Business Writing Tip #170—Another Tip for Better Sentences

Sometimes I find tips for better writing in unexpected places. That happened this month. I recently dropped in at a family history exhibition and met Carol Baxter. She’s an author and the ‘History Detective’. She has a newsletter and in the most recent edition she included such a great writing tip that I had to share it with you. So this tip is adapted from Carol Baxter’s newsletter. Carol calls it ‘chronological writing’.

So what is chronological writing? At its simplest it’s about writing things in the order that they happened. Most of us probably do this quite unconsciously at the macro level, when we are thinking about the overall structure of our writing, but Carol’s tip was about doing it at the sentence/paragraph level. In her words, ‘It’s much easier for a reader to comprehend what we are saying when the first occurrence is written first and the second occurrence is written second.’

For the first example I’ll use Carol’s text, then I’ll follow it with a business example.

Take a look at these three sentences.Boo (800x800)

  • Mary fed the cat then went to the shops.
  • After feeding the cat, Mary went to the shops.
  • Mary went to the shops after feeding the cat.

The first two the actions are written in the order they occurred. First feed the cat, then go to the shops. The third breaks the rule. As a reader you are following Mary to the shops but then you have to go back in time to where she is feeding the cat.

Now there’s nothing wrong with the third sentence. It’s just that if you write many of these sentences in your piece, your reader might become confused about what is happening when.

  • At the meeting we reviewed the proposal and quotes, then decided to buy the XYZ printer for the department.
  • After reviewing the proposal and quotes at the meeting, we decided to buy the XYZ printer for the department.
  • At the meeting we decided to buy the XYZ printer for the department after reviewing the proposal and quotes.

Again, the third example is not wrong. It’s quite clear. But turn your timelines around too often and you may end up with a confused reader.

Why not add chronological sentences to your editing checklist? Ask yourself, ‘Are my sentences following the order or events?’ If they’re not, is that okay – or are there too many that aren’t?

Happy writing.

BTW, you can find Carol’s website here.

Business Writing Tip #169—A Tip for Writing Better Sentences

When you’re editing your first draft, it’s a good idea to check if you have used parallel structures. Checking this will help make sure that your sentences are grammatically consistent, and using parallel structures makes your sentences easier to read.Nam Miru escalator

What is a parallel structure?

If your sentence has sections that have similar content and function, write them in a similar way.

For example, make sure verbs tenses are consistent.

  • He was researching, drafted and writing the report.
  • He researched, drafted and wrote the report.
  • Before the meeting we need to: draft the agenda, arranging the venue, setting up the refreshments, and invite the participants.
  • Before the meeting we need to: draft the agenda, arrange the venue, set up the refreshments, and invite the participants.

It’s also important to think about other types of words.

  • Small group meetings will take place both in and outside of the main conference hall.
  • Small group meetings will take place both inside and outside of the main conference hall.

Usually we make this kind of mistake when we’re in a hurry, so make sure you have time to read through your writing before you have to send or submit it.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #168—Types of Sentences

My last post looked at subjects and predicates. This tip introduces you to the four different types of sentences.

The Four Types of Sentence

  1. Declarative—these sentences make a statement and end with a full stop (US English: period).

I will submit the report on Friday.

  1. Interrogative—these sentences ask questions and end with a question mark.

    foursentences8x10-819x1024

    IMAGE CREDIT: AMBER PARROW. ALPHABETAGEEK

Will the report be finished by Friday?

  1. Imperative—these sentences are the ones we use to make a request or give a command and they usually end with a full stop. These are the sentences we use for to-do lists, agendas and to outline instructions.

– Book the venue.

– Make the catering arrangements for morning and afternoon tea, and lunch.

– Brief the audio-visual contractors about our requirements.

– Draft the agenda.

  1. Exclamatory—these sentences are the ones we use to express strong feelings and they end with an exclamation mark (US English: exclamation point). They are rare in business English but may be used in sales/advertising copy or in emails when we have a strong rapport with the recipient.

Buy one, get one free!

Can you believe it? It’s budget time again! Can we get together for a chat tomorrow, say at ten, and start working on the draft?

Happy writing.

Image credit: Amber Parrow. ALPHABETAGEEK 

 

Business Writing Tip # 167—A Few Words about Sentences

2048px-Lego_Color_BricksSentences are one of the main units of writing, one of the building blocks. We have words, and we have paragraphs and, in between, we have sentences.

