Category Archives: Sentence structure

Cut Deadwood: Eliminating The Innocuous “It Was”

ideadwood-685380-mBack in elementary school, I had various teachers who assigned “essays” by giving a required topic and length. Later in college, I had professors who made similar assignments. Not surprisingly, a number of students in both instances looked for ways to pad their work in order to meet the length requirement.

Their goal, of course, was not to entertain the teacher or professor. They simply wanted to complete the assignment.

Most writers who aspire to sell their work aren’t length conscious, but I suspect few of us learned ways to keep our writing lean and focused.

Eliminating the innocuous “it was” falls under the category of tightening prose and is particularly important in controlling the pace of a piece of writing.

“It was” is not grammatically incorrect (and thus the “innocuous” label)—it’s just not needed in most instances. In all fairness, neither is he was, she was, or they were. These subject/verb combinations almost always follow a sentence that introduces the it or the he, the she, or the they. In essence, then, the pronoun/be verb combinations are redundant.

Examples may clarify the point:

    * He pulled out a knife. It was an old World War II relic he’d inherited from his grandfather.
    * Jill passed a distinguished gentlemen heading for the front desk. He was taller than her father and as broad-shouldered as Uncle Jack.
    * As their mother looked on, the Dorsey twins walked up to the front door and knocked. They were each carrying a birthday present for their classmate.
    * Kelvin introduced himself to Mrs. Watson, his son’s third grade teacher. She was busy sorting papers at her desk and continued to work as they talked.

In most instances, a sentence beginning with a pronoun and a verb of being is describing or renaming the noun introduced in the previous sentence. So in the examples above, it renames knife, he renames gentleman, they renames twins, and she renames Mrs. Watson. Because of this close connection, however, the extra wordage is not needed.

In many cases, the sentence introduced by the pronoun/verb of being can be incorporated with the previous sentence. The simplest method is to replace the subject/verb with a comma:

    * He pulled out a knife, an old World War II relic he’d inherited from his grandfather.

Sometimes the descriptive material can be incorporated in the previous sentence as parenthetical material:

    * Jill passed a distinguished gentlemen—taller than her father and as broad-shouldered as Uncle Jack—heading for the front desk.
    * As their mother looked on, the Dorsey twins, each carrying a birthday present for their classmate, walked up to the front door and knocked.

Sometimes the material can be restructured in a more succinct way in an independent clause.

    * Kelvin introduced himself to Mrs. Watson, his son’s third grade teacher, who busily sorted papers at her desk while they talked.

Whichever method an author chooses or the context demands, eliminating the innocuous pronoun/verb of being combination trims deadwood from prose and contributes to a more lively pace.

One caution. The goal of good writing is not to create the fastest pace possible. At the same time, unnecessary words should not pad our prose.



Filed under Prose, Sentence structure

Replacing The Passive

Weight_lifterBecause active voice is stronger than passive, writing instructors generally encourage authors to avoid the latter. By way of review,

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship—a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather
    than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

(from “Clarifying What’s Passive”).

Understanding the passive construction is a good start, but writers also need to know how to revise those sentences and replace the passive verbs with active ones instead.

Writers utilize the passive construction for primarily three reasons: (1) they don’t know who the active agent is, (2) they want to emphasize the object, or (3) they don’t want to point fingers.

Consequently an author might write sentences like these:

The article was shared on both Facebook and Twitter. [The active agent is unknown.]

No one could verify if the film was seen by as many viewers as the theater reported. [The clause if the film was seem by as many viewers emphasizes the subject of that clause, film.]

The car was towed to a nearby garage. [The writer chooses not to point out what agent did the action.]

The key to constructing a sentence in the active voice is to make the subject of the sentence the active agent. The first step is to restructure the sentence so that the subject receiving the action (in the examples above, the subjects in question are article, film, and car respectively) becomes the object of the active verb.

To create the active verb, the writer must remove the form of the be helping verb (was in each of the examples above; other possibilities include were, is, are, been, and being) and any other accompanying helping verbs (such as have or had), then choose the appropriate tense of the action verb.

Finally, the writer must insert a new subject. Often times the agent in a passive sentence shows up as part of a prepositional phrase, usually introduced with by. Those sentences are the easiest to replace: . . . by my neighbors yields the subject neighbors; . . . by the publisher yields the subject publisher.

Putting the three steps together, the passive sentence The tree limbs were broken by the wind becomes the active sentence The wind broke the tree limbs.

