Spruce up your sentences – make them reader friendly

Jan 8, 2014

Spruce up your sentences – make them reader friendly

Jan 8, 2014

From the Newsroom

Raji Chacko

In a previous post, I had discussed tips for making sentences shorter and more precise. Soon after I typed up that piece I stumbled on to this quote from Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and Read One: “[Pared-down prose] is a real loss, not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to ‘omit needless words’ (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem” (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2011/01/27/how-to-write-a-sentence/).

So, I am hoping you will take the tips in the spirit in which they were provided and not allow them to stifle your creative impulse. Feel free to indulge your muse if you think you can pull off sentences like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molly_Bloom%27s_soliloquy#Molly_Bloom.27s_Soliloquy. Apparently one of the longest in English literature, this single-sentence soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses is 4,391 words.

Well, long or short, here are some tips to make sure your sentences are well constructed.

Merge where possible:

“She was a girl. She was Molly’s girl. She was little. She was five years old. She had black hair. She had brown eyes.” While this might (and I stress “might”) make for a dramatic opening to a literary piece, if it continued in the same vein, I would be willing to give in to the temptation to abandon it. “Molly’s daughter was five and had black hair and brown eyes” is undoubtedly far less dramatic but definitely cannot be accused of obfuscating. It is easier for your readers when they are provided links that connect various elements together and present it as a whole. This is not to say that short sentences must be done away with completely. “Molly’s daughter was five and had black hair and brown eyes. She was polite, helpful, obedient and quiet. She was also a witch.” The combination of short and long sentences can make for interesting reading.

Avoid run-ons:

Run-on sentences are usually the result of incorrect punctuation where two sentences or independent clauses are fused together incorrectly. “This is pointless, let’s leave.” This sentence needs a semi-colon and not a comma. If you are determined to use a comma then you need the comma + conjunction construction here. So, this sentence can be written as: “This is pointless; let’s leave” or “This is pointless, so let’s leave”. Look at another example: “He is not lying, however, he is not telling us everything”. Again the first comma in this sentence is used incorrectly. A period or a semi-colon would have been a better choice here. For instance: “He is not lying; however, he is not telling us everything” or “He is not lying. However, he is not telling us everything”.

Get the subject and verb to agree:

As an editor, I find that a lot of writers, who probably learnt English as a second language, have trouble with subject-verb agreement. Simply put, this means that a singular subject needs a singular verb and a plural subject needs a plural verb. I think the problem arises because unlike nouns, in the case of verbs it is the singular form that takes an “s”. So, “Bob likes chocolate” but “Bob and Bobby like chocolate”. Certain nouns, though, tend to throw us for a loop. Take equipment for instance; is it singular or plural? Although it denotes a collection of items needed for a particular purpose or activity, equipment is considered a singular noun. So, it wouldn’t be “The equipment for the show were installed” but “The equipment for the show was installed”.

When in doubt, consult the dictionary, which usually also has a sentence using the word. For instance, “team” can be considered either singular or plural; both forms are correct according to the dictionary. The rule of thumb for indefinite pronouns anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, no one and nobody is that they are always treated as singular subjects.

Get the pronoun and its antecedent to agree:

Like subject-verb agreement, in the case of the pronoun too it has to match the noun that has gone before. So, “Bob picked up his ball” but “Bob and Bobby picked up their ball.” “Team”, as discussed above, can be either singular or plural. So, it would be right to say either “The team took its loss badly” or “The team took their loss badly”. However, “equipment” as discussed above would be singular. So, you’d say, “The equipment did not live up to its promise”, not “The equipment did not live up to their promise”. A sentence like “An artist should be true to his craft” causes problems with political correctness, so it is better to say, “An artist should be true to his or her craft”. This is a good resource for reading up on pronoun-antecedent agreement: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/pronouns.htm.

Make sure form is parallel:

Again, absence of parallelism is something I have encountered frequently as an editor. To let you in on a secret, it is a mistake I was guilty of myself until it was pointed out to me. Parallelism means ensuring that the form you apply in a sentence is uniform. For instance, “He enjoyed riding, reading and took pleasure in music” should ideally be “He enjoyed riding, reading and listening to music”. By ensuring the activities are all listed as gerunds (nouns that have the same form as the present participle of a verb, that is, they end in “ing”), you make the sentence easier for your reader to read and interpret. To use the same example, “He liked to ride horses, read books and listening to music” would be incorrect. It should be rewritten as “He liked to ride horses, read books and listen to music”.

Attention to such details enriches your writing and helps make it seem more native. For your readers, it means less confusion over meaning and greater ease of understanding.

For further reading, see:



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