How to Write Excellent Sentences: A Guide to Sentences Structure
Sentences are the building block of your writing. If your sentences suck, your whole writing pretty much sucks as well. “But how can I make my sentences better?! It is so difficult and time-consuming!” No it's not! All you need is a little practice. At first, no doubt, it will be difficult to write sentences with good structure. But with practice and patience it will become second nature and you will write absolutely brilliant sentences with little effort.
Language is all about communication, and if the medium of communication is confusing and difficult to understand, the whole point of communicating is lost.
- Use a consistent sentence structure following the subject -> object -> verb rule.
- Write in active voice as much as possible.
- Vary sentence lengths to make the piece less monotonous.
- Make sure you are using correct tenses throughout the sentence.
- Avoid using too many "because", "although", "however" like subordinate clauses.
- Write short sentences that communicate a single concept instead of writing long sentences with multiple concepts (like this one).
- Keep writing.
A good sentence begins with a subject, followed by a verb and then an object. Subject, object, and verb are the basic building blocks of English grammar:
A thing or a person doing an action.
A thing or person on which action is done.
A word used to describe an action.
A bark was made by a dog at the postman.
A dog barked at the postman.
In the above sentence, dog is the subject, barked is a verb and postman is the object.
Why a Good Sentence Structure Matters
Sentences that follow a proper structure are easy to read and understand. The most basic purpose of any language is communication and communication is nothing without structure. When both parties are communicating and following the same structure of the language, it becomes very easy to exchange ideas and discuss thoughts.
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
Using the active voice makes your sentences clearer by removing all ambiguity about who is doing the action and on whom. If the reader has to concentrate more on the sentence than the meaning behind it, the whole point of writing it is lost.
Passive sentences are also longer and hence say less in more words. The words to meaning ratio is very important in any form of writing. Let's look at an example to understand why passive voice should be avoided.
The computer was turned off by the operator before the fan was turned on by him.
To analyze any sentence ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is doing the action?
- What is the action that is being done?
- Who is the action being done upon?
In the above example, it is not clear who is doing what until the very end. Who turned on the fan? The operator? The computer? Was the computer turned off before or after turning the fan on? Was the computer turned off or the fan?
We can easily communicate the same idea in active voice like this:
The operator turned off the computer before he turned on the fan.
The difference in clarity is as clear as day. By using active voice you save the reader's time and energy which is extremely valuable.
Vary Sentence Lengths
If you use the same length of sentences again and again your writing become extremely boring. Similarly, if you repeat the same sentence structure and words, your writing will lose its energy becoming passive and dull.
Have you ever wondered how hypnosis works? Why do they use the pendulum that swings at the same rate? Why do they ask you to keep staring at one thing? Because inactivity dulls the mind making it fall asleep. Precisely the same thing applies in a piece of writing. You do not want to put the reader to sleep so keep those sentences unpredictable: if a reader can guess what the next sentence is going to be, why should he read the whole piece?
First I went to Bob’s House then I went to Stephanie’s house and then I went to the superstore to buy some oranges.
The monotony in the above sentence is very apparent. The repetition of then is like the swinging of the pendulum in the hands of a hypnotic. Are you trying to hypnotize your readers or make them understand your ideas? The same sentence can be improve like this:
I went to Bob’s house first then I knocked at Stephanie’s door and finally bought some oranges from the superstore.
Here are some tricks that can help you write more compelling sentences:
- Make longer sentences by combining shorter ones. You can do this with the help of words like, “for”, “and”, “so”, “or”, “yet”, and “but”.
- If you have two sentences, one complete and one incomplete, you can combine them into a complex sentence. You can do this by adding a comma or conjunction like “while”, “because”, “although” or “since”.
- Add words like “after”, “before”, “immediately” or “later” etc. to make your flow seamless. Otherwise, you will have discontinuity issues.
