Sentence Construction

Learning Objectives

  • Explain techniques for writing effective sentences

So far we have discussed organizational practices for strong writing and the importance of keeping your audience in mind. We have also analyzed appropriate tone and language choices for academic discourse. Now, let’s talk about the actual writing itself.

Effective academic writing is precise and concise when it comes to language choices. This precision and concision must be evident at all levels, from the overall document, to paragraphing, to sentence structure to word choice, and even to punctuation. Every word or phrase should have a distinct and useful purpose.

Write Concise Sentences

As you write, always ask yourself if you are spending your readers’ time wisely. Are you writing unnecessarily complex and confusing sentences, or using 50 words when five would do? If a sentence is already plain and direct, there is no need to fluff it up. Flowery words and phrases obscure your ideas: when writing, being concise is key. For example, why write, “Cats have a tendency toward sleeping most of the day” when you could simply write, “Cats usually sleep most of the day”? How about changing “The 12th day of the month of April” to “April 12th?” Try to pick out such sentences and substitute simpler ones.

But wait—don’t you need to inflate your text so you can meet the minimum word count? Wouldn’t it be better to use “due to the fact that” for “because” and “in addition to” for “and,” since these phrases use far more words? No! Any experienced reader will instantly see through these efforts and will likely become irritated by the resulting “flabby” prose. If you are having trouble meeting the minimum word count, a far better solution is to add more examples, details, quotations, or perspectives.

When you are succinct in your writing, you want to avoid extra, unnecessary words. For example, you don’t need to talk about the “positive benefits” of a program in your community, because the word “benefits” already implies that it is positive. Some examples of these redundant phrases are listed below.

combine/join together fill completely unite as one
finish entirely refer/return/revert back to emphasize/stress strongly
examine (closely) suddenly interrupt better/further enhance
eventually evolve over time strictly forbid rely/depend heavily
plan ahead harshly condemn protest against
completely surround on all sides estimate/approximate roughly gather/assemble together
clearly  articulate carefully consider successfully prove
future plan mutual agreement years of age
in actual fact positive benefits end result/product

Write Clear Sentences

Writers worry that their sentences don’t sound smart enough and they feel like they need to use the thesaurus to find fancy words instead of using their natural vocabulary. Fancy words and complicated sentences are not always better. Clear sentences are strong sentences.

Compare these two sentences (the first is taken from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address):

  1. Do not ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
  2. Do not submit a query concerning what assets and benefits your country can bestow upon you and yours, but rather inquire as to what tasks or activities you yourself can perform and carry out that will be useful for the citizens of your own country.

Although the second sentence is longer and harder to grasp, that does not make it more intelligent. In fact, it’s far more impressive to write a complex thought in simple prose than vice versa. Beware, however, that you do not lose meaning when you make a sentence simpler; cut out only the most unnecessary “fluffy” adjectives, but don’t sacrifice being descriptive.

Clear writing involves knowing what you want to say before you say it. So a lack of clarity often comes from unclear thinking or poor planning. This, unfortunately, leads to confused or annoyed readers. For many of us, our ideas become more clear as we draft our essays. That’s why the revision process is so important. As you clarify your ideas, you need to ensure that each sentence conveys one idea, and that each paragraph thoroughly develops one unified concept.

Avoid vague and unnecessary words

Are you very hungry? Or are you so hungry you could eat out the entire refrigerator? Is your English class really great? Or does your English class make you feel as if you are the most creative writer and the smartest thinker, lucky enough to be studying in class full of ambitious and engaged peers? Words like very and really don’t say much. Instead of using stock or clichéd phrases, try to be more specific about what you mean. Below are some examples of overused intensifiers and clichés you should be wary of.

Overused Intensifiers
absolutely actually assuredly certainly clearly completely
considerably definitely effectively extremely fundamentally drastically
highly in fact incredibly inevitably indeed interestingly
markedly naturally of course particularly significantly surely
totally utterly very really remarkably tremendously
Clichés Alternatives
as plain as day plainly, obvious, clear
ballpark figure about, approximately
few and far between rare, infrequent
needless to say of course, obviously
last but not least finally, lastly
as far as ___ is concerned according to

Vary the Length of your Sentences

Your sentences should vary in length (short sentence). Avoid having too many long sentences because they take longer to read and are often more complex (longer sentence). Reserve the short sentences for main points and use longer sentences for supporting points that clarify or explain cause and effect relationships (longer sentence). If you feel the sentence is too long, break it into two sentences (medium sentence). You do not want your reader to have to read a sentence twice to understand it (short sentence). (Note: you’ll learn more in a later module about using colons and semi-colons to structure your complicated and longer sentences so that don’t get out of control, grammatically.)