The harder kinds of sentences to correct are those which do not name the agent at all. Sometimes context will yield the agent and sometimes an indefinite pronoun can do the job. The examples above which do not have agents might become one of the following:

    * Any number of blog visitors shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Many shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]
    * The company associated with AAA towed the car to a nearby garage. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Somebody towed the car to a nearby garage. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]

If there is no context clue and an indefinite pronoun won’t work as the subject, or if the writer’s intent is to feature the receiver of the action, he may need an entirely different sentence structure, perhaps incorporating the information contained in the passive sentence with another sentence, perhaps adding details, or perhaps reordering the sentence and choosing a different verb:

    * After being towed to the nearest garage, the car sat unattended for three days. [Incorporated with another sentence.]
    * Both Facebook and Twitter became the perfect platform to share the article. [Detail added.]
    * The article received considerable attention on both Facebook and Twitter. [Reworded to maintain article as the subject since the writer wished to feature it.]

Unfortunately “the Passive Police” have mistakenly accused a few other sentence constructions of being passive, but they are innocent and therefore writers and/or editors do not need to replace them. For help determining which sentences are not passive despite the accusations, see “Clarifying What’s Passive”. 😉


Filed under Sentence structure

Problems With Participles

participial phrasesParticiples are verb forms created by adding -ing, -ed, or changing the verb in an irregular way. They can be either present or past.

Participles should not be confused with the main verb in the sentence. Rather, they may work alone as describers, or in combination with a group of words as participial phrases

Present participle used as an adjective to describe a noun:

  • Because of the lopsided score, the officials decided to use running time in the second half.

Past participle used as an adjective to describe a noun:

  • Sweetened coffee turned her stomach.

Present participle introducing a phrase:

  • Remembering his commitment to his wife, the tech assistant left work a few minutes early.

Past participle introducing a phrase:

  • Handcuffed by the officer, the suspect climbed into the patrol car.

Participle problems are threefold. They can be improperly constructed, misplaced, or chronologically impossible.

Improperly Constructed
Present participles regularly add -ing to the verb stem, though there are occasional spelling changes such as changing an ending -ie to -y before adding the suffix:

    tie, tying; die, dying; lie, lying.

Past participles generally add -ed to the verb stem, but some two hundred verbs require an irregular form instead. This form is one used with helping verbs such as have. Some common irregular forms include the following:

    go, (have) gone; write, (have) written; come, (have) come

The improper construction problems, then, are wrong spellings of present participles and the use of incorrect irregular past forms for past participles.


  • The one lieing lying on the bed is dirty.
  • Water rang rung from the rag splattered the floor.

Misplaced Participles or Participial Phrases
The noun or pronoun that the participle or participial phrase describes must follow it immediately. When another noun is substituted, the “dangling modifier” can sometimes create humorous sentences.

Examples of Dangling Modifiers

  • Surfing in Hawaii, the waves were bigger than any he’d seen. (Waves don’t surf).
  • Hiked frequently by tourists, the park rangers removed rocks from the trail. (Tourists hike the trails, not the rangers.)

These problems can be changed in a variety of ways.
1) Rearrange the main clause so that the noun which the participial phrase describes is the subject.

    Surfing in Hawaii, he faced bigger waves than he’d seen before.

2) Reword the sentence without the participial phrase, creating instead a compound or complex sentence.

    The park rangers removed rocks from the trail because tourists hiked them frequently.

3) Introduce the participial phrase with a subordinate conjunction such as after or before.

    Before surfing in Hawaii, he’d never seen such big waves.

Chronologically Impossible
Present participles indicate simultaneous action. Consequently, a participial phrase must only contain action that can occur at the same time as the action of the main clause.

Examples Of Problematic Sentences

    Running to catch the train, he bought his ticket at the booth. (He can’t be running to the train at the same time he is at the booth).
    Turning on the oven, she mixed all her ingredients at the kitchen table. (She can’t be turning on the oven at the same time she is at the kitchen table.)
    The quarterback threw a touchdown, celebrating with his own special dance. (The quarterback can’t be celebrating at the same time he is throwing the TD pass).

Primarily authors who use participial phrases in chronologically impossible ways intend to create a sequence of events. One way to correct the problem is to turn the phrase into a dependent clause.

    Before the passenger ran for the train, he stopped at the booth to buy his ticket.

A second possibility is to create a compound verb.

    She turned on the oven, then mixed all her ingredients at the kitchen table.

Finally, the sentence can be converted into a two sentences.

    The quarterback threw a touchdown. He celebrated using his own special dance.