At its most basic a sentence has two parts: a subject and a predicate. And to be a complete sentence it must have both parts. In some writing incomplete sentences are fine, but in business writing it’s best to write complete sentences (writing sales copy is probably the only exception to this).

First some quick definitions . . .

Subject: who or what the sentence is about

Predicate: says something about the subject

The shortest complete sentence in English is:

I am.

‘I’ is the subject. ‘Am’ is the predicate.

To find the subject of your sentence, first find the main verb and then ask ‘who?’ or ‘what?’

Example:

Yesterday, after lunch, the client contacted me.

The main verb is ‘contacted’. Who or what contacted? The client.

But it’s not always simple . . .

Both parts of the sentence can be simple, complex or compound, or a combination of each.

This is where a careless writer may get into trouble, writing long, rambling sentences. A good rule of thumb on sentence length is ‘No sentence should have more than 20 words’.

Now, like all rules, you may need to break this one; it’s more general guidance than a rule.

Simplex, complex and compound

Here’s a simple example:

  • The committee has approved the proposal.

The subject is ‘the committee’ and the predicate is ‘has approved the proposal’.

Now a more complex example:

  • The Finance Committee, which met on Monday 13 April 2015, has approved the proposal put forward by the HR Committee that apart from graduate recruitment, recruitment be frozen for the next two months.

The simple subject is ‘the finance committee’ and the simple predicate is ‘approved the proposal’.

Then there are complex subjects and predicates:

  • The committee and the board have discussed and approved the proposal.

Here there are two nouns in the subject (the committee and the board) and two verbs relating to that subject (discussed and approved).

Happy writing.

 

Image by Alan Chia (Lego Color Bricks) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Business Writing Tip #152—Four Fixes for Run-on Sentences

In Tip #126 I talked about sentence fragments. Today I want to talk about another sentence problem—run-on sentences. The simplest way to describe these is to say that run-on sentences are sentences that need more punctuation or another word. In most cases they need to be more than one sentence, although in some instances the thoughts might be kept in the same sentence by adding something.  Run-on sentences are sometimes called fused sentences because they fuse multiple sentences together.

Here’s an example.

The committee met on Tuesday to discuss the budget it approved the budget.

This really needs to be two sentences, or to have something added to link the ideas together.

How to Fix Run-On Sentences

There are four ways to fix run-on sentences.

  1. Use a full stop and divide the sentence into two.
  • The committee met on Tuesday to discuss the budget. It approved the budget.
  1. Use a semi-colon to keep more of a link between the two thoughts.
  • The committee met on Tuesday to discuss the budget; it approved the budget.
  1. In some cases you can use a word (a coordinator).
  • The committee met on Tuesday to discuss the budget and it approved the budget.
  • The committee met on Tuesday to discuss the budget but it failed to approve the budget.
  1. And in some cases you can use a conjunction and a semi-colon (note in this example I had to alter the second sentence to make this work).
  • The committee met on Tuesday to discuss the budget; however, it did not approve the budget.

Happy writing.

four fixes for run on sentences

Business Writing Tip #146—The Long and the Short of It

absalom - longest sentence

This book contains a sentence which, at 1,288 words, is believed to be the longest sentence in English literature.

Variety is the spice of life. This proverb may seem clichéd, but as with all clichés there is an element of truth in it, particularly when we talk about sentence length. If you want your writing to be boring and to send people to sleep, use the same sentence length and structure for each sentence.

What is a sentence?

A sentence is a group of words and marks that includes a subject, which may be implied, a verb, and a final punctuation mark. Sentences can be short, or longer, or somewhere in between.

Here are some short sentences:

  • You went.

The word ‘You’ is the subject, ‘went’ is the verb, and then there’s a full stop (period).

  • Go!

Again ‘you’ are the subject, but this time it’s implied. ‘Go’ is the verb, and then, because it’s an imperative, there’s an exclamation mark.

In previous posts I’ve claimed that it is good to write shorter sentences rather than longer ones in business writing. We do this to make sure that our meaning is clear, and so that we don’t confuse our readers. But, that said, we don’t want all of our sentences to be the same length. If they are all short our writing can seem very choppy.

The key is variety. Humans like variety in most things, and sentence length is no exception.

