Crafting a great sentence is not just a matter of avoiding errors. This page provides some constructive advice about how to make your sentences flow naturally.
Tips for Better Sentences
Choose a Clear Subject
Some writers try to squeeze too much into the subject of the sentence:
The etymological connection between Sambucus nigra (the elderberry tree) and the anise-flavoured liqueur Sambuca is not well-known.
Subject: The etymological connection between Sambucus nigra (the elderberry tree) and the anise-flavoured liqueur Sambuca
Here’s the same sentence, but with a simpler subject:
Not many people know that Sambucus nigra (the elderberry tree) shares its etymology with the anise-flavoured liqueur Sambuca.
In other words, choose a simple subject (people) over a complex and abstract one.
In addition, select specific verbs (know, shares) to make your description as vivid as possible.
Pick the Right Verb
As mentioned, don’t settle for vague verbs. For instance, it’s easy to form sentences with the verb “to be”:
The farmer is in his field.
The Danes are the highest-taxed people in the world.
Now let’s substitute a more specific verb:
The farmer plows his field.
The Danes pay the highest taxes in the world.
So check your writing and choose the best verb for the job.
Find Your Voice
Another way to make your writing more direct is to write in the active voice:
Passive voice: Citroëns are rarely bought by North Americans.
Active voice: North Americans rarely buy Citroëns.
Don’t overdo it though. The passive voice exists for a reason. It demonstrates how someone or something is affected by a particular action. Pick the voice that makes the most sense.
An expletive is not only a swear word (which you should avoid too), but it is also a particular grammatical construction. It’s a word (there or it, followed by a form of “to be”) that helps us to form a complete sentence but contains no meaning itself:
There were many people who were shocked by her performance.
It is to be expected that students plagiarize if there are no penalties in place.
Often you can shorten such sentences:
Many people were shocked by her performance.
Without penalties in place, students will plagiarize.
So save expletives for when you want to emphasize (or introduce) the subject. Otherwise, be succinct.
Vary the Length
Public speakers know the power of a short sentence. Here is an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963):
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
(For the full text, see www.americanrhetoric.com)
While written prose does not need to be quite as dramatic, the same rhetorical principle applies. If you vary your sentence length, you give the reader a chance to take a breath.
It’s like going downhill on a bike. It’s nice to coast for a bit.
Watch out for double negatives and, where possible, use positive constructions:
That is not an unattractive proposition.
Better: That is an attractive proposition.
Here’s another example, just for kicks:
It is not inconceivable that we could conceive. If we are not infertile, we will call our child Vizzini.
Better: It is conceivable that we could conceive. If we are fertile, we will call our child Vizzini.
Focus on Your Main Clause
It’s all too easy to relegate the most interesting details to subordinate clauses:
In my friend’s culture, the wedding ceremony is quite elaborate, as it includes painting the bride with henna and showering the bride and groom with money.
Main clause: the wedding ceremony is quite elaborate.
Where possible, try to incorporate such vivid and colorful details in the main clause:
Better: In my friend’s culture, the elaborate wedding ceremony includes painting the bride with henna and showering the bride and groom with money
Think About Beginnings and Endings
Consider where you want the emphasis of a sentence to fall. Many sentences place the emphasis at the beginning or the end:
Initial emphasis: High rates of HIV/AIDS have had a powerful effect on the average life expectancy in places such as Botswana and Swaziland.
Final emphasis: This whole week I’ve been dealing with a massive headache.
Having some idea of where the emphasis lies can help you develop a sense of rhythm in a paragraph.
Don’t Tack on Extra Information
Too many additions and extensions can spoil a house. It’s the same with sentences. Particularly after a longer quotation you’re usually best off starting a new sentence:
According to Hugh Simpleton, a minimalist is someone who “gets rid of the clutter in order to find him or herself,” a definition that I’ve adopted as my mantra.
This is not bad, but often it’s a good idea to split up long sentences:
According to Hugh Simpleton, a minimalist is someone who “gets rid of the clutter in order to find purpose in life.” I’ve adopted this definition as my mantra.
Use a period and let the reader breathe a little.