Authors can eliminate participle problems first by learning the proper spelling of present participles and the correct forms of irregular past participles, then by asking two questions: (1) Is the participle or participial phrase right next to the noun it’s describing; (2) Can the action in the participial phrase occur at the same time as the action of the main part of the sentence?

Chances are, once you start seeing participle problems, you’ll chuckle at the impossible things you’ve written, then you’ll happily edit them out.

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Filed under Sentence structure

Parallel Structure

apples and orangesHow many times have you heard some variation to the old adage, You can’t add apples and oranges? I dare say, we’ve all heard it repeatedly and may have used the phrase ourselves. It creates a good image and is helpful in understanding a variety of concepts. As it happens, I think it also helps in understanding parallel structure, also called parallel construction or parallelism.

Of course with parallel structure, we’re talking about words and phrases and clauses, not fruit, but the concept is still the same.

The point of parallel structure, like most grammar, is to create clarity and readability:

Parallel structure adds both clout and clarity to your writing. When you use parallel structure, you increase the readability of your writing by creating word patterns readers can follow easily.(“Parallel Structure,” Evergreen Writing Center)

The key, I believe, to utilize parallel construction consistently is the idea of creating word patterns—or putting all the oranges together and all the apples together.

At the word level, parallel structure “adds” nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, and adverbs with adverbs. Hence, in a list, all the items need to be of like kind:

Catlyn enjoys writing, reading, and sleeping.

Not Parallel:
Jordan likes books, movies, and to take long walks.

However, these words must also be in the same form. Hence, a verb ending in -ing should not be “added” to a verb in the infinitive form, or the to- form.

Oscar gained a reputation for his blocking, catching, and running.

Not Parallel:
DeShawn likes hitting blockers, tackling ball carriers, and to strip the ball from the runner.

At the phrase level, parallel structure “adds” phrases of like kind, constructed in a similar way.

Whether at the ball park or at the skate rink, he was always on the go.

Not Parallel:
Whether at the mall or shopping on line, she’s always looking for a bargain.

Not As Parallel As It Could Be:
Whether by himself or with a group of other guys, he always found something to do.

The last example is not technically lacking in parallelism—the conjunction and “adds” two prepositional phrases. However the first one has no modifiers and the second one has another prepositional phrase modifying it. If the rhythm in the paragraph requires strict parallelism, this last example doesn’t do it.

Here are a few similar example.

Not As Parallel As It Could Be:
He pulled out a box of toys, a pile of comics, and a couple shoes. [The first two nouns are described by prepositional phrases, the last one is not].

Ary prefers driving fast cars, drinking strong drinks, and lounging in front of the TV. [The first two verb forms have objects, the last one is described by a sequence of prepositional phrases].

Parallel structure also applies to compound clauses, that is, to a group of words with a subject and verb.

Dad often spoke of his older sister who put herself through college but who never did anything with her education.

Not Parallel:
The coach told his players that they should play as a team, that they should share the ball, and not to be selfish.

As with words and phrases, form also matters in the structure of parallel clauses.

Not Parallel:
The shopper expected that she would find a new dress, that a salesman would ring up her purchase, and that the item would be bagged. [The first two verbs are active, the last is passive].

Apples and oranges. Keep them separate. Your readers will thank you, though they probably won’t know what you’ve done to make your writing so clear and so easy to understand.


Filed under Sentence structure

Construct Your Sentences; Don’t Let Them Grow Like Weeds

scaffold-770382-mIn my capacity as a contest judge, an editor, and a book reviewer, I do my fair share of reading fiction. Of late, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a growing trend—less attention to sentence structure.

For instance, in a novel I’m currently reading, I saw one paragraph with four of its five sentences all starting with He. In another, the opening two sentences were constructed identically. In others, authors lean heavily on a favorite construction which appears with frequency.

Some writers might think, Nit-picky, nit-picky, nit-picky.

Once upon a time, I may have thought this as well. But what’s at stake is a reader’s attention. Most readers, perhaps without realizing it, are affected by sentence structure.

For example, structure that is repeated with frequency can become tedious. If that construction happens to be simple sentences, the effect is often so simplistic that readers may feel as if they’re back in first grade reading their primers:

Jack Silversteen unbuckled his gun belt. He let it slide to the floor. The belt landed with a bang. Jack stared at his enemy. He crossed his arms.

But even more complex sentence construction can become tedious, too, because it creates a distinct rhythm:

Martha poured a cup of coffee, being careful not to spill. She waited for Jack to sit down, tapping her finger on the edge of the saucer. She glanced out the window, humming a little tune. A bird landed on the sill, flapping its wings against the glass.

