How to Write a Sentence Correctly
Sentences can be tricky, especially if you weren't paying attention during those English lessons in school. Let's kick things off by defining what it is that makes up a sentence, before moving on to its various parts.
A simple sentence is a group of words arranged in such a way as to express a single idea. For example:
- John reads books.
In this sentence we have all the elements needed to explain who's doing what. We have a subject, we have an object and we have an action. The subject is John, the object is books and the action is reading.
Any strong sentence needs to have at least those three things: a subject, an object and an action. Nouns are used for both the subject and object, while verbs identify whatever action is being taken.
Nouns are the names we give to "things" such as chairs, fish, books, cars, pens, dogs, pennies, light bulbs and so on. These are known as common nouns. Proper nouns are names of people, places and unique items such as cities, planets, companies and the like. Pronouns can also be used - he, she, it, they, us, we - when appropriate.
Verbs are words that demonstrate action; words like throw, push, read, walk, bite, ride, move, swim, kneel, crawl, jump etc.
Making Sensible Sentences
So far everything seems pretty straightforward. The problem with sentences isn't that they're difficult to create in the first place - it's that the written word tends to be more formal than the spoken word. Speech can be lazy and littered with contractions but we'll still be able to get the gist of what someone's saying. But when the same words are written down on paper they may not be as easy to comprehend.
Why is it so important to make your writing clear and unambiguous? It's not such a big deal if you're leaving a note for your partner, saying you'll be home ten minutes late and would they mind picking up a loaf of bread. It doesn't really matter how you notate that information, as long as the message gets received and understood. For instance, you might jot down something like this:
- Staff meeting. Back at 7. Get some bread in.
You can see that these short phrases are not complete sentences, but in this case it doesn't matter. The person reading the note is capable of filling in any gaps and deciphering the code to figure out what's needed and to take any necessary action.
And that's a point that you should give a little bit of thought to. It may be perfectly acceptable to use abbreviations and contractions when sending a text to a friend, but you wouldn't want to send that same type of message to a potential employer, or to a publisher reading your manuscript, or to your local government representative. The English language is a code, and even though it continues to grow and develop it's nevertheless important that we know how to communicate effectively with that code on any level.
Simple and Compound Sentences
There are basically two types of sentences you should write: simple and compound. Start with simple sentences and work your way up to their more complicated cousins when you feel comfortable doing so.
Simple sentences are the easiest to understand. They have only one subject, one object, one verb - and express one single idea. An example of a simple sentence might be:
- The girl kissed the frog.
The subject is "girl" and the object is "frog." The verb is "kissed" and the sentence explains a single idea.
Compound sentences are, in a nutshell, two simple sentences joined together by a conjunction, i.e. the words if, or, and, but, because and so on. To turn the simple sentence above into a compound sentence, then, we could write the following:
- The girl kissed the frog and the frog became a handsome prince.
You can clearly see the two simple sentences joined by the conjunction "and" -
- The girl kissed the frog.
- The frog became a handsome prince.
Easy enough, I think you'll agree. And if that was all there was to it, no one would ever have any trouble writing like a Pulitzer prize winner. But it isn't.
Language columnist June Casagrande explains exactly what makes some sentences great and other sentences suck!
Keeping Sentences Coherent
The trick with writing sentences correctly isn't just using the right words - it's also making sure you don't use the wrong ones.
Good sentence structure should be concise and unambiguous, striving to get to the point as quickly and efficiently as possible. There are a number of techniques you can use to help ensure that this happens in your own writing, including:
- Using strong, hard-working verbs - verbs are the words that describe action. Having someone sit on a chair in front of an audience doesn't have the same impact as having them thrust into the spotlight. Pulling your hand out of a hole isn't as powerful as jerking it free. There are so many verbs to choose from that you owe it to yourself to find ones that ignite your readers' imaginations and propel your ideas forward with vigor and passion.
For instance, look at this example:
The sun was setting in the west.
There's a lot wrong with this sentence. The verb "was setting" is weak to start with - and the sun always sets in the west, so there's no point mentioning it. Can you think of a better verb to use? What about dipped, sank, disappeared, slid?
The sun dipped slowly out of sight.
- Eliminating unnecessary words - we're all guilty of doing this. We say something is very good, describe what we're actually talking about or explain what we really mean. But really, we don't actually say very much in that way, do we? These extra words - often ending in "y" or "ly" - tend to water down the point we're trying to make and suck all the goodness out of it. They might add to your overall word count, but they do more damage than good. You don't need them, so give them the chop.
Look at the instructions on the picture at the top of this article. The first reads: Stir well before use . Is it possible to explain it any better or more succinctly than that?
- Thinking about your readers - everything you write should have a purpose. Your goal might be to describe a journey you've taken, to complain about a product, to request more information or highlight a problem. You need to begin by telling your readers what you're going to do and how you're going to do it. Then guide them through the information in a clear, logical and concise manner.
You'll find examples of this kind of writing in quality newspapers. Top journalists use the inverted pyramid technique to make sure they convey all the vital information as quickly as possible. That means getting as much of the who, what, where, why, when and how in the first paragraph, using the remainder of the article to add details, quotes, eyewitness statements and related facts.
For example, a typical news item might open with the following sentence:
A 23-year-old man from Alphabet City died yesterday when his car collided with a northbound freight train.
Notice that there's no fluff, only facts. No flowery or redundant words are used, because they don't deliver any information.
Simple Sentence Writing Tips
To write sentences that positively leap off the page, follow the steps outlined below.
- Decide what it is you want to say
- Imagine yourself explaining what you want to say in one sentence
- Imagine explaining the thrust of your argument to a child
- Jot down a few words that come to mind
- Ask yourself - who did what? Who will be your subject, what will be your object, and whatever they did will be your verb.
- Write down your subject-verb-object progression in the simplest language possible
- Check your verb to see if it has enough power; if not, replace it with something better
These steps will enable you to produce sentences that are crisp, concise and a pleasure to read. Let's take a look at the process in action.
Suppose you wanted to write about rounding up cattle on a farm. You might be tempted to begin your piece with a description of the landscape, the size of the herd, the sounds made by animals and people - but you shouldn't. Get down to business right away and leave those details for later, weaving them into your piece as it progresses.
- What words come to mind? Roper? Cowhand? Lasso?
- Who did what? Perhaps the roper managed to lasso a particularly stubborn cow.
- The subject-verb-object progression might therefore be: roper-lassoed-cow. Your simple sentence could read as follows - The roper lassoed the cow.
- Is the verb strong enough? It tells us what's happening, but without much enthusiasm: The roper snagged the cow.
- We already know that the cow was being stubborn, resisting attempts to be lassoed, so we could add that description to the equation: The roper snagged the stubborn cow.
Joining Simple Sentences for Impact
Hopefully you can see the power in a sentence like this. To turn this simple sentence into a compound sentence, follow the same subject-verb-object procedure and join the two sentences with a conjunction.
The more you work at creating simple sentences like this, the easier you'll find it. It will become automatic so you'll hardly even have to think about what you're doing. Once you've mastered sentence construction at this level you'll be able to add adjectives, adverbs and other descriptive elements to your writing.
This technique ensures that your scripts have a solid foundation to build on. Whenever you find it difficult to start a new project or article, go back to the drawing board and hunt out the basic elements of what you want to say. Use them to construct sentences that are easy to read and make perfect sense. Readers, editors and publishers will love you for it.