As writers, we all encounter situations in which we compose sentences that just don’t sound very good. The ideas are there, but the sentence itself is off. You tweak or rewrite the sentence—maybe even a few times—but it still just doesn’t sound quite right. What do you do?
First, make sure the sentence follows the grammatical rules of Standard American English (assuming that is the language you are writing in). Do you have any comma splices? Is the sentence a fragment? A run-on? Does your verb match your subject? These are the types of questions you should ask yourself right off the bat. If you’re unsure about the grammar of your sentence, stop reading now and find some resources to help you learn. We have plenty of these at the Writing Center, or your trusty friend Google is always there to help. In fact...
Now that you’re sure your sentence is grammatically sound, let’s look at other ways to mess with it. Just because a sentence is grammatically correct doesn’t mean it’s a good/clear/interesting sentence, so what else can we do to mix things up? First, try splitting the sentence into parts and then moving the parts around. Let’s look at an example:
Lauren, taking a sip of tea, which was black and bitter, pulled out her cell phone and texted John, who hated tea, to tell him how bad it was.
When I split up a sentence, I first look at the different pieces, particularly the phrases separated by commas. In this sentence, we have 1) Lauren, 2) taking a sip of tea, 3) which was black and bitter, 4) pulled out her cell phone and texted John, 5) who hated tea, and 6) to tell him how bad it was. That’s a lot of moving parts. What happens if we switch them around? Just start playing with them and see what happens!
Lauren took a sip of black, bitter tea, pulled out her cell phone, and texted John, who hated tea, to tell him how bad it was.
Better, right? We took #2 (“taking a sip of tea”) and made it into part of a list of actions. Then we took the adjectives out of #3 (“which was black and bitter”) and combined them with #2, thus eliminating an entire set of annoying commas. And then, actually, we left the rest of the sentence the same!
Can you think of any other even more effective ways to reword that sentence? What about starting with a different part of the sentence or a different part of speech? In the original, we start with Lauren, who is the subject. This makes sense. But what happens if we…
Taking a sip of black, bitter tea, Lauren pulled out her cell phone and texted John, who hated tea, to tell him how bad it was.
Not bad, not bad. This time we start with the action of “taking a sip of black, bitter tea” rather than with the subject, Lauren. But I’m still not sure about this version. Let’s try again.
The bitter, black tea slithered down Lauren’s throat in such a displeasing manner that she pulled out her cell phone so she could tell John, who hated tea, how bad it was.
This time, the tea is the subject—not Lauren. This completely changes the sentence, no? And we didn’t even have to do all that much! Plus, now we have some cool verbs and description: slithered and displeasing manner. Often, it’s easier to remove words, split the sentence up (using commas, periods, and so on), or use a more basic sentence structure (like starting with the subject and going from there). But don’t forget: Just because you’re editing a sentence doesn’t mean you can’t still add to it!
Next time you have a sentence that just isn’t working, check the grammar first and foremost. There’s a good chance something is off and that being more aware of different grammatical rules and conventions will help you recognize how to fix the sentence. However, if your grammar is on point and the sentence is still bothering you, refer to this article for ways to experiment with the sentence in a constructive way.
March 18, 2015