The lack of variety becomes tiresome, no matter how well constructed the sentences are.

The truth is, some sentence construction can be problematic even if it isn’t repeated too often. For example the use of present participles (verb forms ending in —ing) in the example above can easily go awry. The —ing form of a verb implies simultaneous action, but some writers use this construction as if the action carried by the participle follows the action carried by the verb:

EXAMPLE: He wolfed down his sandwich, burping with satisfaction.

Clearly the character couldn’t wolf down the sandwich and simultaneously burp with satisfaction, but the construction of the sentence says that’s what he did. The author’s intention was to show a sequence of events, but the present participle doesn’t accomplish that purpose.

Participles are also problematic when they introduce a sentence because they are easily misplaced.

The rule of thumb for phrases that describe is to place them in close proximity to what they describe.

EXAMPLE: The man wearing the baseball cap climbed to the top of the bleachers.

When a participial phrase (a group of words beginning with a verb form such as walking or written or talked) begins a sentence, therefore, it is positioned to describe the very next noun—the subject of the sentence.

Walking in the park, the little girl spotted her first squirrel.
Written before he had his coffee, the email didn’t make much sense.
Talked about as if she’d already won, the gymnast became careless.

When a modifier is misplaced, however, it is positioned before a noun which it is not describing.

Walking the last mile, her finish time was well above the goal she’d set for herself.
Written on a napkin, she cherished the poem as a spontaneous expression of his love for her.
Talked about for days, the reader looked forward to the release of the new book.

Inattention to sentence construction can also lead to redundancy, a lack of parallelism, and a host of other awkward or inerrant grammar issues which may confound readers. But it can also mean an author has missed an opportunity to communicate more effectively.

For example, sentence construction contributes to the pace of a story. In action scenes, when the pace should be fast, short sentences, even fragments, can be most effective. Nothing stalls action more than long, leisurely sentences that meander.

Sentences, like scenes and chapters and books have a “sweet spot,” a part that delivers the greatest punch. Consequently, a well constructed sentence will deliver the key piece of information in that sweet spot—the end of the sentence. Yes, the beginning is important, but the point here is, after the key bit of information, the sentence shouldn’t go on with less important detail.

Weak: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book that would help her finish her research paper on time.

Improved: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book. Now she could finish her research paper on time.

In the first example above, the thing most important to the character was the book, but the sentence doesn’t stop with that important information. By breaking the long sentence up, the writer can create a second punch. The book, it turns out, is important because it is the key to a second goal—finishing the paper on time. The construction of two sentences instead of one allows the writer to escalate the importance rather than simply moving past the first important object—the one the character has spent all day looking for.

Finally sentence construction is key to the creation of voice, whether the author’s voice or the various characters’ voices. For instance, in the previous paragraph, I ended the last sentence with a preposition. While grammar rules now allow such, a more formal writing style would still require rewriting the sentence to read . . . the one for which the character has spent all day looking.

weed-plant-1161347-mThe choice to construct the sentence in a formal manner or in a more colloquial manner is not an issue of right or wrong but rather of effect—what effect does the author hope to create. If he prefers a more academic, precise tone and wishes his audience to see him as careful in his usage, he most likely will opt for the formal construction. If, on the other hand, the author is going for a more relaxed tone, the preposition at the end of the sentence will be just fine.

Much of the problem with sentence structure, as I see it, is that writers may not be aware of the importance of writing from the ground up—choosing words purposefully and building sentences with intention. Rather, sentences seem to be left on their own, to grow as they wish. Like weeds.


Filed under Pace, Sentence structure, Voice

Em Dashes Can Keep Company

I’ve looked at the basics of the em dash, commonly referred to as the dash, in “Punctuation Pitfalls–The Em Dash and Its Cousin the En Dash” and “The Ellipsis or the Em-Dash.” But I realized there’s another aspect of this handy-dandy punctuation mark that I have yet to address: how does it work with accompanying marks? Or does it?

As in so much of English grammar, the answer to the last question is, it depends. There are times the em dash should not and will never be joined with another punctuation mark, but then there are the times, it must include a companion. So which is which?

The never instances are places where the em dash replaces a comma: in complex sentences. As a refresher, a complex sentence has two clauses, or groups of words containing a subject and verb: one independent, able to stand on its own as a sentence, and one dependent, not expressing a complete thought. To review where the comma belongs in a complex sentence, see “Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5.”

