9 Effective Sentences
I see but one rule: to be clear. Stendahl (1783-1842)
The main thing I try to do is write as clearly as I can. Because I have the greatest respect for the reader, and if he’s going to the trouble of reading what I’ve written – I’m a slow reader myself and I guess most people are – why, the least I can do is make it as easy as possible for him to find out what I’m trying to say, trying to get at. I rewrite a good deal to make it clear. E. B. White (1899-1985)
In these two examples, a twentieth-century essayist/editor used three sentences to express what a nineteenth-century novelist/critic said in one. Which is the “better” piece of writing? The question is meaningless – or rather, it’s badly formulated. The common-sense question to ask about writing is: How well does it work? To answer that, we should first consider two other questions: What does it intend to do? To whom is it addressed? (Recall that these were two of the questions we asked when evaluating sources at the beginning) A writer’s purpose and audience quite naturally help to determine style, and we shouldn’t be surprised to find Stendahl’s writing often looking like the second example and White’s writing like the first, when appropriate for their goals and audiences. Given the purposes and readers of each of these quotations, they both “work” equally well in their contexts.
If the rule for a paragraph is that it should have unity, coherence and emphasis, then the expectation for a sentence is that it should make sense. Let’s look again at White’s middle sentence. It expresses a half dozen ideas: his respect for the reader; his gratitude for the reader’s “trouble”; his acknowledgement that he’s a “slow reader” himself; his assumption that “most people are”; his obligation to clarify his thoughts; and his confession that he might not be able to fully express himself anyway. White could have written all that in six separate, precise sentences. But he chose to use a more personal, colloquial manner in order to engage his reader; to show his reader that writing, as well as reading, is a careful, thoughtful process. If you understood that (or if you felt that while reading his sentence), then White succeeded in writing a truly effective sentence. Indeed, his sentence obeys the “rule” to be clear just as well as Stendahl’s short epigram. And as White suggests in his last sentence, that complicated middle bit was probably rewritten “a good deal” before it appeared in its final form. Notice too, how White brackets the long sentence with two short, concise ones to vary the pace of his unfolding argument and avoid overwhelming his reader.
In light of these two very different examples of sentences that both work, it might seem silly to try to identify the “ideal” sentence. There might be contexts you will write for that have different needs, but I think we can make some general assumptions about your audience and goals, that can then be modified as needed. We can say that generally, concrete nouns for your subject and active verbs introducing the predicate help your reader quickly grasp what you’re talking about and what you wish to say about your topic. These work better than abstract nouns and passive verbs. Generally, it’s more effective to modify your nouns and verbs with individual adjectives and adverbs rather than complicated phrases or clauses – simply because you don’t want unnecessary words to weaken good ideas.
Consider this first paragraph from a student essay:
What is a hero? Why do we admire certain people in our society? Since the beginning of time man has searched for someone to imitate and to use as a role model in his own life. In many ancient civilizations there is literature which centers on a hero of that time. But over time man has changed tremendously; or has he? No matter how advanced our civilization becomes, our heroes generally possess the same qualities and attributes. One of the oldest writings that modern man possesses, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is based on a hero and his adventures that he encounters during his lifetime. Although The Epic of Gilgamesh was written over 5,000 years ago, the hero Gilgamesh would still be a hero today. The reason why one may consider Gilgamesh a modern day hero is because he is strong, sensitive, confident (yet humble), unselfish, and successful.
Some Comments: This paragraph is not particularly effective. Yet there is nothing structurally, grammatically “wrong” with the sentences. The ideas it contains are not extremely complicated. So why is it so difficult to read? Is it because irritatingly obvious unnecessary words and seemingly endless repetitions have weakened the ideas? Suppose we rewrite the paragraph without eliminating any of the necessary words and without changing any of the ideas the writer seems to have intended:
People have always searched for role models, and the literature of many ancient civilizations center on a hero. Do our “heroes” today possess the same general qualities? Written over 5,000 years ago, The Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the adventures of a man who would still be considered a hero because he is strong, sensitive, confident (yet humble), unselfish, and successful.
Okay, we’ve reduced it from nine sentences, 147 words to three sentences, 61 words by pruning deadwood – but honestly, that still hasn’t made us really excited to read the rest of the essay. To continue the “pruning” metaphor (and return to my “forest” metaphor): writing a good essay is like developing a framework of branches (topic sentences) that will act as a skeleton on which foliage, flowers, and fruit (your thoughts, arguments, conclusions) can grow. A better shape can produce more fruit and make that fruit easier to pick. But in the case above, will the effort be rewarded? Has the writer done enough of the groundwork to make this essay interesting and engaging?
