Keep Your Friends Close—and These Sentence Parts Closer

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—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

April 22, 2020 

Keep Your Friends Close—and These Sentence Parts Closer

“Think of subjects and verbs as conjoined twins.”

— Roy Peter Clark

Subjects and verbs are terrible at social distancing.

Readers naturally seek them out in tandem, so separating the two can cause confusion and sap energy from sentences.

For clarity's sake, keep your subjects and verbs close to each other.

Watch what happens when they get too far apart:

Grace Provisions, which has had to transform its operations due to the pandemic and whose owners hope to maintain business, keep its staff employed, and support the local food industry, will donate 15 percent of profits from a new takeout menu to local restaurant workers laid off or furloughed by the crisis.

Readers could easily get lost searching for the verb in a sea of commas and explanatory words. To fix this mouthful of a sentence, move the verb closer to its subject and place the explanatory material in a new sentence.

Grace Provisions will donate 15 percent of profits from a new takeout menu to local restaurant workers laid off or furloughed by the crisis. The owners hope to maintain business, keep staff employed, and support the local food community.

Let’s review another example. Notice how this unneeded separation causes choppy writing.

We, after reviewing your strong credit score and debt-to-income ratio, accept your mortgage application.

You can fix this sentence by reuniting the subject and verb.

Option 1: Start with the subject and verb. 

We accept your mortgage application after reviewing your strong credit score and debt-to-income ratio.

More often than not, placing the subject and verb near the beginning of a sentence is a smart writing move, and certainly so in this example. Why leave the reader in suspense? Lead with the good news.

Options 2: Start with an introductory phrase or clause.

After reviewing your strong credit score and debt-to-income ratio, we accept your mortgage application.

The Big Takeaway

If keeping subjects and verbs close seems like a simple writing move, that's because it is! However, this practice has a profound effect on the clarity of your writing. So, the next time you revise a document or correspondence, check your subjects and verbs. Are they close enough to each other?
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Play the Editor!

Read the following email. Where are subjects separated from verbs? Rewrite sentences to fix the problem. Does the email read more smoothly? Scroll down to see how your message compares with our recommendation.

Good morning,

Human resources, in an effort to help new employees become familiar with day-to-day procedures, has revised the New-Employee Orientation Checklist. 

You, on the first day that a new employee joins your department, will receive the checklist. As before, please use the form for 30 days and then return it to HR. Note the following details: 

  • The form, while it does not cite all topics addressed during orientation, does list the key topics that need to be covered.
  • The form lists the topics HR will address and the topics that department heads will need to cover. 
  • The last section of the form covers how new employees are reviewed. 

The new checklist, which now includes more information because of the updates, will take more time to complete. We, however, in considering the checklist's value in orienting new employees, believe it will help new employees learn their jobs. 

Sincerely,
Melissa St. James

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Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide and past eTips for more ways to improve your sentence style.

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Editor’s Recommendation

Good morning,

Human resources has revised the New-Employee Orientation Checklist in an effort to help new employees become familiar with day-to-day procedures.

You will receive the checklist on the first day that a new employee joins your department. As before, please use the form for 30 days and then return it to HR. Note the following details:

  • While the form does not cite all topics addressed during orientation, it does list the key topics that need to be covered.
  • The form lists the topics HR will address and the topics that department heads will need to cover.
  • The last section of the form covers how new employees are reviewed.

Because of the updates and extra information, the new checklist will take more time to complete. However, we believe the checklist will help new employees learn their jobs.

Sincerely,
Melissa St. James