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Sentence construction

These are sentence construction problems that I

have seen time and again in the manuscripts I have read.


Accidental rhyme—Poets often use rhyme with words at the end of a line, but prose writers should not. Eliminate accidental rhymes such as the one in this sentence: His hands inspected his face, and as they did he quickened his pace. Careful proofreading and reading your text aloud will catch such accidents.


Adverbs and adjectives, too many—Most adverbs and many adjectives are unnecessary. Take the adverb frantically, for example, in this sentence: Harry dashed frantically down the hallway. In context, Harry’s state of mind is apparent, so you don’t need to add frantically. Ditto with this sentence: “I’m sorry,” Denise replied sympathetically. Adding unnecessary adverbs and adjectives is one form of overwriting (explaining too much). Sometimes it’s also telling what is happening rather than showing it to the reader, and “show, don’t tell” should be every writer’s mantra. Even though Voltaire declared, “The adjective is the enemy of the noun,” I’m not saying that all adjectives and adverbs should be killed. But we must remember that modifiers preceding a noun often weaken it rather than make it more specific, so they must be chosen carefully and with a purpose in mind. And, although adverbs are sometimes vital, you don’t need to use one if the characteristics of the adverb are inherent and apparent in the characters, the situation, and the dialogue.


If you’d like to read some humorous uses of adverbs, read some “Tom Swifties.” People have made up hundreds of funny sentences such as: “I like modern painting,” said Tom abstractly. . . . And: “I really like your German Shepherd,” Tom said dogmatically.


Alliteration—Be sparing with the use of alliteration—beginning a series of words with the same letter, such as: During the whole of the damp, dreary, and drab day in the dead of winter . . . Alliteration calls too much attention to itself, and it never says anything better than another form of expression.


Anticlimactic sentences—You don’t want to write sentences such as: With her vision blurred with tears, her heart pounding, and every muscle in her body trembling, she sat up. Isn’t that sentence a letdown? Readers who follow your trail of words want to find more than that at the end. When you write a sentence, beware of weak beginnings and even weaker endings.


Comma splice—If you link two sentences (two independent clauses) with a comma, you are committing an error known as the comma splice. Examples:


The current was swift, he could not swim to shore.

Martha was a lonely woman, she never talked to anybody.


These statements should be written as separate sentences or as two independent clauses connected with a semicolon. When you have two independent clauses in a sentence, you must write them in one of the following ways:


• Separate them with a period so they’re treated as two complete sentences.

• Connect them with a semicolon if the two thoughts are closely related (I like you; you’re nice.)

• Connect them with a conjunction, which has a comma in front of it (The current was swift, and he could not swim to shore.)


Compound complement—Example: I was terrified of that old tree, and jealous that my older sister, Lindsey, could climb it with ease. The predicate adjectives terrified and jealous serve as subject complements in this sentence. A subject complement is a noun, pronoun, or adjective that follows a linking verb. A complement renames or describes a subject or an object. In the example sentence the predicate adjectives follow the linking verb was and describe the subject, I. The comma between the complements terrified and jealous is unnecessary.


Compound object—Example: Every day, the newspaper followed the reorganization of the economy, and the formation of independent businesses. An object is a noun or noun substitute that is governed by a transitive active verb, a nonfinite verb, or a preposition. An object functions as either a direct object or an indirect object. For example: Tom hit the ball [direct object] to John [indirect object]. If the verb has more than one object, then the object is called “compound.” Example: The car smashed into the mailbox and the fence. The first example sentence above has a compound object with the verb followed: reorganization and formation. No comma is needed after the word economy.


Compound predicate—The predicate is the part of a sentence that says something about the subject. When you have two verbs related to the subject, it is called “compound,” and you don’t have to separate the verbs with a comma. Incorrect: She thought her plan had worked, and no longer feared for her life. Here she is the subject, and the verbs thought and feared both say something about the subject. The comma after worked is unnecessary. She did two things: She thought and feared. If you want to keep the comma, then you have to make the first and second parts of the sentence independent clauses, each with a subject and a verb: She thought her plan had worked, and she no longer feared for her life.


Compound subject—The subject of a sentence is a noun or noun substitute about which something is asserted or asked in the predicate—the other basic grammatical component of a sentence. The subject may contain one or more nouns. When it has more than one, it is called a “compound subject.” Example: Big loaves of sourdough bread that Megan had baked herself, and five kinds of herring, were passed around. The two subject words are bread and kinds—the nouns that receive the action of the verb passed. The commas after herself and herring are not necessary. Two things were passed around—the bread and the [five] kinds [of herring]. We can improve that sentence further by eliminating the use of the passive voice of the verb (were passed) and writing: They passed around big loaves of sourdough bread that Megan had baked herself and five kinds of herring.


Emphasis—Emphasis involves word choice and the arrangement of parts of a sentence so that you emphasize important ideas. One way to gain emphasis is to place important words at the beginning or the end of a sentence. Another way is to arrange elements in their order of importance so that the sentence leads to a climax of meaning. Example: Urban life is unhealthy, morally corrupt, and fundamentally inhuman. Notice how the adjectives in the series are arranged in climactic order.