In order to write well, you need to have something to say. Once you have something to say, you need to make the audience want to listen.
So how do sentences help us express worthwhile ideas in ways that will make people want to listen? Consider the main definition of “sentence” in The American Heritage Dictionary: A grammatical unit that is syntactically independent and has a subject that is expressed or…understood and a predicate that contains at least one finite verb. Being mechanically correct is certainly important – but it isn’t enough. The kind of writing our audiences are expecting in our content should also have a point and a human voice. Maybe we should revive the obsolete definition of “sentence” mentioned in the same dictionary: An opinion, especially one given formally after deliberation. [Middle English, opinion, from Old French, from Latin…sentire, to feel].
In addition to conveying information and proving our familiarity with the sources, effective sentences should show our engagement with the material – how we feel about the issue at hand. This does not mean we don’t have to offer a reasonable, logical argument. It means the audience needs to sense that we care about what we’re saying.
Since the basic units of composition are paragraphs, the purposes of our sentences are to introduce, develop, support, explain, illustrate, and emphasize the main ideas as interestingly and economically – thus effectively – as possible. “Given formally after deliberation” doesn’t have to mean impersonal and mechanical. In addition to giving ideas a human “voice”, we should also express them with style.
For our purposes, style means no more than building our sentences by choosing and arranging words so they clearly present our ideas about our subject. In the next chapter we’ll discuss the appropriateness of words themselves; for now let’s look at sentence structure. The interesting ideas, honest feelings, and thoughtful responses we have developed from our notes need to be revealed and developed in an orderly way so as to hold your audience’s attention. Sentences that attract attention to themselves rather than to our ideas because of their awkwardness distract and cause the audience to lose confidence in our arguments.
Active vs. Passive Voice
Using passive verbs (verbs of being) rather than active verbs (verbs of doing) is one of the most common mistakes made by writers at all levels. The sentence you just read is a passive sentence – no one does anything. Sometimes passive statements of fact are appropriate. But writers at all levels overuse “is,” and we all need to write carefully and avoid this pitfall.
Why is active voice so important? What if we had ended the previous paragraph passively? We could have said, “The verb ‘is’ tends to be overused by writers. Passive voice is a problem that should be avoided by careful writers.” If we had done this, the reader might have been left with the impression that what we’re really interested is verbs. And that’s not the case: what we’re really interested in is writing.
Maybe history offers a clearer example. How often have you read passages in history textbooks like “The Declaration of Independence was written in 1776,” or “There were riots after the execution of the prisoners”? Do these sentences tell you the whole story? Did things just happen, or did somebody do something? In history, this is not just a question of style: it’s a serious issue of interpretation. Overusing the passive voice, where things “just happen”, denies people of agency and portrays a random world without cause and effect. It also insulates people from responsibility for their actions and short-circuits questions about motivation and differing points of view.
Yes, the passive voice often does sound more “authoritative” (or at least pedantic) because we’ve grown up reading textbooks written this way. Maybe “Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1602” doesn’t sound that bad to you, but what if the passage instead read, “Shakespeare wrote Hamlet between 1599 and 1602”? Now we can visualize a man sitting down to do something, and we naturally begin to wonder, what was going on around him? Why did he write this play at that moment? What was he trying to say?
Similarly, rather than saying “there were riots” as if they just happened like rain from a cloudless sky, we might say “outraged by the execution of their friends and neighbors, farmers and city union-members rioted and attacked symbols of the state.” This active construction opens the door to all kinds of possible questions about the situation and the parties involved. Of course, the active version requires the writer to know more information about the event than just the date when it “happened” (which may be why lazy textbook authors resist the active voice). And it also requires the writer to take a stand (which may be why some students avoid it).
Hopefully you can see that in addition to making our writing much more interesting to read, using active verbs allows us to really explore our subjects. By writing actively, we can change a string of flat, dead facts into a series of actions and reactions. That means, a series of choices. That means a series of questions that may open new and interesting avenues for exploration.
Common sentence problems
Confusing sentences distract the reader from the points we are trying to make. Here are examples of some of the most common mistakes, along with corrected sentences. You can catch most of these by reading your draft out loud and asking yourself (or a friend) if it makes sense.
The most common sentence problems are FRAGMENTS and RUN-ONS.
“What am I going to do with my life?” A question everyone asks and can never answer.
