Sentence variety—Writers often fall into the habit of building all their sentences the same way: subject, verb, object; subject, verb, object, with independent clauses strung together with the conjunction and. This kind of repetition quickly becomes boring, to say the least, so writers should strive for variety. Here are some suggestions for combining ideas in a sentence:
• Use a series to combine three or more similar ideas: The unexpected tornado struck the small town, causing much damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use a relative pronoun (who, whose, that, which) to introduce the subordinate (less important) ideas: The tornado, which was completely unexpected, swept through the small town, causing much damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use an introductory phrase or clause for the less important ideas: Because the tornado was completely unexpected, it caused a great deal of damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use a participial phrase (-ing, -ed) at the beginning or end of a sentence: The tornado swept through the small town without warning, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.
• Use a semicolon (with a conjunctive adverb such as however when appropriate): The tornado swept through the small town without warning; as a result, it caused a great deal of damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Repeat a key word or phrase to emphasize an idea: The tornado left a permanent scar on the small town, a scar of destruction, injury, and death.
• Use an em-dash to set off a key word(s) or phrase at the beginning or end of the sentence: The tornado that unexpectedly struck the small town left behind a grim calling card—death and destruction.
• Use a correlative conjunction (either, or, not only, but also): The tornado not only inflicted much property damage, but also much human suffering.
• Use a colon to emphasize an important idea: The destruction caused by the tornado was unusually high for one reason: it came without warning.
• Use an appositive (a word or phrase that renames) to emphasize an idea: A single incident—a tornado that came without warning—changed the face of the small town forever.
Split infinitive—This is another much discussed grammatical issue. An infinitive couples the word to with a verb, as in to create. Putting another word (often an adverb) between to and the verb splits the construction—to skillfully create, for example, which can be fixed by writing “to create skillfully.” Don’t become neurotic about repairing every split infinitive you find, because grammarians are much more flexible about this rule today. They even admit that splitting an infinitive is often natural and sometimes desirable—or at least preferable to some awkward construction rewritten only to eliminate the split infinitive. Sentences like the following are acceptable today:
For her to never complain seems unreal.
I wished to properly understand meditating.
Subject-verb agreement—A verb must agree in number with the subject of a sentence. That is, a singular subject requires a singular verb form, and a plural subject requires a plural verb form. That’s a simple rule, but sometimes we get burned because it’s hard to tell whether the subject is singular or plural. We’re fooled in other instances because a prepositional phrase comes between the subject and the verb. That’s the problem in this sentence: The repetition of these sounds stir the emotions. The singular verb stir does not agree with the subject, repetition. Yes, the subject really is repetition, which is singular. The plural word sounds is part of a prepositional phrase. You’ll never find the subject of a sentence in a prepositional phrase. The correct verb should be singular: stirs.
Collective nouns can also make subject-verb agreement difficult. Some of them, such as corporation and team, are often considered to be plural by writers who then use plural verbs and pronouns after them. For instance, The Acme Corporation held their annual shareholders meeting. Or: Our team of scientists are working on better crop yields. Even though a corporation and a team are made up of individuals, they are single entities, and a singular verb and pronoun should be used with them. Note, however, that a plural verb is used sometimes because the group or quantity is regarded as individuals or parts rather than as a unit. Examples: A number of the board members were absent. A thousand bushels of apples were crated.
Syntax—Syntax refers to the grammatical arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses. Look at this sentence: Melissa pushed a lock of hair away from her eyes that the wind had blown out of place. A common piece of advice for writers is to keep related sentence elements together. Modifying phrases and clauses, for instance, should be placed as close as possible to the person or thing modified. The syntax of this sentence could be improved considerably if the restrictive clause that the wind had blown out of place was moved closer to the sentence element it modifies, which is Melissa’s hair. As it stands now, this sentence implies that the wind had blown her eyes out of place. Oops! This sentence should be revised accordingly.
That / which (restrictive/nonrestrictive clauses)—A nonrestrictive clause is not essential for the reader to understand the full meaning of the word or words that it modifies. It simply adds more information, describing but not limiting (“restricting”) what it modifies. Conversely, a restrictive clause contains information that is essential for the reader to understand the full meaning of the word or words that it modifies. It limits (“restricts”) what it modifies. To keep things simple, use the relative pronoun that to begin restrictive clauses and which to begin a nonrestrictive clause. Examples:
He showed me the book that arrived in the mail today. [The meaning is restricted to just one book—the one that arrived in the mail today.]
He showed me the new Stephen King novel, which is the one I told you about yesterday. [The clause just adds more information to the sentence.]
Also note that you can often delete the word that in many constructions: The books [that] I ordered arrived today.
Other restrictive/nonrestrictive clauses—Writers have to deal with restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses other than those that begin with the relative pronouns that and which. Other such clauses (subordinate clauses) may begin with the relative pronouns who, whom, whose, what, whoever, whomever, whichever, and whatever. The adverbial clause, one type of subordinate clause, may also be used restrictively or nonrestrictively. Such clauses often refer to time or place and begin with the words when, whenever, where, and wherever.
The following sentence needs to be repaired because the writer failed to see that a subordinate clause beginning with the word where was used nonrestrictively: She had worked at a boutique in Miami where she was wintering. The clause where she was wintering offers additional, nonessential information that can be deleted from the sentence without affecting the full meaning of the modified statement (of what was said before). So it is a nonrestrictive clause; therefore, you have to add a comma after the word Miami.
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