Name the People

Directly state who or what group is acting in your sentences. Note the contrast in power and clarity among the sentences below

  • Without people: A citywide ban on indoor smoking in Duluth originally caused a marked drop in bar patronage.
  • With people: When the Duluth City Council passed a citywide ban on indoor smoking, many people stopped going to bars.

Use Active Verbs

Consider replacing “be-verbs” (is, am, are, was, were, be, has/have been) with active verbs that allow you to compose powerful sentences shaped around action. Below the italics are the same sentences that have been transformed with active verbs.

  • To be: The sharp rise in fuel prices is a serious challenge to trucking firms. It makes it hard for them to provide timely service to customers and to meet payroll expenses.
  • Active: Sharply rising fuel prices challenge trucking firms by causing delays in customer service and payroll.
  • To be: Primary causes of the rise in fuel prices are an issue of confusion for many citizens. They don’t know how to fight the rise because they don’t know its cause.
  • Active: Primary causes of rising fuel prices elude many citizens, making them unaware of how to fight the increase.

Watch It

Watch this video for tips and more examples of how to avoid wordy or redundant writing.

You can view the transcript for “Avoiding Wordiness and Redundancy” here (opens in new window).

Use Parallel Structure Effectively

Simply put, parallelism is the practice of using the same patterns in words and structures in order to provide balance to sentences and paragraphs. Just as a parallel shape has two lines with the same distance between them, a parallelism ensures you have balance with your language. For example, parallel structure can be applied to a single sentence, a paragraph, or even multiple paragraphs.

Compare the two following sentences:

  1. Yara loves running, to swim, and then biking.
  2. Yara loves running, swimming, and biking.

Was the second sentence a smoother read than the first? The second sentence uses parallelism—all three verbs are gerunds (running, swimming, biking) —whereas in the first sentence two are gerunds (running and biking) and one is an infinitive (to swim). When you read the first sentence, it is easy to trip up over the mismatched items. Using strong parallel structure improves writing style and readability and makes sentences easier to process.

Compare the following examples:

  • Lacking parallelism: “She likes cooking, jogging, and to read.”
    • Parallel: “She likes cooking, jogging, and reading.”
    • Parallel: “She likes to cook, jog, and read.”
  • Lacking parallelism: “The dog ran across the yard and jumped over the fence, and down the alley he sprinted.”
    • Parallel: “The dog ran across the yard, jumped over the fence, and sprinted down the alley.”

The parallel examples are easier to read and they sound much better to your ears.

You can also apply parallelism across a passage:

Manuel painted eight paintings in the last week. Jennifer sculpted five statues in the last month. Zama wrote fifteen songs in the last two months.

Each of the sentences in the preceding paragraph has the same structure: Name + -ed verb + number of things + in the past time period. When using parallelism across multiple sentences, be sure that you’re using it well. If you aren’t careful, you can stray into being repetitive.

Try It

Look at the following items. Identify and address any issues with parallelism.

  1. Low self-esteem can manifest itself in various behaviors. Some individuals may become paralyzed at the prospect of making a decision. Other individuals may bend their wills to others’ in order to keep the peace. Yet another symptom is the retreat from society as a whole—to become isolated.
  2. The influence of genetics on human behavior has been shown through studies of twins who were separated at birth. Not only do these sets of individuals share many physical characteristics, but they also tend to have the same sort of interests and biases and utilize similar mental processes.
  3. Nocturne in Black and Gold (The Falling Rocket) by James Abbott McNeil Whistler is very emblematic of the impressionist movement: its dark colors, contrast, and lack of definite form reflect the attitudes of the day.

Effective Use of Parallelism and Repetition

Parallelism can also involve repeated words or repeated phrases. These uses are part of “rhetoric” (a field that focuses on persuading readers). Here are some examples of repetition:

  • The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” —Winston Churchill
  • “Until we get equality in education, we won’t have an equal society.” –Justice Sonya Sotomayor
  • “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” —John F. Kennedy
  • “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” —Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
  • Somehow we do it. Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” –Amanda Gorman, poet
  • Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” –Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

When used this way, parallelism makes your writing or speaking much stronger. These repeated phrases seem to bind the work together and make it more powerful—and more inspiring.