Writing Clear Sentences I

You learned in school that a sentence’s structure determines what it means. But nobody taught you how to arrange the sentence so your readers could understand it easily.

A sentence has two anchors: the SUBJECT and the VERB. The sooner the readers get to the subject and verb, the more likely they are to understand. So here’s the first secret of clear sentences: keep the subject and verb together, as close to the beginning as possible. Check out this diagram:


The left branch includes anything that comes before the subject, and the right branch is everything that comes after the verb. Anything you put in the left branch delays the reader getting to the subject, and therefore hurts clarity. Anything you put between the subject and the verb delays the reader getting to the verb, and hurts clarity.

So, for maximum clarity, start the sentence with the subject, put the verb next to it, and add other stuff to the right.

I don’t mean that every sentence should start with the subject. I mean that you pay a penalty in clarity if you don’t start with the subject. The longer and more complicated the left branch, the higher the penalty you pay, and the less your reader understands.

Try to understand this example: “Wearing a burnt-tangerine windowpane-checked linen and cashmere blazer, beige suede trousers, brown Gucci boots, a shirt unbuttoned low on the chest, a leather-thong necklace, and with a gold ring in the shape of an alligator coiling on his finger, Mr. Solomon, accidentally observed admiring his appearance in a pier mirror inside the front door, greeted his guest in the drawing room and led him upstairs to a rooftop garden for a talk, his golden retriever, River, at his side.”

You had to wait 39 words for the subject (“Mr. Solomon”) and then 13 more for the verb (“greeted”). You drowned trying to get through that sentence, and so would your readers.

Which leads us to the next secret: Don’t insert things inside other things; put them end to end. In the dreadful sentence above, the author inserts “accidentally observed admiring his appearance in a pier mirror inside the front door” within the unit of the subject and verb, damaging both.

Consider this sentence: “Consumers in China, a land where refrigerator doors fall off, the frames of bicycles crack as they are wheeled from the store and the hands of doughnut-sized watches ignore conventional notions of time, are up in arms.” By the time the readers get to the verb (“are up in arms”), they forget the subject (“Consumers”).

Try to make heads or tails of this awful sentence: “It helps to know that these parents – the youths of past generations – who don’t want their kids to experiment with drugs and sex, even when they’d done so themselves in an era that became a synonym for rebellion survived.”

Actually, that sentence will make perfect sense in speech because the speaker punctuates it with his or her voice; but in prose, the readers might have to read it two or three times to puzzle it out.

It’s easier to write clear sentences in the first place if you picture actions. Start with the actor (subject), put the action (verb) next to it, then add things end to end to the right. Later, read it aloud and revise anything that bumps.

[I dedicate this post to Bruce DeSilva, my fellow writing coach, who also collects hideous sentences. Please send me good or bad examples from your own experience.]

Published in: on March 1, 2009 at 3:47 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Hi, Don. Thanks for the dedication.

    I tell writers that if a journalist had written the Bible, it would have started something like this:

    In a surprise move intended to bring creation into existence out of what leading scientists call the lifeless void, God yesterday said “let there be light” according to a source close to the project.

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