In these complex sentences, a writer may chooses to substitute an em dash for the comma, in which case, the em dash is flying solo.

Then there are instances when it takes on passengers. Here are three:

  1. If the parenthetical information set off by em dashes is either a question or an exclamation, a question mark or an exclamation point may precede the em dash.
    Most of the politicianswho says they care?–seem to ignore the wishes of voters.
  2. If an em dash is used to indicate a sudden break in dialogue, it precedes the closing quotation mark. If the sentence continues, requiring a comma, the em dash precedes the comma.
    “Get out of my way! Get out of my–“
    “I’ve had enough of your–,” she began, but her daughter burst into tears.
  3. If the sudden break belongs to the action rather than to the dialogue, em dashes are used after and before the quotation marks to separate the dialogue from the rest of the sentence.
    “Someday you’ll be sorry,” — he poked his finger into my chest — “and don’t you forget it.”

There you have it–our em dash friend isn’t always a loner. Depending on the circumstance, he can consort with punctuation partners.


Filed under Commas, Dashes, Sentence structure

Clarifying What’s Passive

Instruction manuals and conference workshop teachers say to avoid passive voice, and there’s a good reason to do so, but in order to follow that bit of advice, we need to have a clear idea what we’re talking about. As it turns out, writers of all stripes — including experienced novelists, MFA grads, freelance writers, and editors — can be confused about the term “passive” when used in reference to writing.

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship — a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

Writing instructors discourage passive voice. Since the subject is, for all practical purposes, supine, there’s not much for a reader to see in a sentence with a passive verb. Sentences, like good stories, need action. They need an agent who goes out and makes something happen. Passive characters make for boring stories, and passive subjects make for boring sentences.

So far, so good.

But here’s where problems start cropping up. Some writers (and even some editors) have taken the concept of active subjects to mean that all sentences must have action verbs. Any verb of being, then, gets lumped in with the passive voice. Here are a few sentences with verbs of being.

  • Despite everything that happened, the speaker still wasn’t late to the conference.
  • Her children are all gifted writers, singers, or artists.
  • I am certain about this one.

In each of these sentences, there is no action, so consequently, the subject is not passively standing by having some action foisted upon it. Rather, these sentences identify a condition or a state the subject is in. These are legitimate sentences and perform necessary functions in our writing. Still, they play a minor role and should not be overused.

Another form that gets dumped in with passive voice, and isn’t, is a helping verb working with a present participle (-ing form of a verb).

  • The writer is finishing the last chapter.
  • Her friend was posting on Facebook late at night.
  • The members of his critique group were giving line edits instead of overall impressions.

This kind of sentence is clearly not passive. In each of the examples the subject is the agent doing the action, and there is a strong action verb.

Is there a reason to steer clear of these sentences? Perhaps, but for an entirely different reason than for the erroneous accusation that they are passive.

Sentences with ongoing action, which is what this verb construction communicates, are a little harder for readers to visualize. The beginning of a thing, we can picture, but what do we see when the action is ongoing?

In addition, if an entire paragraph or page or scene contains numerous sentences with this construction, the repeated –ing acts like any other repetition: it becomes annoying.

Believe it or not, there’s one more sentence construction that gets accused of being passive, and it is innocent of the charge. These sentences are the ugly ducklings of writing. They have everything wrong with them — no action verb, the subject in the wrong place, and a bland, unspecific word up front. I’m talking about sentences that start with There is or Here are and the like.

  • There were three Facebook friend invitations in her email box.
  • Here is your coffee.
  • There aren’t any more books available.

These sentences are as legitimate as any other. They serve a necessary purpose, but like other sentences with verbs of being, they should not be overused.

So here’s what we covered:

  • Sentences with verbs in passive voice aren’t as strong as verbs in active voice. A writer would be wise to rewrite them.
  • Sentences with state of being verbs are perfectly fine but shouldn’t be overused.
  • Sentences with helping verbs and the present participle (-ing) form of a verb, while not passive, nevertheless should be used sparingly, largely because of repetition but also as a means to help readers visualize scenes.
  • Finally, sentences with construction similar to there is … may look passive, but they aren’t. The subject comes after the state of being verb, which adds to the impression that there’s a passive something going on. But remember, with no action verb in sight, there is no possibility of a passive subject. 😉


Filed under Sentence structure

Parallel Construction

Writing can be a lot more like math than first meets the eye, especially in regard to sentence structure.

Think of coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or), for instance, like plus signs. If you studied algebra, you’ll recall that different variables can’t be added. So an equation like 2X + 5Y= 60 can’t be restated as 7Y=60 or 7X=60. In other words, you can’t add apples and oranges.