Fused sentence—An error closely related to the comma splice is known as the fused sentence, also sometimes called a run-on or run-together sentence. This happens when the writer joins two sentences (two independent clauses) with no punctuation at all. Example: It didn’t matter they fought wherever they were. The easiest way to repair a fused sentence is to place a period at the end of the first independent clause and then begin a new sentence: It didn’t matter. They fought wherever they were. You could also make the second sentence an dependent clause: It didn’t matter, because they fought wherever they were.


Independent clauses / compound sentences—Every writer must learn how to identify the basic sentence unit—the independent clause—because such recognition is so fundamental to composition. Independent clauses have a subject and a verb, express a complete thought, and can stand alone. Example: Barbara shouted. If you connect two independent clauses with a comma and a conjunction, they form a compound sentence. Example: Barbara shouted, and Steven looked around. Here we have two independent clauses connected with a comma and a conjunction—and. You must remember the comma when you write a compound sentence like this, and you must make sure that the second independent clause has both a subject and a verb. Do not write, for instance: She wanted to run but her legs wouldn’t move.


An exception to this comma rule: When the subject is the same for both independent clauses and is expressed only once, a comma is required if the connective is but. If the connective is and, the comma should be omitted if the relation between the two statements is close or immediate. Examples: I have heard his arguments, but am still unconvinced. He has had several years’ experience and is thoroughly competent. Also, don’t join more than two independent clauses using the conjunction and. You should break them into separate sentences or separate them with a semicolon.


Misplaced modifiers—Make sure that descriptive phrases modify what they’re supposed to modify. Pay particular attention to sentences that begin with verbs that end with -ing and -ed (participial phrases), which often contain a misplaced modifier called a dangling participle. Other types of misplaced modifiers, including dangling elliptical adverb clauses, may be camouflaged so well that they’re hard to spot in your own writing. Example of a sentence with a misplaced modifier: Walking through the crowd, people touched Tony’s back. The modifying participial phrase Walking through the crowd is misplaced because it modifies the noun that follows it—people—instead of the person who walked through the crowd—Tony. That is, Tony walked through the crowd, not the people in the crowd (the crowd can’t walk through the crowd). You can repair the sentence like this: As Tony walked through the crowd, people touched his back. Some sentences with misplaced modifiers, especially dangling participles, are so awkward that they’re inadvertently humorous. I found this howler in the dining column of a local newspaper:


Stuffed with ham and served with black beans and rice, Mom would never recognize her Saturday night special.


I guess not!


Paragraph unity and organization—This topic applies mostly to nonfiction writing. The concept of sentence unity extends to the paragraph—the building block of narrative writing. A paragraph is a group of sentences that works together to develop a unit of thought. In formal nonfiction writing, the paragraph is a miniature essay that focuses on a single topic. By using paragraphs, the writer divides his material into self-contained chunks, which gives the reader manageable units of information to assimilate. At the same time, the writer arranges those meaning units into a coherent whole that effectively communicates its message.


Writers use several types of paragraphs. Some of them introduce material, some conclude a section, and some provide transitions. Most paragraphs, though, are topical paragraphs, also called developmental paragraphs or body paragraphs. They consist of a statement of a main idea (a topic sentence), followed by specific, logical support for that main idea, all of it laid out step by step, sentence by sentence, with the ideas contained in each sentence proceeding logically from one to the next. This form of construction is most important in nonfiction writing, especially that of the academic kind.


An effective paragraph has these characteristics:


• Unity: All sentences help to support and clarify the main idea in a clear, logical way.

• Coherence: A smooth, logical progression from one sentence to the next within the paragraph.

• Development: Sentences are arranged into an order that is logical for communicating the message and offers specific, concrete support for the main idea of each paragraph.


Writers have a number of choices for arranging the material in a paragraph, including:


• A sequence according to time

• A sequence according to location

• Moving from the general to the specific

• Moving from the specific to the general

• Moving from the least to the most important

• Progressing from the problem to the solution


A long written work cannot be effective if it is not constructed in a coherent, well organized way at the level of the paragraph and paragraph arrangement. Generally, paragraph types flow like this:


• Introductory paragraph

• Topical or developmental paragraph (one or several)

• Concluding paragraph

• Transitional paragraph

• Topical or developmental paragraph (one or several)

• Concluding paragraph


Parallelism—This is the principle that says parts of a sentence that are parallel (grammatically equal) in meaning should be parallel in structure. In its simplest form you can see it in the sentences Seeing is believing and To see is to believe (not Seeing is to believe). The verbs are parallel or grammatically equal (written in the same tense): seeing/believing and see/believe. For parallel structure, you must match verbs with verbs, nouns with nouns, prepositional phrases with prepositional phrases, main clauses with main clauses, etc. Connectives such as and, or, but, and yet often link and relate balanced sentence elements. Faulty parallelism disrupts the balance. Examples of faulty parallelism:


She moved to a new town where nobody knows anything about her, did not socialize with anybody, would rather keep her distance from the rest of the people in town.


