Sentence Structure

Business communication’s goal is for the audience to quickly absorb, understand, and react to the communication. Concise business writing uses clean, straightforward sentence structure to improve understanding and retention. This is different from the prose of novels or the beat of poetry in which taking pleasure in the complexity of sentences is part of the experience. Business writing uses simpler sentences to be more concise and thus less likely to be misinterpreted.


Grammatically, there are three kinds of sentences. It’s not especially important for you to be able to identify them in order to be a good business writer. However, taking a moment to think about how they work and what they do will help you become more concise and clear.

Simple sentences consist of a single independent clause:

  • Fido fetched. [A noun and a verb is all it takes to make a simple sentence.]
  • Whiskers ate her tuna. [This adds a direct object, “tuna,” but it’s still a simple sentence.]
  • Polly sat on her perch and whistled. [This includes a prepositional phrase, “on her perch,” and a compound verb “sat” and “whistled,” but it’s still a simple sentence.]

Compound sentences consist of two (or more, but that’s tricky) independent clauses attached by a comma and a linking word (e.g., and, but, or, etc.):

  • Amanita threw the ball, and Fido fetched it. [“Amanita threw the ball” could stand alone as a sentence, as could “Fido fetched it.” This structure is what makes this a compound sentence.]

Complex sentences consist of at least one dependent clause followed by at least one independent clause:

  • While Amanita looked for the ball, Fido chased a grasshopper. [Even though the part of the sentence before the comma has a subject, “Amanita,” and a verb “looked,” the addition of “while” means it can’t stand on it’s own as a sentence. “Fido chased a grasshopper” can stand alone, so it is an independent clause.]

Compound-complex sentences combine the characteristics of compound and complex sentences:

  • While Amanita looked for the ball, Fido chased a grasshopper, and Whiskers looked bored.

In order to write straightforward sentences that are appropriate and effective in business communication, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Be careful not to string together too many ideas in the same sentence. A sentence like this may be confusing and difficult to read, and may not appear professional.

  • INEFFECTIVE: Michael copy edited the report, and the data tables were compiled, and the graphics looked wonderful. 
    • All three of these activities are part of the report completion, but they are awkard in the same sentence.
  • EFFECTIVE: Michael copy edited the report while the rest of the team compiled the data tables. The graphics looked wonderful. 
    • By using a connector other than and—in this case, while—the sentence actually gives more information: that the copy editing and compiling happened at the same time. If you substitute “after which” for “while,” you’re actually telling a somewhat different story. Also, it’s great that the graphics are impressive, but that idea doesn’t belong in the same sentence.

Starting a sentence with a dependent clause can sometimes bury the important news at the back end of the sentence. It’s not forbidden to begin with dependent clauses, but be very careful about when you choose to do so. Think about the emotions a reader goes through when faced with a sentence like this:

  • INEFFECTIVE: While we suffered a dismal first quarter because of supply-chain issues, and our stock price wobbled because of fluctuations in the Japanese market that caused the company to begin targeting employees for layoffs, the executive team is happy to report that we are on track for a profitable year. 
    • This sentence offers a lot of negative information in dependent clauses before offering the gist of the sentence, the positive news. The whole point of that sentence is that the company is doing well. Therefore, a more effective sentence would start with the important part.
  • EFFECTIVE: The executive team is happy to report that we are on track for a profitable year, even though we suffered . . .
    • There’s a whole different response when the sentence tells the important news first.

Clear is good; simple can be mind-numbing, so vary your sentence structures. Imagine an entire report full of this:

  • INEFFECTIVE: Profits were up. This is good. Production increased by six percent. Employees received bonuses in two of four quarters. The stock split. 
    • Even though you are reading excellent news, the repetitive sentence structure makes that news monotonous to read. Communicating cleanly and concisely doesn’t mean writing only in simple subject-verb sentences. Think about how the pieces of information relate to one another, and combine them in sentences that a) make sense, b) put the important news first, and c) show that you understand characteristics of effective professional writing.
  • EFFECTIVE: We are happy to report that profits are up, and our shares have split, because of a six-percent increase in production. As a result, employees received bonuses in two of four quarters.
    • These sentences are easier to read, and provide more content by showing the relationship among the pieces of information given.

Watch your wordiness, and work to eliminate unnecessary words.

Remember, your goal is not to make your all of your sentences short, your goal is to convey your ideas clearly and to avoid ambiguity. That said, the more complex the material you are discussing, the more straightforward and clean your sentences need to be.

Finally, become aware of your communication habits.

Do you use any particular sentence pattern consistently? Does each sentence in a paragraph start with a dependent clause? Whatever your particular quirks, plan on time for finding and editing them in order to create effective professional communication in terms of sentence structure.

Sentence Fluency

Sentence fluency is the flow and rhythm of phrases and sentences as they work together within a communication. To achieve fluency, you may use a variety of sentences with different lengths and rhythms to achieve different effects. You may also use parallel structures within sentences and paragraphs to reflect parallel ideas, but also to avoid monotony by varying your sentence structures. For example, you may consciously use a very short sentence in a paragraph to emphasize and draw attention to a particular idea.

You can also vary the emphasis according to where you place information in a sentence.  For example, look at the following sentences, which differently emphasize the concept that sales have increased.

  • Maximum emphasis. Because of our latest promotion efforts in our largest and most successful market, sales have increased across the United States.
  • Medium emphasis. Sales have increased across the United States because of our latest promotion efforts in our largest and most successful market.
  • Minimum emphasis. The United States, which has experienced a sales increase, is our largest and most successful market.

The information at end of the sentence is what people often recall, and is therefore normally considered the location of maximum emphasis. The second best position for recall is the beginning of the sentence, while the middle of the sentence is the area with the least recall. If you want to highlight a point, place it at the beginning or end of the sentence, and if you want to de-emphasize a point, the middle is your best option.

When you revise for sentence fluency, consider the patterns of your sentences and how one sentence leads into the next.  Are they all direct subject-verb statements?  Or are the sentences varied in pattern?  Have you used emphasis to enhance your point? Sentence variety is an asset to your audience, as it helps maintain their interest.

The following video offers some additional perspectives on using varied sentence structures to create fluency.