Look at this paragraph.

  • The photocopier needs replacing. It is not producing clear copies any more. Also parts are expensive. Three new models were assessed. We recommend buying the XYZ model.

See what I mean? Definitely choppy.

How to fix writing with too many short sentences

  • The photocopier needs replacing because it is not producing clear copies any more. Also parts are expensive. We assessed three new models and recommend that we buy the XYZ model.

This is the same content, but it’s far more interesting to read. In this version I’ve joined short sentences with the conjunctions ‘because’ and ‘and’.

Another way to join short sentences is to change one of them, if appropriate, to a subordinate clause.

  • The photocopier, which is not producing clear copies any more, needs replacing.

Why write short sentences?

Short sentences are not always wrong. Use a short sentences if you want to

  • Capture your readers’ attention.
  • Emphasise an important point.
  • Help your readers read the text quickly.

But what about long sentences?

We come up against some common problems when they’re not written carefully. One of the main ones is that writers use pronouns to replace other words and to avoid repetition, but in long sentences, it is not always clear which noun the pronoun is replacing.

  • The chairperson and the meeting attendees agreed on the proposal that the students, faculty and general public should have access to the resources, but they were not sure how to do this.

In this sentence, it is not completely clear who was not sure—is it the chairperson and the meeting attendees? Probably. But it might have been the students, faculty and general public. With sentences like this our readers have to work hard to try and find out what we meant to write.

Another challenge when we have a number of long sentences, one after the other, is that our writing can seem dull. Sometimes business writers are tempted to turn verbs into nouns, and to use the passive voice. Both of these practices tend to result in longer sentences which are more difficult to read.

But, how much variety is enough?

I hate to admit it, but there’s no definitive answer to this question. I suggest that, when you’ve finished drafting, you take a good, hard look at your sentences lengths. Is there variety? Read your writing aloud and listen to how it sounds. The more you do this, the more you will be able to ‘hear’ when you have a problem.

 

Business Writing Tip #59—Building Sentences: Verbs

In my last post I talked about sentences and subjects. Remember there are three essential elements in a sentence:

  1. The subject or subjects,
  2. A verb or verbs, and
  3. Punctuation.

Today I’m going to look at verbs. We won’t be able to cover everything about verbs in one post, but we’ll make a start.

Action verbs are the strongest kind of verb we use. They are direct and often dramatic. Compare the sentence, “The cat was in the room”, with these two new versions. Cat photo

  1. The cat prowled around in the room.
  2. The cat napped in the room.

In these two sentences something is happening.

Linking verbs do just what their name says. They link things to each other. They might link nouns to subjects, or pronouns or adjectives to a subject. They don’t add any action to a sentence but they have an important role. They give you additional information about a condition or state of being. Think about:

The most common linking verb is “to be”.

  • His mother was an author.

Other, rather more interesting, linking verbs include:

  • Feel, sound, taste, look, smells, grow, seem, appear and remain.

Here are some examples.

  • She felt ill.
  • He looks strange.
  • It seems like fun.
  • The aromas from the kitchen smell good.

If you just wrote ‘she felt’ or ‘it seems’ the sentence is missing something. These verbs invite you to continue. They lead you on to finish the sentence.

And here’s a simple test to help you work out if a verb is a linking verb. If you can replace the verb by am, is or are and the sentence still makes sense, it’s a linking verb.

With the above examples we would have:

  • She is ill.
  • He is strange.
  • It is fun.
  • The aromas from the kitchen are good.

So they are linking verbs.

There’s another thing about linking verbs. This category is finite—I can make a list of all the linking verbs. Some verbs are always linking verbs, and others may be linking verbs but can also be action verbs.

The verbs that are always linking verbs are:

  • Become
  • Be
  • Seem

Nice and easy, isn’t it? Only three to remember.

The list of those that may be linking verbs is a little longer.

Feel Grow Look
Appear Remain Smell
Sound Stay Taste
Turn Prove

Here’s an example of a verb “taste” used in one sentence as a linking verb, and in the next as an action verb.

  • The food tasted really delicious.
  • The woman tasted the food before serving it to her young child.

In my next post I’ll look at another category of verbs. These are given various names depending on what you are reading. Some people call them auxiliary verbs. Others like to keep things simple and call them helping verbs.

Until next time…