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Sentence Structure

Explore the effects of different sentence patterns on reading comprehension.

When assessing whether your sentences are too long or complex, consider your audience: Educated readers have a greater tolerance for longer sentences. Younger and less experienced writers prefer shorter sentences. When writing for an international audience or addressing a very complex topic, sentences may need to be shorter.

Make your sentences pack a punch. Eliminate unnecessary "to be" verbs.

In our daily speech and in rough drafts, we tend to rely heavily on the various forms of the verb to be.

The verb to be is unlike any other verb because it is inert--that is, it doesn't show any action. For example, in the sentence "The researcher is a professor at Duke" the verb is merely connects the subject with what grammarians call the subject complement. We could just as easily say "The professor at Duke is a researcher" without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Experiment with these strategies to use your editing time more productively.

Once you believe a draft conveys the basic information you want your readers to understand, you can begin attacking it at the sentence level. After working hard to develop the substance of a message, you may be weary of it and eager to turn it over to your instructor. If possible, set the draft aside and work on another assignment before trying to edit it.

What is parallel structure?

Parallel structure is established when words within a sentence are united by consistent use of grammatical forms. This stylistic element is also referred to as parallelism or parallel construction.

Why is it important to use parallel structure?

Lack of parallel structure can disrupt the rhythm of a sentence, leaving it grammatically unbalanced. Proper parallel structure helps to establish balance and flow in a well-constructed sentence; the alignment of related ideas supports readability and clarity.

Why is it important to vary sentence structure?

Too many simple and compound sentences can make writing sound choppy, but too many complex and compound-complex sentences can make writing difficult to follow. Strive for a balance by combining sentences of various structures and lengths throughout your paper.

What is a sentence fragment?

A sentence fragment is a word, phrase, or dependent clause that is punctuated as a sentence, but the subject, verb, or both may be missing. Though sentence fragments may be used for effect in certain types of writing, fragments are generally not used in academic or professional writing.

Eliminate choppy writing by avoiding unnecessary prepositions.

When used in moderation, prepositions are invaluable: they work as connecting words, linking the object of the preposition to a word that appears earlier in the sentence. Like linking verbs, however, prepositions do not convey action, nor do they subordinate one thought to another. Instead, they merely link chunks of meaning that readers must gather together in order to understand the sentence.

What is a run-on sentence?

A run-on (or fused) sentence consists of two or more independent clauses that have been joined without appropriate punctuation or coordinating words. Dividing a run-on sentence into concise, meaningful units can help to clarify your message.

How might this run-on sentence be divided?

  • Locate the fused independent clauses; it may help to underline the subject-verb pairs.
  • Draw a vertical line (or lines) on your paper to separate the independent clauses.

What is a comma splice?

A comma splice is a common sentence problem that occurs when two complete sentences (independent clauses) are incorrectly joined by a comma. This incorrect union of clauses creates a run-on sentence. The problem can be repaired when a different form of punctuation replaces the comma, a coordinating conjunction is inserted, or when the sentence is rewritten.

How can a comma splice be corrected?

  • Locate the sentence in which two complete sentences (independent clauses) have been incorrectly joined by a comma.
  • Draw a vertical line on your paper to separate the independent clauses.

How can short sentences be effectively combined? 

A primer-style sentence is a short and simple sentence that usually includes a single subject and verb. While short and simplistic sentences can be used effectively to emphasize a point or clarify a confusing statement, frequent use of them can make a paper sound choppy and interrupt the flow of the paper. Primer-style sentences can be combined into a more complex sentence.

Why is it important to rephrase awkward word order?

Since the goal of academic writing is to communicate with clarity, writers should build sentences with words and phrases that flow smoothly. Words that are missing, misplaced, or out of order can make the writing sound disjointed or send an unintended message. Reread each sentence carefully or read the paper aloud to check for awkward wording.