Planning and structure

Sentences

Compare the examples below

Unclear example:

Actually, storage is a real pain in small rooms. Every year students have exams and when they are over they have a problem knowing what to do with old lecture and seminar notes and handouts because tutors tell them they might be useful in the future but they can’t always see what to keep and so they just keep piling them up on their bookshelves.

Clear example:

At the end of every academic year, after exams are over, students have a problem knowing what to do with old lecture and seminar notes and handouts. Tutors tell students that some materials may be useful in future but students are often confused about what to keep. The result is that students just keep everything. The problem isn’t helped by the fact that they often live in small rooms with limited storage space.

Can you spot the differences?

The ‘unclear example’ is composed of one short sentence that seems more like a note of an opinion than a sentence, and one long, rambling sentence that becomes increasingly hard to follow. Is the paragraph about storage, keeping old study materials or both? Did you get confused by all the ‘thems’ and ‘theys’? When did the paragraph stop making sense for you?

In the ‘clear example’ the writer has made a decision about how to order her material and has given the reader a clear message about the subject of the paragraph. The writer has decided that the paragraph should focus on old study materials. She has also broken the paragraph up into four shorter sentences. She has established a definite context for the paragraph: ‘At the end of every academic year…’ She has tied everything together by having her first and last sentences refer to each other by repeating the phrase ‘the problem’.

The writer of our clear example has varied the length of her sentences. This makes her writing more interesting to read and easier to understand. She uses reasonably long but not rambling sentences to set the scene of her discussion. When she gets to an important point – ‘The result is that students just keep everything’ – she uses a short sentence. This is very effective and packs a lot of ‘punch’. It makes the reader sit up and take notice.

If an essay has too many paragraphs like the ‘unclear example’ it soon becomes tiring to read and difficult to follow. It also becomes difficult for the writer. If you’ve written a very long sentence where all the ‘theys’ and ‘thems’ are confused, it’s very easy to read it back, misidentify one of them and then write a new sentence that goes off at a tangent.

Sentences – common problems

Here I work through some common problems with sentences and give you strategies for solving them.

Length
Most writing guides will tell you that the ideal length for a sentence is 15-20 words. This is a very good rule to follow. You can also learn a lot about the length of sentences simply by being aware of what you are doing when you are writing. If you find yourself writing a sentence and about to go on to a third line, stop and think about what you are trying to say. Remember: the longer sentences are, the harder they are to follow.

Main clauses and subordinate clauses
Long sentences are made up of main clauses and subordinate. Can you say which is which in [1]?

[1] Corporate espionage is on the increase because of the growing use of computers to store sensitive information.

The main clause is the first part of the sentence: “Corporate espionage is on the increase…”
The subordinate clause is the second part of the sentence: “…because of the growing use of computers to store sensitive information.”

A common fault is to interrupt the main clause of the sentence with the subordinate clause as in [2]:

[2] Corporate espionage, because of the growing use of computers to store sensitive information, is on the increase.

It’s not clear what the writer is trying to say. We might guess that she is saying the same thing as the writer of example one, but we can’t be sure. After all, it looks as if she’s saying the same thing twice: “growing use”, “on the increase”.

Active and passive voice
Sentences in the active voice are much easier to read and understand than those in the passive voice.

Active voice: John’s father repaired the car.

Passive voice: The car was repaired by John’s father.

The active voice sentence uses fewer words and gets straight to the point. However, the passive voice can be useful when you don’t know the subject of the sentence or don’t want to call attention to it. For example, “The real identity of Jack the Ripper remains unknown” is better than “No-one really knows who Jack the Ripper was”.

Unclear pronouns
Pronouns are words like ‘them’, ‘he’, ‘it’ and ‘this’. In our bad example, the ‘thems’ and ‘theys’ started to get confused. Let’s take a sentence from our ‘good example’ and change it slightly:

Tutors tell students that some materials may be useful in future but they are often confused about what to keep.

Who does they refer to? Tutors or students? Grammatically, it could refer to either and the result is that the sentence is unclear. Now go back and read through the ‘clear example’ and you will see that when the writer does use pronouns it is always clear what she is referring to.

Another common problem is that students will introduce the subject of the paragraph in the first sentence and then not refer to it again. The result is the same: confusion.

Remember: the further away the pronoun is from who or what it refers to, the more confusing the sentence becomes.

And and But
Don’t start sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but’. Words like ‘and’ and ‘but’ are called conjunctions which means they are used to join things together.

[3] Poorly constructed sentences often use the passive voice and interrupt main clauses with subordinate ones.

[4] Poorly constructed sentences often start with ‘and’ or ‘but’, but this is incorrect because such words are conjunctions, i.e. joining words.

You can see that ‘and’ is used to connect two similar things; however, ‘but’ is used to qualify something.

Lists and noun strings.
Let’s go back to our example of an unclear sentence:

Every year students have exams and when they are over they have a problem knowing what to do with old lecture and seminar notes and handouts because tutors tell them they might be useful in the future but they can’t always see what to keep and so they just keep piling them up on their bookshelves.

You’ll see that all the conjunctions are in italics to show that one of the things that is wrong with this sentence is that is a great big list. Remember that ‘and’ and ‘but’ are words for joining things together but also remember that you can’t keep using them indefinitely.

Noun strings are usually the result of trying to cut words to stay within word counts.

[5] Noun strings usually result from student word cutting attempts.

That’s unclear – this is clearer:

[6] Noun strings usually result from students’ attempts to cut words.

Parallel constructions.
When you have a sequence of phrases or clauses put them all in parallel construction – i.e. the same grammatical from – so the reader can see the relationship between them more easily.

Like this:

In parts of England where flooding after heavy rainfall happens every winter, it is important for householders to learn to recognise the warning signs, to know what precautions to take, and to know when to evacuate their homes.

Not like this:

In parts of England where flooding after heavy rainfall happens every winter, it is important for householders to learn to recognise the warning signs. There are also precautions to take and knowing when to evacuate their homes is important.

In the second example, the writer has not used the phrase “it is important” to create a parallel construction. The second sentence is much harder for the reader to understand; and the whole passage lacks the flow of the first example.