Tag Archives: sentence structure

Clear Writing Requires Clear and Consistent Sentences And Use of Personal Pronouns

Clear sentences must have a sound structure.    As has been  pointed out in previous posts,  short, simple
sentences and short, common words, enhance the effectiveness of a paragraph.  Your writing will be streamlined
even further and your writing will be even clearer if you follow the natural word sequence of English speakers – “subject-verb-object -” as closely as possible.   Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs.  Putting modifiers, clauses, or phrases between any of these essential parts of a sentence will make it harder for the reader to understand you.         

          Before

Holders of common stock will be entitled to receive, to the extent money is available, a cash payment, as set forth in the accompanying schedules.

          After

Cash distributions will be made to holders of common stock on the payment dates  indicated in the accompanying schedules, if cash is available.

However, sloppy word placement even in a short sentence can cause  ambiguity.  The following sentence makes it appear as if the writer has decided to be disabled:

Ambiguous  –  If you are determined to have a disability, the company will pay you according to the schedule set forth below.

Clearer  –  If the company determines that you  have a disability, it will pay you according to the schedule set forth below.

Also, strive for consistent sentence construction.   Uneven sentence construction will lead to unclear writing.  A common form of mixed sentence construction is use of two negatives in the sentence.  Use of the so-called double negative destroys the orderly construction of the sentence and marks you as an uninformed writer.

For example, a company manual might provide as follows on the subject of extra vacation pay:

No approval of extra vacation pay may be implied in the absence of express approval from the company.

It is clearer to say,

You must obtain express company approval for extra vacation pay.

Other examples:

Wrong:   I haven’t got nothing to say about it.

Right:     I don’t have anything to say about it.

Wrong:   He can’t write no better now than he could then.

Right:     He can’t write any better now than he could then.

Wrong:   He couldn’t hardly run a step.

Right:     He could hardly run a step.

Wrong:   Your invitation cannot at no time be accepted.

Right:     Your invitation cannot be accepted  at any time.               

Introducing yourself to, and using, personal pronouns, will substantially improve the quality of your writing, no matter what the level of sophistication of your reading audience may be.  Pronouns help your readers relate better to your writing by visualizing themselves in the text.

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.), defines a pronoun as “any of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and whose references are named or understood in the context.”  The noun it replaces is called the antecedent.  Thus, in the sentence, gold is not only a rare metal, but it has become a symbol of wealth, gold is the antecedent of it.

As a reminder, the most common types of personal pronouns include I, you, he, she, it, we, and they.  Pronouns can vary in person (first, second, or third) and in number (singular or plural).  Why use them?  Even with a knowledgeable reader, use of personal pronouns will dramatically improve the clarity of your writing.  They will,

–  help keep sentences short and concise

–  provide the information your reader wants to know in a logical order

–  determine who made the statement in question, or who is responsible for the action.

Pronouns also aid the reader in understanding your writing because they eliminate ambiguity and minimize abstract language by encouraging the use of more concrete, everyday words.  They also help to lock in reader interest by allowing you to “speak” directly to your reader and specify exactly who is being addressed.  Remember that you are speaking to the one person who is reading your document, even though it may affect the public at large.  For example,

You should carefully review your ballot before voting,

is clearer and more definite than,

The ballot should be carefully reviewed before voting.

Use of personal pronouns may also avoid the awkwardness of the he/she dilemma.

Thus,

I saw Ken and Linda at the ballpark today  and bought them each a hotdog,

is better than,

I saw Ken and Linda at the ballpark today and bought him and her a hotdog.

You must provide the requisite information,  including name, address, and telephone number, when replying,

is better than,

The addressee must provide his or her name,  address, and telephone number when replying.

Good teachers should not lose their tempers,

is better than

A good teacher should not lose his or her temper.

Use of the pronoun in the foregoing examples eliminates confusion and allows the sentences to flow more smoothly.

All of the clear writing information posted on this and previous blogs on this site is contained in my book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” which is available at amazon.com/kindle or in print.   Check out my website at www.agregardie.com for further information.

Copyright © 2013.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Filed under active voice, clear writing, good diction, punctuation, sound sentence structure, tips for good diction, Writing Improvement

The Mysterious, Elusive Element of Syntax

Can a sentence be dramatic?  It all depends on the syntax,  and syntax is the key to all effective writing.

What exactly is syntax?  How can it help you to write more clearly?  And, how does it differ, if at all, from diction?

Let me explain…

Finding the answer to these questions takes a little digging.  A good dictionary definition provides some help.  One definition provided by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Ed., p. 1269, is that syntax means “…a connected or orderly system:  harmonious arrangement of parts or elements….”  That helps a little bit.  The same source provides another definition: “…the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)…”  That helps a little more.

So, how does all of this relate to clear writing?  Let’s find out.

Good syntax makes good sense.  It deals with the orderly arrangement of words in a sentence.  Diction, dealing with the selection of the right words, is to be distinguished. So, it can be said that words carry the meaning, the power, but syntax controls their effect on the reader.

