Effective sentences need to be concise, fluent, emphatic. To write good sentences takes careful study and good, regular practice. You can study the guides in such textbooks as Writing for College and Technical English in the CAT electronic library or on-line books such as Elements of Style. This section will provide some guides that can help you avoid the most common problems candidates have in writing sentences. The list is basic and selective.
It is expected that you can write Standard American English. If you need to review rules about grammar, punctuation, spelling, or sentence structure, you are asked to consult a college composition handbook. In fact, it is recommended that all candidates have a composition handbook on their desks for reference at all times.
Following are some guidelines for writing effective sentences.
When you write your first drafts of documents, undoubtedly you will write sentences that need to be pruned. Here are some strategies for writing sentences that are concise. It is important to note that concise sentences can be filled with sophisticated material. They can be packed with content, but they do not contain unnecessary words.
Say things only once. Each bracketed word or phrase that follows had clutter; the other word(s) make the meaning clear
|seven p.m. [in the evening]||heavy [in weight]|
|[final] conclusion||consensus [of opinion]|
|spherical [in shape]||[month of] May|
|[viable] alternative||mix [together]|
Edit out words that unnecessarily pad the sentence. Wordy phrases make sentences laborious to read. It is useful to be reminded of some of the some common wordy expressions. On the left are the wordy phrases and on the right are the corresponding tightened expressions.
|Wordy Phrase||Concise Phrase|
|at the conclusion of||after|
|based on the fact that||because|
|in view of the fact that||because|
|despite the fact that||although|
|in the event that||if|
|at this point in time||now|
|until such time as||until|
|on a daily basis||daily|
|it is often the case that||often|
|have a capability to||can|
|during the course of||during|
|take into consideration||consider|
|of the opinion that||think that|
|make reference to||refer to|
|in the final analysis||finally|
The "real" subject should be in grammatical subject of the sentence; it should be highlighted. Do not bury the real subject
Poor: The use of this method would eliminate the problem.Also, try to avoid beginning sentences with "there is" or "it is." Begin with the real subject.
Good: This method would eliminate the problem.
Poor: There is no alternative for our company except to modify the practice.
Good: We have no alternative for our company except to modify the practice.
The "real" verb should be prominent. Do not bury the real verb by placing it in the form of an abstract noun. An abstract noun most often ends in the suffix, tion. Technical writing can be very weighted down if the writer uses abstract nouns where verbs would do far better.
Poor: An investigation of all possible causes was undertaken.
Good: All possible causes were investigated.
Use precise words instead of vague words like "factor," "aspect," "thing," and "element."
Poor: One thing that became clear at the meeting was that managers were not listening well to their employees.
Good: One problem that became clear at the meeting was that managers were not listening well to their employees.
Positive statements are more easily understood than negative ones, because they are direct. In addition, positive statements are more concise and clear.
Poor: I did not gain anything from the lecture.
Good: I gained nothing from the lecture.
Many qualifiers--I feel, I believe, in my opinion--are unnecessary. After all, the I referred to is the writer and it is obvious that he or she is the one expressing beliefs or feelings.
Poor: In my opinion, you have completed this project.
Good: You have completed this project.
Fluent sentences use a variety of patterns. In using different word orders and sentence lengths, fluent sentences make clear connections between major and minor points. Good writers write sentences that have fluidity and connectedness, while inexperienced writers tend to use choppy, repetitious, short sentences.
When you write technical documents, you will discover that generally, you will write shorter sentences than those you write in essays. Yet, the sentences you do write in technical documents ought to have some variety in length and word order. These variations will make ideas clear and emphatic.
Here are some guides for writing fluid sentences.
Often a string of short sentences is monotonous, choppy, and most importantly, unclear. Though short sentences can be used to emphasize a point, very often at the beginning or the end of a paragraph, they ought to be used sparingly.
Poor: Brisk walking can be a healthy. You need good shoes. You need some guidance about how to walk properly.
Good: Walking can be healthy, but you need good shoes and guidance about how to walk properly.
