Sentence Structuring – Pitfalls

Don’t Be Ambiguous

In our daily conversations, whenever we sense doubt or confusion in the listener’s mind we can always explain our meaning. Usually we say, “In other words…” or “What I’m trying to say is…” or “Let me draw you a picture.” In writing there’s no opportunity to explain ourselves. Your readers either understand you or they don’t. It’s all or nothing, and the odds are against you, so you need to be aware of ambiguous sentences. The problem is that sometimes we don’t see the possibility for confusion or interpretation because to us all is clear. So we may write:

The cost of the printer only was Rs. 5,000.

At first glance you may see little problem with this sentence. However, it can be interpreted in two ways: Are you saying that the printer alone, exclusive of all other equipment, cost Rs.5,000 or that the price of the printer was Rs. 5,000.? Whichever thought you want to express, the sentence must be rewritten to express either:

The printer cost only Rs. 5,000.


The cost of only the printer was Rs. 5,000.

In speech, meaning is conveyed through the vocal emphasis we would place on the word only but in writing the reader can’t hear the distinction. Even though the intended meaning of each sentence may be clear to us, we often have to ask ourselves if any sentence is prone to interpretation. If so, revise the sentence to remove that possibility. Sometimes the task may prove daunting, as in this sentence:

Shweta told Brinda her handbag has been stolen.

Whose handbag was stolen? Can you really tell? When you suspect a sentence may be inclined to expressing a dual meaning, ask two people to read it and offer an opinion. If they differ or ask, “Is this what you’re trying to say?” it’s time to rewrite the sentence by beginning in your own mind with these words: “What I’m really trying to say here is….”

To Generalise is to Err and Confuse

Generalisations are comparable to stereotypes. There may be some small truth inherent, but that is not enough to present the full picture. In fact, upon closer examination, we often discover that all stereotypes present distorted images of people and events. The success of your writing can be measured by your ability to progress from the general to the specific and from the abstract and vague to the concrete. Generalisations, such as those presented in this sentence, can only lead to confusion for your reader:

A majority of our customers preferred the new software.

Just how large was that majority? Fifty-three percent? Seventy-five percent? Ninety percent? Also, which new software do they prefer? The writer who sent this sentence to his manager no doubt received one back, asking these questions.

Fragment Sentences

In everyday conversations we often use fragment sentences to convey our thoughts. If someone in our office asks, “Where are you going?” we might answer, “To get coffee” or “Downstairs” or “Mary’s office.” In most instances, we have little trouble understanding fragmentary speech. Also, in speech we don’t pronounce punctuation marks. Rather, our pauses or rhythms of expressions provide the commas and periods. When we’re excited or in a rush our ideas are expressed through runaway sentences, long interconnected thoughts that often flow breathlessly. Writing, unfortunately, does not welcome any of these manners of communication. Writing, or rather your reader, insists upon complete thoughts.

Fiction writers may use fragments for atmospheric or realistic effect. In real life no one speaks in complete, perfectly constructed sentences. Still, you would be wise to avoid the following given the likelihood that your reader does not feel inclined to granting you poetic license.

Fragment sentences lack a subject, verb, or phrase to complete a thought.


A fine idea. (no subject or verb)


Your suggestion is a fine idea.


Bob been promoted to supervisor. (Missing helping verb)


Bob has been promoted to supervisor.


While you were out.(missing phrase)


While you were out, your sister called.

Comma Splice Sentences

Comma splices occur when two independent complete sentences are joined by a comma and not followed by a conjunction (and, or, but, for, so, nor, yet) rather than a semicolon or separated by a period.


Smita is busy writing a report this morning, after lunch, she can meet with you.


Smita is busy writing a report this morning, but after lunch, she is can meet with you. (Add a conjunction after the comma.)


Alexis is busy writing a report this morning. After lunch, she can meet with you.

(Place a period between the sentences.)

Run-On Sentences

Run-on sentences lack any punctuation and are among the most troublesome of all, because your reader has no idea where ideas begin and end.