Connect the fragment: “What am I going to do with my life is a question…
Overall the English invasion was a complete success with some learning curves thrown in at the beginning, but for the most part, it was a complete and utter domination of the indigenous people.
Separate the thoughts: simplify the sentence and drop the qualifiers to divide these ideas and emphasize the “but.” “The American colonies were a great success for the English, but they were an utter disaster for indigenous peoples.”
Knowing that death terminates all his problems in life, as well as all his joys, Hamlet recognizes that “the dread of something after death – the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
Still a fragment: what’s the object of “recognizes”? What’s the predicate of “the dread of something after death”?
They maintain a similar kind of distance verbally as well, the first words Odysseus and Penelope speak to each other are “strange woman” and “strange man,” respectively.
Separate the run-on. Three possibilities:
- Two sentences: …verbally as well. The first words…
- Comma and conjunction: …verbally as well, and the first…
- Semi-colon: …verbally as well; the first words…
A related Subject-Predicate problem concerns REPETITION of the subject.
It was not uncommon that different families would share certain abundant areas for everyone had equal right to the bounty. It was this idea of the native families that was probably what they were believing would be the case when deals were made with the English colonists.
Trim, then combine these thoughts: Native families commonly shared resources, and believed this sharing was protected in their contracts with colonists. (47 words to 16. And we got rid of the passive voice)
For some of the pagans in Beowulf’s culture, they believed in creating their own destiny.
Don’t complexify a simple sentence. One subject, one predicate. Some pagans in Beowulf’s culture believed in creating their own destiny.
Beowulf killed dragons. The fact that he killed dragons is what made him a hero. He achieved this status through the ability to overcome his fear.
Eliminate repetition & contradiction: Sentence 3 contradicts sentence 2. Maybe the writer meant: “Beowulf killed dragons, and became a hero by overcoming his fear.” (26 words to 11)
Many sentence problems in essays are due to a lack of PARALLEL STRUCTURE.
Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood and then Virgil led him out.
Don’t mix tenses: either “finds—leads” or “found—led”
They believed in having territories merely for the safety of their villages but the concept of owning the land itself for private gain didn’t seem to be an ideology.
Try not to change subjects: “They” are the subject of first part, “the concept” is the subject of second (and there’s that active-passive voice issue again). How about: “The natives held land to protect their villages, not for private gain.”
The Anglo-Saxons like to drink, hang around the mead hall, and fighting.
Make parallel: Either “liked to drink, hang around…and fight” or “liked drinking, hanging…and fighting.”
Unlike the Christian philosophy of mourning a loved one, the pagans sought out revenge.
Faulty comparison: Christian philosophy should be compared to pagan philosophy, or Christians to pagans. Another way of thinking about it: Does my modifier clearly refer to what it is supposed to modify? “Unlike the Christian philosophy of mourning a loved one” does not modify “the pagans,” but it could modify “pagan philosophy.”
Without a clearly expressed SUBJECT and PREDICATE, your “sentence” merely confuses the reader.
The static theme of Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality is tested when the hero’s only undefeatable conflict evolves into the sobering death of his beloved counterpart.
Subject? Predicate? Is the theme tested? What does “static” mean here? Is the quest tested? How? Does “undefeatable conflict” mean victory or defeat? This is very difficult to understand. Perhaps the reader means: “The death of his beloved Enkidu sobers Gilgamesh and stimulates his quest for immortality.” Perhaps not. The writer should be interpreting this, not the reader.
For Scott, gender must necessarily be a highly-dynamic concept, for her ultimate goal is the deconstruction of existing categories of analysis so that new (or hitherto unconsidered) historiographic themes—such as sexuality, family, identity, and, of course, gender—can be incorporated into the analytic methodology.
Does the simple sentence buried here (gender must necessarily be a highly-dynamic concept) mean anything? The writer of this sentence was very unhappy he had to write a paper about Joan Scott’s book Gender and the Politics of History. It shows.
This scene give rise to many areas throughout the play.
No specific predicate. Areas could mean anything. Do platforms spring up all over the stage? Such a vague predicate can only irritate your reader.
These are just some of the ways you can make your sentences easier for your audience to understand and your argument more likely to be taken seriously. A really excellent, groundbreaking point or discovery can sometimes gain an appreciative audience despite being poorly expressed. But if we believe in what we have to say, why wouldn’t we try to remove all the barriers we can to our message being widely heard and understood? Clear, compelling sentences remove barriers.