Reading time: Less than 5 minutes
Do you want to improve your sentence structure? Here are seven types of sentences that you should eschew….
I like reading text that sounds as if the writer is speaking to me. I also like watching ice skating that looks as though it is effortless. And I enjoy hearing music that makes me think of melody and beauty rather than the thousands of hours of practice the musician must have spent.
What am I saying? If you catch my drift, I’m trying to tell you that writers who sound as if they’re speaking to you don’t achieve that end by simply transcribing. They do it with careful, diligent editing.
Early drafts of their work likely include the seven mistakes below, but you can bet that they edit them out quickly.
Check your writing and do the same:
1-Sentences beginning with prepositional phrases
Here are three examples of sentences beginning with prepositional phrases:
- By 3 pm, all the runners should be finished.
- In June 2017, when we reduced the requirement for a hefty down-payment, some managers warned the decision would bankrupt the company.
- After Spring Break, we return to classes.
We can argue about whether the information given in the prepositional phrase is actually necessary but here’s my rule: if you need to include the phrase, put it later in the sentence. Like this:
- All the runners should be finished by 3 pm.
- We reduced the requirement for a hefty down-payment in June 2017 and managers warned the decision would bankrupt the company.
- We return to classes after Spring Break.
Do you see how this restructuring makes each sentence faster and more interesting to read?
2-Sentences with unclear antecedents
Many writers use “it” or “this” to refer, rather vaguely, to an idea or concept from a previous sentence. Here are three examples:
- I was following my plan. It was productive, easy, fun and fulfilling.
- Having a daily schedule is a good idea. But it’s not necessary to follow it religiously. This is counterproductive.
- A solid business plan allows us to celebrate how far we’ve come. This helps us maintain energy when we really need it.
Sure, the reader can probably deduce what the writer meant by “it” and “this.” But why force them to go to that work? Here’s how to rewrite those sentences:
- I was following my plan. The work was productive, easy, fun and fulfilling.
- Having a daily schedule is a good idea. But it’s not necessary to follow it religiously. This obsession with rules is counterproductive.
- A solid business plan allows us to celebrate how far we’ve come. This focus helps us maintain energy when we really need it.
Bonus tip: Do a search for “it” and “this” in your text (Control + F) and make sure your meaning is 100% clear each time you use either word.
3-Sentences using the passive voice
I don’t believe the passive voice is universally bad. (Read this article by Geoffrey Pullum if you want to learn the upside of the passive.) But at the very least you should use the passive deliberately, to achieve a specific goal. Here are three examples of sentences in passive, where the actor of the sentence doesn’t appear until after the verb:
- The entire stretch of highway was paved by the crew.
- A safety video will be watched by the staff every year.
- The whole suburb was destroyed by the forest fire.
And here they are again, as active. Aren’t they easier to understand this way?
- The crew paved the entire stretch of highway.
- The staff is required to watch a safety video every year.
- The forest fire destroyed the whole suburb.
Bonus tip: Run your text through the Hemingway App to identify the passive. (The app will highlight it in bright green.) Just ignore the App’s red and yellow highlighting of long sentences. The Hemingway App treats every long sentence as a problem, which we know to be untrue.
4-Sentences over-using the verb “to be”
Writing coaches and teachers will often challenge their students to write an entire piece without using the verb to be. Hard work, but not impossible. Take these sentences as examples:
- There is no method that is guaranteed to succeed.
- There are many weeds that overwinter.
- There will be many who disagree.
Delete the state of being verb and you’ll be rewarded with a much shorter, sharper sentence:
- No method guarantees success.
- Many weeds overwinter.
- Many will disagree.
I’m not suggesting that you ban ‘to be’ from your vocabulary. But keep it to a minimum and you’ll produce better sentences.
5-Sentences using the word, “thing”
I sometimes use the word “thing” but I’m working to stop myself. Others seem to embrace this vague, tired, imprecise word. Examine these sentences:
- The only things she still needed were the tent, a sleeping bag, and dry shoes.
- The box was filled with things from his childhood.
- The committee’s proposal was a good thing.
Then, make them more precise:
- The only gear she still needed was the tent, a sleeping bag, and dry shoes.
- The box was filled with keepsakes from his childhood.
- The committee’s proposal was a good compromise.
Also, never use the phrase, “the thing is.”
The thing is, he just doesn’t understand.
Instead, express the same idea with a much more meaningful word, “truth.”
The truth is, he just doesn’t understand.
6-Sentences using the phrase, “the fact that”
This phrase is never needed. Just delete it. Here are a few examples:
- I hate the fact that my editor always uses a red pencil on my work.
- The fact that the bank clerks are always so slow frustrates me.
- I appreciate the fact that my favourite movie always wins an Oscar.
See how easy it is to get rid of this phrase:
- I hate the way my editor always uses a red pencil on my work.
- The slow attitude of bank clerks always frustrates me.
- I like the way my favourite movie always wins an Oscar.
7-Sentences using unnecessary exclamation points — like this!
I just learned that the current US President Donald Trump posted 2,251 tweets using exclamation marks in 2016 alone. If that is not enough to scare you off the practice, let me remind you of the rule. Never use an exclamation point to jazz up a sentence. Exclamations should be reserved for true exclamations, “Wow!” “You’re kidding!” or “Duck!” If your sentence is funny or interesting enough, it won’t need the exclamation mark.
My video podcast last week aimed to help viewers improve their fluency in English. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
Are there any sentences you always make a point of editing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of Crucial Accountability by Kerry Patterson et al. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.