Chapter 5 Business Writing Trait 5: Sentences

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Business Writing Trait 5: Sentences

Sentences are the workhorses of communication. Any unit that is smaller than a sentence contains only a fragment of thought:

in infamy

shall live

this day

But a sentence combines those fragments into a complete thought:

This day shall live in infamy.

A sentence can be short or long. It can state a fact or ask a question, make a command or express emotion, or even show the relationship between two situations. That’s a lot for the lowly sentence to accomplish. This chapter will show how it’s done.

In this chapter

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Sentences: An Overview

A sentence is basically a connection between a noun (the subject) and a verb (the predicate). The subject tells what the sentence is about, and the predicate tells what the subject is doing or being. All of the other words in a sentence simply modify the subject or the predicate. Sentences have different functions and structures.

How Sentences Function

Sentences perform different jobs—they make statements, ask questions, give commands, and so on. Here are the basic functions.

Function

Statement

A statement tells something about a person, a place, a thing, or an idea.

 

The fourth-quarter earnings report has improved.

Question

A question requests information from the reader or listener.

 

Does the report reflect the company’s new marketing effort?

Command

A command tells people what to do, using the understood subject you.

Note: In formal writing, a command is the only kind of sentence that can have an understood subject.

 

Review the report in detail.

Exclamation

An exclamation expresses emotion or surprise.

 

This is a great report!

Conditional

A conditional sentence shows that one circumstance depends on another. It uses a word such as if, when, or unless to show the dependent relationship.

 

If the first-quarter earnings continue to improve, we should reinvest.

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How Sentences Are Structured

Sentences have different structures. They can be simple, compound, complex, or compound-complex. Here are the basic structures.

Structure

Simple

A simple sentence is made up of a subject (or subjects) and a predicate (or predicates). A simple sentence is an independent clause.

 

The meeting concluded.

(Single subject: meeting; single verb: concluded)

Anika and Tamlyn nearly fell asleep.

(Compound subject: Anika and Tamlyn; single verb: fell)

Bob and Tom talked and debated endlessly.

(Compound subject: Bob and Tom; compound verb: talked and debated)

Compound

A compound sentence is made up of two simple sentences. They are joined by either a semicolon or a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet).

 

We reached a decision; we should have fewer meetings.

(Two simple sentences joined with a semicolon)

Bob agreed with this idea, but Tom debated it.

(Two simple sentences joined with a comma and the coordinating conjunction but)

Complex

A complex sentence contains one simple sentence (independent clause) and one or more dependent clauses, which begin with a subordinating conjunction (though, because, whenever, and so on) or a relative pronoun (who, which, that).

 

Whenever we asked Tom to stop debating, he objected.

(Dependent clause beginning with the subordinating conjunction whenever)

Tom, who can craft a good argument, had more to say.

(Dependent clause beginning with the relative pronoun who)

Compound Complex

A compound-complex sentence contains two or more independent and one or more dependent clauses.

 

Though Tom was still talking, Bob called to adjourn, and I seconded.

(One dependent and two independent clauses)

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Sentences: Problems and Solutions

Sentences are the pack mules of communication: They carry meaning. Strong sentences get your meaning across, and weak sentences leave it behind. The following material provides strategies for solving sentence problems.

Problem:

Solution:

The sentences are repetitive.

Listen for

  • “They all start alike.”

Vary the beginning of sentences.

Start some sentences with the subject, others with a prepositional or verbal phrase, and others with a dependent clause. Vary the beginnings so that your writing doesn’t sound predictable.

The writing is halting.

Listen for

  • “This isn’t smooth.”

Vary the length of sentences.

Use short sentences to make a point. Use medium sentences for most information. Use long sentences for more complex ideas.

The sentences don’t engage the reader.

Listen for

  • “I lost interest.”

Vary the function of sentences.

Use a variety of sentence functions. If your sentences are all statements—providing information—the receiver may become bored. Use different kinds of sentences for different purposes.

