Sentence Structure

The structure of a sentence affects comprehension. Somewhat surprisingly, short, simple sentences may win you a 6th grade reading score, yet they can be just as confusing as long-winded sentences. And sentences, which keep you hanging, which take forever to get to the point (like this sentence), which remind you it may be time to check the score on your local sports team, can be equally confusing–but, for the less patient among us, way more annoying. Yup. That’s annoying!

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.

sentence diagram, Writing Commons

Long sentences are not necessarily ineffective or wordy, nor are short sentences necessarily concise. After all, a 70-word sentence, properly constructed, can clarify relationships between ideas. On the other hand, a series of five-word sentences can result in choppiness and poor connections between ideas. Rather than trying to make all sentences a certain length or pattern, you can write graceful sentences by being aware of the demands different sentence patterns make on readers.

Place the Subject in the Beginning of the Sentence

As a general rule, you can improve the readability of your prose by limiting the number of words that come between the beginning of the sentence and its subject. Because the beginning of a sentence is its most emphatic part, you generally don’t  want to clutter it with unnecessary transitional words or phrases. A second problem with long introductory phrases and clauses is that they strain the reader’s short-term memory. 

Notice, for example, how you need to juggle all of the opening conditions in your mind before you finally come to the subject of this sentence:

If you write every morning for at least fifteen minutes, if you set aside the urge to criticize early drafts and ideas, if you analyze your rhetorical situation for a document, if you ask critical questions of your drafts, if you share drafts with colleagues, then you will improve quickly as a writer.

Fortunately, most sentences with long introductory clauses can be easily improved; all you need to do is move the concluding words–that is, the independent clause–to the beginning of the sentence, as in the following revision:

You will improve quickly as a writer if you write every morning for at least fifteen minutes, etc.

When you copy-edit, you should not attempt to eliminate all introductory words, phrases, and clauses. A few introductory clauses can help you establish a forceful rhythm. 

Furthermore, your documents will put your readers to sleep if all of your sentences are shaped in the same way. Occasional transitional words or phrases can also aid readability. Words like “therefore,” “however,” and “on the other hand” can help you to highlight the way ideas relate to each other. Used selectively and logically, these words and phrases actually help readers connect different ideas – yet these words cannot create logical connections by themselves. Just as a brick house would collapse if the builder used sand rather than mortar to construct it, so will meaning in a document evaporate if you do not provide a logical discussion. Words like “thus,” “therefore,” and “consequently” are insufficient by themselves to make connections between ideas.

Avoid Excessive Embedding Between the Subject and Verb

Embedding appositives or modifiers between subjects and verbs can enliven what is traditionally considered the least emphatic part of a sentence, the middle. Notice, for example, how the appositive in the following example from an education journal emphasizes the definition of sentence combining:

Research suggests that sentence combining, an instructional technique that provides students with practice in the manipulation of various sentence patterns, is effective in developing the syntactical fluency of writers, elementary through college level.

If we decided to give less emphasis to the definition, we could recast the sentence as follows:

Research with elementary through college-level writers suggests that practice combining sentences promotes syntactical fluency.

You should use embedding sparingly, however, because this pattern slows down the pace of reading. Such constructions require readers to keep these references in mind until they reach the verb and understand how to apply them. As English speakers, we need to link a subject of a sentence to its verb to understand a statement. As a result, we must hold in our short-term memory all of the defining and modifying words–appositives, participial phrases, relative clauses–that come between the subject and verb. It isn’t until we reach the verb that we understand what we are supposed to do with the modifying words.

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 are some common ways to structure a sentence?

Simple sentence: Contains a single subject and verb.

  • Example: The cell phone rang right before class.

Compound sentence: Contains two complete sentences (independent clauses) joined by a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).

  • Example: The cell phone rang right before class, so the student quickly turned off her phone’s ringer.

Complex sentence:Contains an independent clause joined by one or more dependent clauses.

  • Example: The student turned off her phone’s ringer because she didn’t want to interrupt the class.

Compound-complex sentence: Contains a combination of a compound sentence and a complex sentence.

  • Example: Because the student wanted to keep her attention focused on class activities, she turned off her phone’s ringer, and she put her ear buds in her backpack

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.

Let’s look at some examples:

Revision of primer-style sentences:

  • Primer-style sentences: President Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963. It happened in Dallas, Texas. This event greatly impacted the nation.
  • Revised: The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, greatly impacted the nation.

Revision of short, related sentences:

Simple sentences about a single topic may also be combined by using coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) and/or modifying clauses.

  • Series of related sentences: Central Park is an urban park that is 843 acres. It is located in New York City. The park has several attractions including a zoo.
    • Note that the subject of all of these sentences is Central Park. The sentences can be combined into one sentence using a coordinating conjunction and a modifying clause since all three ideas are of equal importance.
  • Revised: Central Park, an urban park in New York City, is 843 acres and has several attractions, including a zoo.