We now have a better understanding of what syntax means, but we still need to know how it helps us to write more clearly and how to acquire it.

Syntax involves adding rhythm and color to your writing.  These are an indispensable part of clear writing, and should be as much a part of your writing as your heartbeat is to you.  Thus, there should be a beat to your writing much as a poet includes a beat to his/her lines.  As noted in “The Way To Write,” John Fairfax and John Moat, St. Martin’s Press, 1981, p. 66,  the poet Lord Byron used the thunder of horsemen as the backdrop for his epic poem, The Destruction Of Sennacherib:

“The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,

When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.”

The same little booklet, at p. 58, provides another example of what the authors believe is “spectacular” syntax in the following quote from an unidentified Hemingway novel:

“Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.”

The point to be made in all of this comes down to using the story teller as an example.  Everyone likes a good story.  Bob Sands, a well known copyrighter who writes for AWAI (American Writers And Artists, Inc.), emphasizes the point that good copywriting is made even better by a good story.  The order of words in the telling of the story is what provides the emphasis, the drama.  The drama makes the story.  An accomplished writer has a feel for the dramatic and can arrange his words to provide the best impact.

An inexperienced writer may struggle to write a sentence that provides the best effect on the reader.  But, once more experience is obtained, a writer will get a feel for the best order of the words.  This will result in clear meaning, logical presentation of information, and maximum effect on the reader.

A final example, what Messrs. Fairfax and Moat characterize as “superb” syntax, is provided by no less than Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,

Who struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more:  it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing…” (Id. p. 59).

A piece of writing that has no variety of sound is colorless and dull, like a landscape on a gloomy day.  But  colorful writing, on the other hand, is like a landscape you will find on a bright, sunny,  Spring day.

A gift for words may carry with it a gift for syntax.  The two may be the same.  But, as with other aspects of writing, the gift for syntax does not come gift-wrapped with a ribbon – it must be nurtured and developed, by guidance and constant practice.  By developing the ear, an accomplished writer has learned how to match the sound of his writing to the mood he would create.

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Filed under clear writing, Writing Improvement

Tips On Sound Sentence Structure.

 Clear Sentences Require Sound Structure.

As pointed out in the last post, short, simple sentences and short, common words, enhance the effectiveness of a paragraph.  Your writing will be streamlined even further and your writing will be even clearer if you follow the natural word sequence of English speakers, “subject-verb-object,” as closely as possible.   Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs.  Putting modifiers, clauses, or phrases between any of these essential parts of a sentence will make it harder for the reader to understand you and weakens your sentence structure.

Before

Holders of common stock will be entitled to receive, to the extent money is available, a cash payment, as set forth in the accompanying schedules.

After

Cash distributions will be made to holders of common stock on the payment dates indicated in the accompanying schedules, if cash is available.

However, sloppy word placement even in a short sentence can cause ambiguity.   The following sentence makes it appear as if the writer has decided to be disabled:

Ambiguous – If you are determined to have a disability, the company will pay you according to the schedule set forth below.

Clearer – If the company determines that you have a disability, it will pay you according to the schedule set forth below.

 Strive For Consistent Sentence Construction. 

Uneven sentence construction will lead to unclear writing.  A common form of mixed sentence construction is the use of two negatives in a sentence.  Use of the so-called double negative destroys the orderly structure of the sentence and marks you as an uninformed writer.

For example, a company manual might provide as follows on the subject of extra vacation pay:  No approval of extra vacation pay may be implied in the absence of express approval from the company.

It is clearer to say:  You must obtain express company approval for extra vacation pay.

Other examples:

Wrong:  I haven’t got nothing to say about it.

Right:   I don’t have anything to say about it.

Wrong: He can’t write no better now than he could then.

Right:   He can’t write any better now than he could then.

Wrong: He couldn’t hardly run a step.

Right:   He could hardly run a step.

Wrong: Your invitation cannot at no time be accepted.

Right:   Your invitation cannot be accepted at any time.

Follow Parallel Sentence Structure For Parallel Thoughts.

A reader is attentive to both the form of the sentence as well as the thought.  The idea behind parallel sentence structure, or parallelism, is that the sentence should contain likeness of form.  That is, you should use parts of speech that are consistent in form.  Parallelism thus assures the smooth rhythm of a sentence by use of a consistent grammatical form.  Unparallel sentences can slip into your writing easily. Read the finished writing through at least once to look solely for these mistakes; reading it aloud can also help to spot them.  Here are some examples of unparallel structure with corrections:

Not parallel: Walking can sometimes be better exercise than to jog.

Parallel:    Walking can sometimes be better exercise than jogging.

Not parallel:  Your competitor sells lawnmowers of better quality and having a lower selling price.

Parallel:   Your competitor sells lawnmowers of better quality and at a lower price.

Not parallel:  If you want to buy ABC vitamins, simply fill out the coupon  below, making your check payable to the X Company, and mailing it to the address shown.

Parallel:  If you want to buy ABC vitamins, simply fill out the coupon below, make your check payable to the ABC Company, and mail it to the address shown.

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Filed under clear writing, sound sentence structure