Looking for a sentence makeover? Or maybe just some small, gentle steps toward sentence strength and clarity? These five paths will take you there:
1. Begin each sentence with a true subject instead of a false one.
Phrases such as "it is/was/were" and "there is/are/was/were" constitute "false subjects." They carry no meaning in a sentence. They may, in fact, obscure meaning because they push the true subject farther into the sentence and away from its main verb. Such a push makes a reader work harder to figure out the subject of the sentence. As much as possible, then, start sentences with a true subject—the one that performs the action of the verb.
Don't write: "There is no one who holds more of our institutional history than Ellen Jones."
Instead, try: "Ellen Jones holds more of our institutional history than anyone."
2. Put the subject and verb close together at or very near the beginning of the sentence.
The subject and the verb own the power of the sentence. Each provides a critical unit of meaning which, when taken together, express the essence of what the sentence communicates. When they appear early and together, they present a reader with the context needed to make sense of the rest of the sentence, to understand how other information attaches to the subject and verb.
At times, though, a writer may need to begin with a phrase or clause to provide a transition from previous material or to use a variety of sentence patterns to engage interest. Smart writer! Smarter yet is the writer who does so without separating the subject from its verb.
Don't write: "The initial draft, difficult as it was to construct, captured the agreed messages."
Instead, try: "The initial draft captured the agreed messages although it was difficult to construct."
Or, try: "Difficult as it was to construct, the initial draft captured the agreed messages."
3. Avoid using multiple-word verbs unless necessary to reflect elements of time.
English verbs express action that takes place at or within a certain period of time. Linguistically speaking, English has only two tenses—past and present. But by adding other verbs to the main verb, we can communicate that a particular action will happen in the future, happens constantly, has been happening for the last three weeks, or stopped happening at some point.
When you need a multiple-word verb, use one. But you can often avoid one by recasting the sentence in a more straightforward and less confusing form.
Don't write: "The device has been known to reduce the frequency of adverse events."
Instead, try: "The device reduces the frequency of adverse events."
4. Limit sentences to an average of 15-20 words.
Some will be longer, of course, and others shorter. The length primarily depends on the complexity of the information contained in the sentence, the type of sentence, and the kinds of modifying words, phrases, or clauses needed to express the meaning of the sentence. But length also depends on the sentences that precede and that follow any given one; part of the writer's task is to keep readers engaged through variety and novelty.
Don't write: "As you revise your document, get a sense of the length of your sentences, and, if you find a series of very short, choppy sentences, consider combining several of them into a longer sentence by using coordination or subordination; conversely, if some of the sentences seem so long that they will hamper reader understanding, split them into several shorter, more accessible ones."
Instead, try: As you revise your document, get a sense of the length of your sentences. If you find a series of very short, choppy sentences, consider combining several of them into a longer sentence by using coordination or subordination. Conversely, if some of the sentences seem so long that they will hamper reader understanding, split them into several shorter, more accessible ones."
5. Use active verbs, not passive ones.
In a sentence with an active verb, the subject performs the action: "The chef changed the menu." But in a passive sentence, the subject is acted upon: "The menu was changed by the chef." The passive construction adds words but, more importantly, prevents the real subject from performing the action.
Don't write: "Shelf-life was found to be longer with the new packaging."
Instead, try: "The new packaging provided longer shelf-life."
As you draft and revise, choose a path … or several … or all. With each one you follow, you'll find more strength and clarity in the sentences that take your ideas to the minds of others.