Look at the tenses of the underlined verbs: moved, knows, did socialize, and would keep. They aren’t all in the same tense, are they? So they are not parallel. To repair this sentence, we have to put all the verbs in the simple past tense: moved, knew, socialized, kept.


Participial phrases at the beginning of sentences—Sentences that begin with participial phrases (with verbs that end with -ing or -ed) are generally not the strongest way to cast a sentence. They often begin with secondary action, and they delay the introduction of the subject of the sentence, usually the person performing the action. So readers have to wade blindly through introductory material before they learn which person you’re talking about. The meat and potatoes of a sentence are the subject and the verb—the picture word and the action word. Everything else is side dish and garnish. An old rule also advises writers to place the most important stuff at either the beginning or the end of a sentence. On the other hand, neither do you want to fall into the habit of constructing most of your sentences in the old subject-verb-object pattern; therefore, you have to learn new patterns and vary your sentence structure. See “Sentence variety.”


Passive voice—Prefer the active voice of verbs to the passive voice. Example of the passive voice: His head was slammed against the wall. You don’t have to be compulsive about changing every passive construction to an active one, because the passive voice has its uses. For instance, various stock locutions such as The project was abandoned and The Germans were defeated are perfectly acceptable. The passive voice is virtually useless in fiction, however, unless you’re mimicking someone’s slightly pompous way of speaking or quoting some institutional directive.


Using the passive voice usually moves the object of the verb to a superior position as the subject of the sentence, relegating the proper subject to an inferior role. Examples:


Jewelry is often stolen by burglars [passive].

Burglars often steal jewelry [active].


Often the subject—usually the person doing the acting—gets lost in the shuffle. Or, you might say, the actor has been removed from the action, thereby diffusing the energy. That’s the case with our example sentence above, which would be expressed better by saying: [The man] [name of the man] slammed his forehead against the wall. The active voice is almost always more vigorous, direct, and vivid and therefore keeps the action in sharper focus for the reader.


Positive form—Writing is much more direct and understandable when statements are cast in a positive form instead of a negative one. Instead of saying It was not uncommon for him to leave at night to see a patient, say He often left at night to see a patient. This also makes the sentence shorter.


Possessive case before gerunds—As a rule, use the possessive case immediately before a gerund (a nonfinite verb that ends in -ing and functions as a noun). Example: I resented his criticizing our every move. The verb criticizing is the gerund in this sentence because it is used as a noun. That sounds simple enough, but you have to be careful. The -ing form of a verb can be used as a noun (gerund) or as an adjective (participle), and the possessive case is not used before participles. Make sure the -ing verb is a gerund. It could also be a participle that functions as an adjective, as in this example: The man standing in the doorway could be a spy. The possessive is not used in this situation because standing is a participle that functions as an adjective modifying man. Think of the whole phrase as an adjective: The standing-in-the-doorway man.


Unfortunately, this rule can force you into writing perfectly grammatical but awkward sentences such as: The board approved of something’s being sent to the poor overseas. You should avoid writing an awkward possessive before a gerund in sentences like this one. In such cases, recast the sentence: The board approved of sending something to the poor overseas.


Prepositional phrases, beginning sentences with—Example: On the office bench, Bill tossed aside a copy of People magazine and checked his watch. Using a prepositional phrase to begin a sentence is not inherently undesirable, but you don’t want to make it a habit. Generally speaking, a prepositional phrase is one of the weaker meaning units of a sentence, so it is not the best way to begin a sentence. Readers are always looking for the strongest words, which are subjects and verbs; furthermore, writers are typically advised to place the most important words and ideas at either the beginning or the end of a sentence.


Semicolon—When you place a semicolon in a sentence, you must have an independent clause both before and after the semicolon, and both main clauses should be closely related. Example: I like you; you’re nice. Also, you must always use a semicolon before a conjunctive adverb that introduces a second independent clause. Example: Her arguments sounded convincing; therefore, the majority voted for her. Note that a comma always follows the conjunctive adverb. Conjunctive adverbs include accordingly, also, anyhow, as a result, besides, consequently, furthermore, henceforth, however, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, otherwise, then, thus, and therefore.


Sentence fragments—Example: Especially Jennifer. These words do not include a subject and a verb and express a complete thought, so this is a fragment, not a sentence. If you wrote Jennifer was especially anxious to go, then you’d have a complete sentence because it contains a subject and a verb. Sentence fragments written consciously should be used rarely and for rhetorical effect. Otherwise, you may confuse the reader, who is always trying to find a subject and a verb. Fragments also focus the reader’s attention on the author instead of what the author is saying, which disrupts what John Gardner calls the “fictional dream.” You don’t have to eliminate intentional sentence fragments. If the fragment works in context and with the rhythm of the text, then leave it. That’s what most contemporary novelists do.


Sentence length—Readers prefer fairly short sentences; otherwise, they tend to get lost and confused. Read Thoreau’s Walden, and you’ll see what I mean. Studies have shown that modern readers begin to lose comprehension after only seven words. That doesn’t mean every sentence has to be short. The text would sound like a telegram if you did that. Writers should strive for variety in sentence length but beware of sentences that are convoluted and crammed with too much information.



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