  • Statements present facts.

  • Questions elicit information.

  • Commands call the receiver to act.

  • Exclamations express emotion.

  • Conditionals show relationships between situations.

The sentences all sound the same.

Listen for

  • “This sounds repetitive.”

Vary the structure of sentences.

Use a variety of sentence structures. If you have too many simple sentences, your writing will sound choppy, and your thinking will seem limited.

  • Simple sentences present information in the most direct way.

  • Compound sentences connect two equal ideas.

  • Complex sentences show a relationship between two ideas.

  • Compound-complex sentences show relationships between three or more ideas.

Two sentences sound choppy.

Listen for

  • “Smooth this down.”

Combine two equal ideas.

If you want two sentences to have equal importance, connect them with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet).

Look for

  • The inspector checked the roof. Some shingles had moss.

Combined: The inspector checked the roof, and some shingles had moss.

Three sentences sound choppy. (equal ideas)

Listen for

  • “That sounds choppy and confusing.”

Combine three or more equal ideas.

If you want three or more sentences to have equal importance, make a series. Place a comma after each sentence (except the last), and insert a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) before the last sentence.

Look for

  • Some shingles had moss. A few were cracked. The flashings were worn out.

Combined: Some shingles had moss, a few were cracked, and the flashings were worn out.

The sentences sound simplistic.

Listen for

  • “What’s the point of this?”

Combine two unequal ideas.

If you want to emphasize one sentence over the other, combine them using a subordinating conjunction. Place the conjunction at the beginning of the less important sentence. If that sentence comes first, place a comma after it.

Look for

  • We need a new roof. I will get quotes.

Combined: Because we need a new roof, I will get quotes.

or

I will get quotes because we need a new roof.

Subordinating Conjunctions: after, although, as, as if, as long as, as though, because, before, if, in order that, provided that, since, so that, that, though, till, unless, until, when, where, whereas, while

The sentences feel sluggish.

Listen for

  • “This part is just blah.”

Use strong verbs.

Avoid weak verbs such as do, have, and make. They often hide a more interesting verb in the direct object. Turn the direct object into a verb form, and eliminate the weak verb.

Look for

  • We had a discussion of the incident and made the discovery that accidents were frequent.

Strengthened: We discussed the incident and discovered that accidents were frequent.

The sentences are passive.

Listen for

  • “This sounds tired.”

Use active verbs.

Change be verbs and passive verbs into active verbs. An active verb tells what the subject is doing. A passive verb tells what is happening to the subject.

Look for

  • If a meeting is missed, Richard should be notified.

Energized: If you miss a meeting, you should notify Richard.

The sentences lack information.

Listen for

  • “Be specific.”

Expand the sentences.

Expand sentences by adding details that answer the 5 W’s and H—who? what? where? when? why? and how?

Look for

  • The department will meet to discuss changes in procedures.

Expanded: On Monday, August 23, at 2:00 p.m., the Production Department will meet with President Harre in Conference Room B to discuss changes in project-turnover procedures.

You can also create strong sentences by patterning a sentence off a strong model:

Model: Thank you for your thoughtful note about our company.

New: Thank you for your insightful comment about our competition.

The modifiers are confusing.

Listen for

  • “That sentence sounds funny.”

Fix misplaced and dangling modifiers.

Place the modifier as close as possible to the word it modifies. When the modifier is connected to the wrong word in a sentence, the modifier is misplaced. When it is connected to no word in the sentence, the modifier is dangling. For the dangling modifier, reword the sentence.

Look for

  • The committee has nearly been arguing for two hours. (misplaced modifier)

Well Placed: The committee has been arguing for nearly two hours.

  • After waiting for two hours, the meeting was cancelled. (dangling modifier)

Well Placed: After waiting for two hours, we found out that the meeting was cancelled.

The comparison is confusing.

Listen for

  • “It’s better than what?”

Complete the comparison.

