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How to write a strong sentence

And ways to fix common problems

Do you want to write better?

Construct stronger sentences.

Knowing how to draft an effective sentence is key to writing well. To excel at any activity, you must grasp the fundamentals before you can become a master. So, if you want to write an exceptional email, essay or novel, you need to nail down the nitty-gritty of sentence structure and advance from there.

What is a sentence?

A sentence is a group of words that combine to make a complete thought.

Ranging from one word (Stop!) to scores of them (anything written by Faulkner), a sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with a period, question mark or exclamation point.

Typically, a sentence needs at least a subject (the thing the sentence is about) and a predicate (the verb part that explains what the subject is doing). Of course, this is grammar, so there is an exception. A command or “imperative” has an implied subject, for example, Stop! actually means You stop!

Four types of sentence structure exist:

Simple – an independent clause (subject and predicate). The dog chased the cat.

Compound – two independent clauses joined by either a semicolon or a comma with a conjunction (the comma isn’t necessary if the last clause is quite short). The dog chased the cat, and the cat climbed a tree.

Complex – one or more dependent clauses with an independent clause. After the big chase, which resulted in a stalemate, the dog had a nap.

Compound-complex – one or more dependent clauses attached to multiple independent clauses. After the chase, the dog had a nap, but the cat, being a cat, could not let sleeping dogs lie. Mayhem ensued.  

Whichever sentence structure you use (and, to make your writing more interesting, you should be using all of them), ensure every sentence conveys a complete thought.

How to write a strong sentence

Have some variety – Variety helps give your sentences flavour. Use a combination of lengths and structures. Unless you’re aiming for the Early-Reader crowd, a collection of short, simple subject-verb-object sentences will bore your audience. An overabundance of long, complex sentences will tax readers in a whole different way. So to spice things up, mix things up.

Keep things parallel – If you are comparing ideas or items in a sentence, the construction needs to be parallel (the same). For a list, use the same verb tense and form to avoid issues. For example, My dog likes to swim, treats and chasing balls should be My Dog like to swim, to eat treats and to chase balls. For a comparison using a conjunction (and, for, not only…but also, etc.), ensure both parts of the sentence are presented in the same grammatical format. My dog not only likes to swim in the ocean but also in our pool is not parallel. My dog likes to swim not only in the ocean but also in our pool is parallel. Equally, My dog not only likes to swim in the ocean but also likes to swim in our pool is parallel.   

Pass on passive and activate your sentence – Use of active voice is a sure-fire way to inject energy. Active voice has the subject doing the action; in passive voice, the subject receives the action. The dog bit the boy is active. The boy was bitten by the dog is passive. Both sentences are grammatically correct, but the active version is more direct, dynamic and simple. If a sentence has some form of the verb to be and/or a “by” phrase, chances are it is passive voice.

Maintain verb consistency – Mixing up verb tense can cause confusion or, at the very least, distraction. My dreams shatter as the blue ribbon went to another dog. Shatter is present tense and went is past tense. Change went to goes or shatter to shattered to keep tense consistent.

Don’t misplace or dangle your modifiers – Modifiers are words, phrases or clauses that describe other words (or phrases or clauses) in a sentence. They add detail but run the risk of adding confusion if not handled correctly. To fix misplaced modifiers, keep them close to the thing(s) being described. So, instead of The dog brought a ball into the bedroom covered in saliva, write The dog brought a ball covered in saliva into the bedroom. (Can you imagine a bedroom covered in dog spit? Ugh!) Dangling modifiers occur when the subject of the sentence is missing, e.g., Hoping to curry favour, the dogs ignored the new treats. Who is currying favour? Not the dogs. Hoping to curry favour, I bought new treats, which the dogs ignored.

3 Common sentence problems and how to fix them

Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence occurs when two independent clauses (complete thoughts with a subject and predicate) join without the correct punctuation. Fix it by making two sentences, by inserting a semicolon or by using a comma with a coordinating conjunction.

Incorrect: Dogs are the best pets they have many wonderful qualities.

Correct: Dogs are the best pets. They have many wonderful qualities.

Correct: Dogs are the best pets; they have many wonderful qualities.

Correct: Dogs are the best pets, for they have many wonderful qualities. (If you don’t employ a conjunction, it turns the run-on sentence into a comma splice.)

Sentence fragments

A sentence fragment occurs when part of the sentence is missing, thereby leaving an incomplete thought. To remedy a fragment, figure out what is missing and pop it in.

Incorrect: Shows no regard for the furniture. (No subject present.)

Correct: The dog shows no regard for the furniture.

Incorrect: The dog, who managed to gobble down its entire dinner in about ten seconds, which was made up of kibble with gravy. (No predicate present.)

Correct: The dog, who managed to gobble down its entire dinner in about ten seconds, enjoyed its meal of kibble with gravy. 

Subject-verb agreement (actually, disagreement is the problem)

Whenever you write a sentence, the subject and verb must agree in number. A singular subject requires a singular verb form, e.g., I am, the dog runs, the team plays. A plural verb needs a plural verb form, e.g., we are, the dogs run, the teams play.

Simple enough, right?

However, the longer and more complex a sentence, the greater the likelihood of messing up the subject-verb agreement.

A sentence with a subject comprising two or more singular nouns/pronouns connected by “and” requires a plural verb form. For example, The dog and the cat are sleeping on the couch.

But if they are connected by “or/nor,” they need a singular verb. Either the dog or the cat is sleeping on the couch. Yet, if the compound subject comprises a singular and a plural noun connected by “or/nor,” the verb form depends on which noun is closer. Either the dog or the two cats are sleeping on the couch. Either the two cats or the dog is sleeping on the couch.

Confused? If not, this next part will probably do it.

Don’t get misled by a phrase that comes between a subject and its verb. The dog pack, made up of hounds, pugs and poodles, is excited to eat dinner. The focus of the dogs is the bag of treats. Tactics to keep each dog at bay until his or her turn include making them sit, having them stay and telling them to lie down.      

To fix agreement issues, strip away extraneous details and find the subject.

Oh, and while you’re at it, keep the point of view consistent. Don’t shift from he/she to they. Stick with one or the other.

The takeaway

Every sentence deserves to be strong. When in doubt, cut words out. It worked for Hemingway.

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Nancy Miller

Owner and editorial rockstar at Rock.Paper.Copy Writing Solutions

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