Tips for Better Sentence Structure
Most of us stop thinking much about sentence structure once we leave English class. We know we need a subject and a verb and to avoid run-ons. If we think about structure at all, it’s about not sounding like Yoda:
I my food ate quickly. (bad structure)
I quickly ate my food. (good structure)
But there’s so much more.
My two tips today deal with the most common mistakes in sentence structure I see here at ProofreadingPal.com.
My tips for Part 2 will show how to use structure to elevate your writing beyond the competent to the compelling.
But let’s start with avoiding mistakes.
Maintain Good Parallelism
Parallelism has a lot of syllables, but it just refers to the way you get the bits of your sentence to line up properly when you are offering a list. It has two rules:
- Elements in a series need to be the same sort of thing.
- Elements in a series all need to refer back to the same word (i.e., the anchor).
Consider this shopping list.
I need to buy eggs, milk, cheese, and some hand cream.
This has good parallelism. The items are all nouns, and they all refer back to the same anchor word, “buy.”
I need to buy eggs.
. . . milk.
. . . cheese.
. . . some hand cream.
Notice that the modifier “some” does nothing to change the type of thing on the list (noun) or interfere with referring back to the anchor “buy.” So, the following also has good parallelism:
I need to buy a dozen brown eggs, a gallon of that organic whole milk with extra vitamin D, cheddar cheese, and some hand cream that isn’t greasy.
So far, so simple. Now let’s look at some bad parallelism:
I need to buy eggs, milk, cheese, and make sure everyone sees me.
This breaks both rules. “Make sure everyone sees me” isn’t a noun, and it doesn’t refer back to the anchor “buy.” The last entry actually reads:
I need to buy make sure everyone sees me.
Once spotted, this is easily fixed.
I need to buy eggs, milk, and cheese and to make sure everyone sees me. (good)
I need to make sure everyone sees me and to buy eggs, milk, and cheese. (also good)
My true love smiled at me, held my hand, and then we walked up the road. (bad)
Notice here the items in the sequence are the same (actions), but the last item does not refer back to the anchor “love.” Again, the fix is easy enough:
My true love smiled at me and held my hand, and then we walked up the road. (good)
My true love smiled at me, held my hand, and then walked with me up the road. (also good)
See if you can spot this one on your own:
I put on a cute pair of shorts, my favorite tank, flip-flops, and brought a hat just in case I needed to shade my face.
Show Actions in Sequence
This mistake is somewhat related to bad parallelism because it deals with the idea that a sentence has a sequence, but instead of having an anchor word, it has a timeline.
When reporting a series of events in chronological order, the structure needs to reflect that order. Take the following actions:
Jack and Jill went up the hill to get some water.
Jack fell down the hill.
Jack hurt his head.
Jill fell down after Jack did.
Now put them together in a sentence (with help from a semi-colon):
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water; Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.
The timing of each action is nice and clear. But look at this sentence:
Pulling the hostage up against his chest, the perp shoved the gun to the man’s forehead and shouted, “I swear, I’ll kill him!”
This sentence tells us that the perp shoved the gun to the guy’s forehead while he was pulling the man against his chest and while he was shouting the threat. It’s possible, but that would need a lot of coordination. More probably the perp got the man up to his chest and then shoved the gun and shouted. The sentence should read:
After pulling the hostage up against his chest, the perp shoved the gun to the man’s forehead and shouted, “I swear, I’ll kill him!”
Here’s a bad timeline I read not long ago in a set of assembly instructions:
Place Bar (B) between Legs (F) and (H). Find holes. Align holes on Bar (B) with holes on Legs (F) and (H). Rotate Crossbar (J) as you attach Bar (B) to Legs (F) and (H) using 2 Long Screws (P).
For the life of me, I could not figure out why I was supposed to rotate that crossbar. I also had a horrible time getting the screws into the (aligned) holes. Finally, I realized that I was not supposed to rotate the crossbar while attaching B to F but to rotate the crossbar between attaching the bar to one leg and then to the other. The last bit should read:
Using 2 Long Screws (P), attach Bar (B) to Leg (F), rotate Crossbar (J), and then attach Bar (B) to Leg (H).
Here’s another one:
Gathering up the dishes, Mike made sure the water was hot. (nope)
Mike gathered up the dishes and then made sure the water was hot. (better)
Some readers might argue that they can figure out what’s going on despite bad sentence structure, but good writers don’t make readers do that kind of work. Good writing reads effortlessly (unless you’re James Joyce or something).
If thinking about my cursing out that rotating crossbar doesn’t give you enough motivation to write clearly, try this one:
The boss went over many workers’ concerns about their health-care plans, made several promises, and then left.
What, exactly, did this boss make promises about? If this were my boss, I’d want it to read:
The boss went over many workers’ concerns about their health care plans while making several promises, and then left.
Keep the order clear to keep the meaning clear.
Next time, we’ll discuss two uses of sentence structure that go beyond clarity.
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