the scenery, restaurants along the way, and historic sites. Poorly written or unnecessary passive voice represents the long way: construction, stop signs, traffic lights, railroad crossings, and so forth. You would never want to write (or read) this sentence:

Your letter has been answered by me.

This is certainly passive voice at its worst. Remember that active voice sentences have greater vigor and often use fewer words to express your thoughts. When attempting to transform passive into active voice, ask yourself who or what is doing something and begin the sentence with the answer.

  • PASSIVE: The project was discussed by the supervisors.

  • ACTIVE: The supervisors discussed the project.

Expose Camouflaged Verbs

Verbs sometimes hide from your readers when introduced by other verbs such as make, do, give, take, perform, provide, have, and be:

Martha will take under consideration the proposal.

The true verb (consider) is hidden by the helping verb and the sentence is longer than it should be:

Martha will consider the proposal.

Shorten Prepositional Phrases

Your sentences may include phrases that begin with prepositions such as in, for, to, on, with, above, and others. One way to tighten the structure is to shorten these phrases to single words. Instead of writing:

We are extending overtime in view of the fact that we need to complete several projects.

Try:

We are extending overtime because we need to complete several projects.

Use Adjectives and Adverbs Instead of Phrases

You may recall that adjectives describe nouns (people, places, things) and adverbs describe or modify verbs. Whenever possible, your sentence structure will benefit from transforming phrases into adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of writing:

We have made reductions in the costs of our operation.

Whenever there is a deadline, Victor writes in a quick way.

Try:

We have reduced our operating (adjective) costs.

Whenever there is a deadline, Victor writes quickly. (adverb)

Delete Unnecessary Articles, Prepositions, and Pronouns

Articles (a, an, the), prepositions (of), pronouns (it), and indicative words (there, here) can often be deleted from phrases and sentences where they serve little purpose. Instead of writing “many of the companies” or “the use of technology allows,” try “many companies” and “technology allows.” Rather than “It was our research department that provided the data,” you could state, “Our research department provided the data.”

You might ask what’s so valuable about removing one or two brief words. The answer is that you achieve greater economy of expression even though nothing dramatic has been changed. Yet similar to the small monetary change you may toss daily into a jar, small changes in sentence structure can add up to improved flow of ideas.

Maintaining Balance and Importance: Coordinate and Subordinate Ideas

In our lives, we often understand the value of relationships, whether personal or professional. Sentences also contain elements or details that have relationships. It helps to be aware of opportunities for constructing sentences in which the ideas are coordinated (equal in importance or value) or subordinated (one idea is more important or dependent upon another for its meaning).

Sentence ideas can be coordinated by using connecting words and expressions such as and, or, but, either…or, and neither… nor.

Sentences Before Coordination:

The manager is seeking greater understanding of his assistant’s concerns. The assistant wants the manager to understand her needs.

After Coordination:

The manager and his assistant seek better understanding of each other’s needs.

Now the manager’s and assistant’s needs and expectations are expressed with greater balance and economy.

Sentence elements can be subordinated by using words such as after, when, while, if, since, although, through, before, until, whether, unless, and because at the beginning or middle of a sentence.

Before Subordination:

Rakesh felt anxious about the interview. He knew he had a good chance of getting the job.

After Subordination:

Rakesh felt anxious about the interview although he knew he had a good chance of getting the job.

Subordinating Rakesh’s belief in his ability to obtain the job to his anxiety underscores the prevalence or power of his nervousness.

Maintain Parallelism

Parallelism refers to a grammatical balance or structural consistency of various elements within your sentences. Sometimes the problem lies with the verb tenses or perhaps mixing active and passive voice in offering instructions or presenting a list that alternates between fragments and complete sentences. When you read a sentence lacking parallelism, you get the feeling that something is not quite right or that something impedes the smooth flow of information. Here are some examples of sentences containing nonparallel elements:

  1. Sanket has many hobbies. He likes to build model airplanes, racing vintage cars and collects arrowheads.

  2. Pooja is an intelligent, dedicated manager who is also cooperative.

In the first sentence the verbs are not consistent; in the second the adjective alone will suffice and needs to be placed before the noun it describes.

  1. Sanket has many hobbies. He likes to build model airplanes, race vintage cars and collect arrowheads.

  2. Pooja is an intelligent, dedicated and cooperative manager.

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