Use of Proper Tenses
The hardest thing in life is to keep track of time. You start your day at 9 AM and don't realize the passage of time until it's 9 PM and every time this happens you get frustrated. Imagine the reader's frustration when your piece has tense jumps going from past to future. The harder you make it for the reader to keep track of the sequence of events, the more confusing and difficult to understand your piece will become.
Be consistent with your tenses.
The longer your sentence the harder it becomes for your reader to keep track of the main tense. Shorter sentences also give the reader more time to digest what was said.
Ken went to the grocery shop and will buy a packet of flour.
Wait...what? How can Ken go to the grocery shop in the past but buy flour in the future? Does Ken own a time machine or something? Look how clear everything becomes once all the tenses are same:
Ken went to the grocery shop and bought a packet of flour.
Clarity is the basis of good communication.
Use Parallel Sentence Structure
Human brain expects same things to be similar. Similar things described differently means more work for the brain to understand. Whenever you can try to use the first thing as the context of all the other similar things. For this reason English language has parallel structures.
What are Parallel Sentence Structures?
Parallel structures are used to describe different objects or actions with the same grammatical terms in a single sentence. Okay but what does that mean?
On my way to the village, I enjoy looking at the scenery, walk to the water spring, and have a bath in cold water.
All the verbs in the above sentence are using a different grammatical term. This adds confusion and feels as if all 3 of them should be in different sentences. The flow is improved to a great extent if we use parallel structures:
On my way to the village, I enjoy looking at the scenery, walking to the water spring, and bathing in cold water.
Consistency is not boring, repetition is. Don't use different terms at the cost of clarity.
When two sentences are closely related to each other it is an indication that a semicolon should be used here. Semicolons explain the previous part of the sentence without repeating the subject.
In some places you might be tempted to use a comma but comma adds discontinuity.
The army was vast, row upon row of archers lined the front, bows at the ready.
The above sentence contains 3 phrases but the addition of commas makes it sound awkward and incomplete. This can be easily solved by using semicolons:
The army was vast; row upon row of archers lined the front; bows at the ready.
By using a semicolon we do not have to repeat that it's the army we are talking about and not some flock of birds.
Unfinished things are frustrating. They sit at the back of your mind pestering you to finish them. Sentences that lack a proper structure give a similar feeling; after reading such sentences you feel dissatisfied and confused.
A good sentence is complete in its meaning and structure.
What does an incomplete sentence lack:
- A proper doer of things (subject)
- An action (verb)
- An object upon which the action is done (object)
The green cat on the wall.
What green cat on the wall? What is it doing? What is being said here?
The green cat on the wall was wild.
You can easily write sentences without periods but they won't make much sense you won't be able to separate thought from thought the whole paragraph will look like a mess you most probably won't read such a sentence.
Can you tell where periods should be put in the above "sentence"? Leave that aside for a moment though. Can you even understand what is being said above? Periods are important because they segment multiple ideas into digestible pieces.
While writing a 500 words long sentence might seem like an incredible feat, it is completely useless. You must give your reader time to breathe or else your piece will be forgotten.
However, if sentences are fused you can use a conjunction like “and” or "or" to fuse two sentences without a period. Don't do it too much or it will sound repetitive and boring.
The first paragraph is example enough but let's analyze another sentence:
It was freezing cold the engine could not start.
Even though the engine not starting is related to the freezing cold, it sounds better separated:
It was freezing cold. The engine could not start.
Avoid Subordinate Clauses
Avoid using “because”, “although” and other subordinate clauses excessively in sentences. Subordinate clauses can make sentences too long and vague. Try to break such text into multiple sentences.
Jamal could not fly a kite because he had no string, although he had some money in his wallet, he could not go to the shop, since it was Sunday and all the shops were closed.
Subordinate clauses like the ones highlighted above unnecessarily increase the sentence length without adding any meaning. The same sentence broken down sounds much better:
Jamal could not fly a kite because he had no string. He had some money in his wallet, but he could not go to the shop; it was Sunday and all the shops were closed.
Improving your sentences is easy; all it takes is a little practice and patience. The most important key to improve is to keep writing. The more you write, the better you'll become.