We have decided that our policies and procedures are confusing therefore we have decided to revise them we need your input regarding what you find confusing, please let us know.


We have decided that our policies and procedures are confusing. Therefore, we have decided to revise them. We need your input regarding what you find confusing. Please let us know.

Overuse of the Word “And”

Either place periods between the sentences or rewrite them to condense the information.


Judy is a very fine organiser and she has a very good sense of time management and her ability to relate to people is a definite talent and I believe she is the person who will best represent our organisation at the conference next month.


Judy is a very fine organiser with a very good sense of time management. Because her ability to relate to people is a definite talent, I believe she is the person who will best represent our organisation at the conference next month.

Double Negatives to Prevent Confusing Your Readers


It is not unwise of Sandy to decide not to change the supervisor’s observations.

Ordering the new software is not unnecessary.


Sandy is wise to avoid challenging the supervisor’s observations.

Ordering the new software is necessary.

Separating Related Parts of Compound Verbs


Charlie decided, even though Connie objected, to go bowling instead of to the opera.


Even though Connie objected, Charlie decided to go to bowling instead of to the opera.

Dangling Participles (Sentences Beginning With an “-ing” phrase)


Drinking a cup of tea, the doorbell rang.


I was drinking a cup of tea when the doorbell rang.

Infinitive Phrases (Sentences Beginning With “To…”)


To return the package quickly, a small fee was charged.


The shipper charged a small fee to return the package quickly.


Sentence Structuring – Basics


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.


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.


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.


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.

Effective Business Writing

Skilful business writing involves getting your message across simply and quickly. This often means writing in a style that is easily read and understood by a broad audience.

Yet, writing simply is often difficult for most of us.

Why? The answer lies in our school education. We learnt that if we used big words and complex sentences, we were more likely to get an ‘A’ by our English teacher. The education system taught us that people who use a broad range of vocabulary are more intelligent that the rest of us.

There is nothing wrong with writing beautifully pieces of prose that feature a stunning range of vocabulary knowledge. However, such writing is unsuitable for a business market.

Generally, most business executives do not have the time (or motivation) to wade through material that wanders and weaves before a point is made. They are even less likely to have time to grab a dictionary to work out what the writer is trying to say.

When I was in the second year of my collage, I was assigned a project to write about the unfortunate events of 9/11, and the rise of Jihadi terrorism across the globe. My immediate response was to write a report that would have most of us mortals reading the dictionary more frequently than the report itself!

I started the project by simply jotting down my thoughts on a piece of paper – obviously, this was in a very simple and plain language. As I started to read what I had jotted, I realised how much more readable and effective it was! I decided to stick with that tone for the rest of the project.

I proudly produced my ‘easy on the brain’ project to my lecturer. He told me “You write like you talk”. To this day, I still don’t know if he was criticising my talking or writing ability! But I was happy with what I had produced, and conciously or sub conciously, adopted this style of writing for the rest of my assignments.

Later on in my career, I worked at a company that prided itself on its easy to read reports. While this was true (to some degree), one of the directors loved to throw in a difficult word in every mail he wrote to make the rest of us reach for the dictionary. He thought this was really clever and that his clients would be in awe of his knowledge. I’m guessing his clients thought he was a tosser (interestingly, I met an ex-client later who told me that when their company received one of his reports they would quickly scan it to find the unusual word and then erupt into hysterical laughter).

Articles that are written to impress your audience about how clever you are, do nothing more than distance them. No matter how learned your market is, they still prefer to read information that is easy to digest.

A great way to test whether your writing is easy to comprehend is to read it out to yourself. If someone spoke to you, using those words, could you instantly understand what they were getting at or would you have to really concentrate?

Writing that is heavy on technical terms and jargon can be a real turn off. Surprisingly, clear writing can be quite a difficult writing style to master, but the effort is well rewarded. And look at the bright side, at least people won’t burst into fits of laughter when they read your masterpiece.