Superb Sentences: Building Blocks to A+ College Writing Assignments
Your goal in writing is to artfully create sentences, ensuring smooth transitions between sentences and paragraphs, while avoiding these common sentence pitfalls.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
While the quality of your writing assignments is determined on a macro level by their overall organization, content, research, and thoughtfulness, your assignments are made up of sentences. Your goal is to put sentences together artfully and ensure smooth transitions between sentences and paragraphs. But before you aspire to that goal, you must first be sure that the sentences that form the building blocks of your paper are sound. This article points out some common sentence pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Pitfall: Awkward or Confusing Sentence Structure
The best way to avoid sentences that trip up your professor and hamper readability is to read your paper aloud. Chances are that a sentence that doesn't read well orally is too complex or confusing in print as well. You can usually simplify by breaking a sentence into two or more sentences and by ensuring that all modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) and clauses (groups of related words that contain both a subject and a predicate and that function as part of a sentence) are structurally close to the elements to which they refer. You can also cut out unnecessary clauses and phrases (groups of related words without a subject and a predicate that function as a single part of speech).
Of course, you should also avoid going to the opposite extreme of having too many short, choppy sentences in your paper since professors have also identified short, choppy sentences and paragraphs as one of their student-writing pet peeves (see next item). When you can join two sentences gracefully and without adding confusion, by all means join them. But if compound subjects, compound verbs, and numerous clauses have obscured the meaning of your sentences, it may be time to simplify.
Pitfall: Short, Choppy Sentences and/or Paragraphs
Professors dislike short, choppy sentences and paragraphs only slightly less than they abhor long, complex ones. Examples:
Choppy: Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975. This disheartened many Americans.
These sentences would sound less choppy and would flow better if we joined them into one:
Smoother: Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, disheartening many Americans.
As you read over your paper, look for opportunities to join choppy sentences together without creating sentences that are too long and complex.
Pitfall: Sentence Fragment(s)
Sentences need to have a subject and a verb. If a sentence does not have both, it's a fragment, which you can frequently successfully attach to another sentence. Take the sentence you just read. A clumsy student might write: "If a sentence does not have both, it's a fragment. Which you can frequently successfully attach to another sentence." The student can perform a quick fix by turning the sentence fragment into a clause, setting it off with a comma, and attaching it to the sentence to which it belongs. Make sure all your sentences have both a subject and a verb, and when appropriate, perform reattachment surgery on these that don't.
Pitfall: Run-on Sentence(s)
We can think of the run-on sentence as the evil twin of the sentence fragment. Where the sentence fragment lacks a subject or verb, the run-on sentence has too many of both. There's nothing wrong with joining two sentences into one compound sentence as long as you use an appropriate connector between the two sentences. An appropriate connector is either a conjunction, such as "and," "but," "yet," "so," "however," or punctuation, such as a semi-colon or colon but not a comma. Joining two complete sentences with a comma results in the most common type of run-on sentence. A good check for run-ons can be performed by reading your paper aloud. Every time you naturally feel the need to pause in the spoken version of your paper, ensure that appropriate punctuation marks the pause and ensure that if two sentences are on either side of the punctuation, a conjunction, semicolon or colon has joined them.
Wordiness results when you've used more words than are necessary to express your ideas, probably rendering your sentences too complex and your paper too long. As you edit and revise your paper, scrutinize the necessity of every word. Have you used more words than are necessary to express your ideas? What words can you eliminate without changing the meaning of your sentences? Every word should contribute to your point. If "it goes without saying," why say it? "Murder your darlings," a speechwriting instructor once advised me about extraneous words. As a longtime professor of freshman composition writes: "Think of each sentence in your paper as a snapshot on a roll of film; normally only a few will be worth keeping." The credo of journalists, who must tell their stories in minimal space is: "Write tight." Let that credo be yours, and don't use the wordy phrases that typically ensnare student writers.
Here are a few specific examples of wordiness to avoid:
Avoid auxiliary (helping) verbs and participle verb forms. Instead of "will be helping," say "will help."
Avoid "in an attempt to." This phrase frequently can be reworked or eliminated.
Avoid "in order to." In the vast majority of cases, this wordy phrase can be reduced to one word: "to."
Avoid wordy expressions such as on a daily (weekly, monthly, annual, regular) basis." You can cut these expressions down to one word apiece: "daily," "weekly," "annually," "regularly."
Avoid "due to the fact that." A simple one-word substitute is "because."
Pitfall: Nonagreement of Subject and Verb
Singular subjects must take singular verbs, and plural subjects take plural verbs. It's a fairly easy problem to avoid with simple sentences but can be harder to detect in more complex sentences:
Wrong: Every student, especially seniors, know the cafeteria's hours.
Right: Every student, especially seniors, knows the cafeteria's hours.
Grammar books and grammar checkers can provide short cuts if you don't have a firm grasp of this grammatical concept.
Pitfall: Inappropriate use of Passive Voice
A passive construction is a verb phrase consisting of a form of the verb "to be" followed by a past participle. The subject of an active verb acts, while the subject of a passive verb is acted upon. The passive form of the sentence we used in a previous example would be:
Wrong: Many Americans were disheartened by this event.
Right: This event disheartened many Americans
The tipoff to whether a verb construction is passive is if you can tack a prepositional phrase beginning with "by" to the end of the sentence: Many Americans were disheartened by this event. Check for actual or potential "by" phrases as you read over your paper. One of the most effective features of your word-processing software's grammar checker is its ability to spot passive constructions.
Pitfall: Dangling Clauses/Phrases
A clause or phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the main sentence's grammatical subject:
Wrong: Knowing that you are an expert on career development, you probably hear frequent questions about resumes. If you ask yourself who is doing the knowing, you realize that it's an understood I
Right: Knowing that you are an expert on career development, I'm sure you hear frequent questions about resumes.
Grammar books and grammar checkers can help you avoid such clauses and phrases.
Pitfall: Lack of Parallelism
When you list a series of items, the items must be in a parallel format.
Wrong: Diane Arbus and Alice Neel had in common feeling depressed, thoughts of suicide, and trying to capture human psychology in their artwork
Right: Diane Arbus and Alice Neel had in common bouts of depression, thoughts of suicide, and the tendency to try to capture human psychology in their artwork.
Pitfall: Weak Sentence and Clause Openers
The words "It" and "There" are weak sentence openers that frequently entail unnecessary wordiness. When you give these words the starring role in your sentence, you are spotlighting pronouns that substitute for nouns not yet defined. For example:
Weak and wordy: It appears that Edme Morisot regretted giving up painting for marriage and family.
Stronger and tighter: Edme Morisot apparently regretted giving up painting for marriage and family.
Weak and wordy: It is worth noting that women who support capital punishment are more likely to be elected.
Stronger and tighter: Women who support capital punishment are more likely to be elected.
Weak and wordy: There are certain poets who changed 20th century poetry.
Stronger and tighter: Certain poets changed 20th century poetry.
Weak and wordy: There are many factors that account for the computer boom of the last 30 years.
Stronger and tighter: Many factors account for the computer boom of the last 30 years.
Weak and wordy: There was nothing more satisfying to Jim than a cold beer.
Stronger and tighter: Nothing was more satisfying to Jim than a cold beer.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.