Make sure a comparison names both things being compared. Otherwise, the comparison is incomplete.

Look for

  • The T180 water extractor has 20 percent more suction.

Complete: The T180 water extractor has 20 percent more suction than the T160.

The sentence could mean two things.

Listen for

  • “What do you mean?”

Reword ambiguous sentences.

Rewrite a sentence if it could be read in more than one way. Make sure your meaning is clear.

Look for

  • You can never pour too much soap in the laundry machine.

Clear: Avoid pouring extra soap into the laundry machine.

The sentences are fragmented.

Listen for

  • “That’s incomplete.”

Add what is missing to make a sentence.

Make sure each sentence includes a subject and a predicate and expresses a complete thought. Otherwise, the group of words is a fragment. Fix fragments by supplying what they lack—a subject, a predicate, or a complete thought.

Look for

  • Missing Subject: Need to complete the application.

Complete: We need to complete the application.

  • Missing Predicate: The whole department.

Complete: The whole department will attend the meeting.

  • Missing Subject and Predicate: From the beginning.

Complete: From the beginning, we liked this new product.

  • Incomplete Thought: After Shakira spoke.

Complete: After Shakira spoke, she answered the audience’s questions.

The sentences run together.

Listen for

  • “These sentences aren’t joined correctly.”

Use both a comma and conjunction to join sentences.

If two sentences are joined without any punctuation or conjunction, a run-on results. If the sentences are joined with only a comma, a comma splice occurs. These errors can be fixed by joining the sentences with a semicolon, with a semicolon and a conjunctive adverb, or with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet). The errors could also be fixed by making two sentences.

Look for

  • The prototype has arrived everyone should take a look. (run-on)

Corrected: The prototype has arrived; everyone should take a look.

The prototype has arrived; therefore, everyone should take a look.

  • The prototype has arrived, everyone should take a look. (comma splice)

Corrected: The prototype has arrived, so everyone should take a look.

The prototype has arrived. Everyone should take a look.

The tenses shift.

Listen for

  • “You go from past to present.”

Stay in one tense.

Avoid using more than one tense in a sentence when only one is needed.

Look for

  • I answer phones and will update patients’ records.

Corrected: I answer phones and update patients’ records.

The pronouns shift.

Listen for

  • “Stay in third person here.”

Don’t shift the person of pronouns.

Avoid improperly mixing first person (I, we, us), second person (you, your), and third person (he, she, they) in a sentence.

Look for

  • Clients can check their status online or when you call in.

Corrected: Clients can check their status online or when they call in.

The voice shifts.

Listen for

  • “The voice changes.”

Do not mix active and passive voice.

Avoid mixing active and passive voice within a sentence.

Look for

  • If you review the account, a lot of action will be seen.

Corrected: If you review the account, you will see a lot of action.

A series sounds awkward.

Listen for

  • “This isn’t parallel.”

Use parallel structure.

Make sure all elements in a list are the same part of speech (all nouns, all adjectives, all prepositional phrases, and so on).

Look for

  • We specialize in costume design, tailoring, alterations, and to clean costumes. (nonparallel)

Parallel: We specialize in costume design, tailoring, alterations, and cleaning.

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Checklist Sentences

Your goal is to use a variety of sentences, to create a smooth flow of thought, and to make sentences error free.

  1. Do I use a variety of sentence functions?

    • Statement

    • Question

    • Command

    • Exclamation

    • Conditional

  2. Do I use a variety of sentence structures?

    • Simple

    • Compound

    • Complex

    • Compound-complex

  3. Do I use a variety of sentence beginnings? (subject, transition, phrase, clause)

  4. Have I combined choppy sentences?

  5. Have I energized tired sentences?

  6. Have I reworked rambling sentences?

  7. Have I corrected fragments?

  8. Do my sentences read smoothly overall?

“A sentence is a noun and a verb—matter and energy. You can catch the whole universe in a sentence.”

—J. Robert King

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