A series of sentences that begin with the subject-verb pattern can be boring. There are two recommended ways to vary the beginning of sentences: 1) invert the normal word order and 2) place modifiers before the subject.
|Normal Word Order||Diesel engines are most difficult to start in cold weather.|
|Subject-verb Inversion||Most difficult to start in cold weather are diesel engines.|
|Normal Word Order||Gravity roots us to the earth, firmly and insistently.|
|Adverb first||Firmly and insistently, gravity roots us to the earth.|
Good writers make arrange words and phrases in sentences to emphasize key points. They foreground main ideas and background subordinate ideas.
Here are some guidelines for writing sentences that underscore the most important information.
To connect ideas that require equal emphasis, use coordinating conjunctions (and, or, and nor) or conjunctive adverbs (however and therefore)
Two simple sentences: This course is difficult. It is a packed with useful information.
Coordinated: This course is difficult, but it is packed with useful information.
Subordination demonstrates that a less important idea is related or dependent upon a more important idea. To demonstrate that one idea is less important than another, you can combine two simple sentences and deemphasize the less important idea by putting it in a dependent or subordinate clause. A dependent clause is signaled by a subordinating conjunction ( because, so that, if, after, until, since, while, as, unless, and although.)
Two Sentences: Jean tries to get her work done on time in the factory. She has a physical disability.
Combined: Although she has a physical disability, Jean tried to get her work done on time in the factory.
Using parallelism means to put items of equal importance in the same grammatical form. Using parallel structure in presenting items of similar importance ensures that sentences will have greater clarity, better flow and appropriate emphasis on key ideas.
Using parallel structure well is crucial for technical writers, in particular. Often they will use parallelism to link items in various kinds of listings.
Poor: The store is 100 feet in length, 80 feet wide, and has a height of six stories.
Good: The store is 100 feet in length, 80 feet wide, and six stories high.
Technical writers use parallel structure frequently. For example, they use parallelism when presenting aspects of a problem, steps in a process or a series of results, conclusions or recommendations.
In the active voice, the subject is the actor:
Joe started the engine.
Conversely, in the passive voice, the recipient of the action (the engine) serves as the subject:
The engine was started by Joe.
The active voice is preferred because it is direct, clear, concise, and energetic. The sentence is directly identified, the subject acts, and the action is presented concisely. Conversely, in the passive voice, the actor is obscured and the action is indirectly presented using more words.
However, the passive voice is not incorrect. For example, when describing a process in a set of instructions, it is important to use the passive voice. In the process, the action is central and is more important than the actor. Also, there are occasions where, for good reason, a writer wants to avoid stating directly who the actor is. These occasions occur in industry. In such cases, using the passive voice allows the writer to avoid identifying the actor entirely: The writer could simply state:
The report was completed two weeks late.
It is crucial that a sentence convey the meaning of ideas easily and immediately. Good writers strive to make sentences clear upon the first reading.
Here are some guidelines for writing clear sentences.
A misplaced modifier obscure meaning, because the modifier is placed too far away from the words it modifies. On occasion, misplaced modifiers can be not only puzzling, but comical.
Poor: In her tent, devouring her supply of bananas, Jane Goodall saw a huge gorilla.
Was Jane Goodall devouring her supply of bananas?
Good: In her tent, Jane Goodall saw a huge gorilla devouring her supply of bananas.
A dangling modifier make no sense because it has no word that it modifies in the sentence: therefore it dangles.
Poor: Trying to solve the problem, the instructions seemed unclear.
The person doing the trying is not identified in the sentence.
Good: As I was trying to solve the problem, the instructions became unclear.
Pronouns--this, that , he, she, it, his, their, they--take the place of nouns in sentences. For clarity, it is essential that the writer identify the noun to which the pronoun refers. If the referent is not clear, the reader can easily misread the passage or at least, become temporarily confused.
Ambiguous: Our employees are enjoying the sunny lunch hour breaks while they last.
Does they refer to the sunny lunch hour breaks or the employees?
Clear: Our employees are enjoying their sunny lunch breaks while the good weather lasts.
Back to Module Beginning