So too in writing, apples and oranges can’t be “added,” that is, they can’t be on two sides of a coordinating conjunction.

That’s the principle. Now how does this concept play out in real writing?

Here are a few ways the principle of parallelism should work:

1. In a list, all items should be the same part of speech.

    Poor: Her favorite parts were the actors, the scenery, and how funny the movie was. (joins two nouns and one clause)

    Better: Her favorite parts were the actors, the scenery, and the humor.

2. When a conjunction is joining two prepositional phrases, the preposition needs to be included.

    Poor: A crisis is not a time for wasteful discussion, but meaningful action. (omits a preposition)

    Better: A crisis is not a time for wasteful discussion, but for meaningful action.

3. In compound sentences, the various clauses should be either active or passive rather than mixed.

    Poor: Authors may leave a message in the comment box, or emailing a request is accepted. (first clause is active, second is passive)

    Better: Authors may leave a message in the comment box or email a request. (compound sentence changed to a compound verb)

Proper parallel construction, which may include intentional repetition, can be a valuable tool in writing. It paces the writing, shows contrasts or comparisons, provides emphasis, and more.

The Bible, especially the King James Version, is a great source for examples of parallelism. Here’s one example from the book of Proverbs in the New American Standard. Note how the two clauses start with prepositional phrases using the same prepositions:

    At the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
    At the entrance of the gates in the city she utters her sayings

My advice? Read Scripture regularly. It’s a great spiritual discipline, but it also provides wonderful examples of parallelism, to the point that your use of it will become instinctive.


Filed under Sentence structure

Altering Sentence Structure, Part 3

Nearly a year ago I did a short series of posts on sentence structure. I want to revisit this subject because, quite frankly, I see in my editing, manuscripts heavily dependent upon one particular construction or the other, whatever the author favors.

I have my favorites, too, so I’m not faulting anyone for going back to their best-liked forms. The problem is when an author goes back too often or in a sequence.

My favorite construction is the compound verb. This one is sometimes hard to pick up on because each verb potentially has its own object and describing words or phrases. Here’s an example from book one of The Lore of Efrathah (and I didn’t have to look long to find this example—first page, first sentence of the second paragraph):

    He turned his back on the afternoon crowd milling about their parents’ beach-side condo and lowered his voice.

You might think that construction is nearly invisible. I’d agree. But five more like it become rhythmically similar and therefore noticeable.

Here’s a passage from Raven’s Ladder (WaterBrook) by Jeffrey Overstreet, the CSFF Blog Tour feature next week. In brackets after each sentence I’ve added a note about the structure.

    The urgent need for a hiding place was what had brought the two outcasts together. [complex – noun dependent clause] Krawg had been running to avoid arrest. [simple] Warney had run to escape his sisters. [simple] Seven sisters, in fact. [fragment] All grown, they had never left home or the parents who babied them, and they shared their mother’s loathing for Warney. [compound/begins with an adverb describing a participle]

    What was it exactly that had made his mother treat him as a curse? [complex – adjective dependent clause/question] Warney shuddered to think of the accusations. [simple] To comfort himself, he affirmed that it was crazy for a parent to hold a grudge for some damage done in childbirth. [complex – adverbial dependent clause/begins with an infinitive phrase]

Notice the variety. The passage contains three simple sentences and three complex sentences, but none of the latter are structured the same.

In addition, for the most part, the various constructions have been mixed together. In the first paragraph, however, two simple sentences are back to back.

The effect is to make those sentences stand out. They are shorter than the others, and they have parallel construction. That is, they both start with a proper noun, they both have a single action verb, and they both have infinitive phrases following that verb.

Here’s the take home: by varying sentence structure, an author can then intentionally and purposefully repeat a sentence structure for effect.

My suggestion is to save one manuscript revision specifically to look at your sentence structure. If nothing else, you’ll avoid getting stuck in a rut of favorites.


Filed under Sentence structure

Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5

Commas Used in Complex Sentences.

In Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 2 I discussed commas used in compound sentences. Since a compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses, I took the time to define and provide examples of independent clauses.

I bring this up because today I want to tackle the use of commas in complex sentences, or ones with an independent clause and at least one dependent clause.

By way of refresher, a clause is a group of words with a subject (who dun it) and a verb (what action did they do). What separates an independent clause from a dependent clause is whether or not that particular group of words can stand alone as a sentence; that is, is the thought complete?

Here are some dependent clauses:

    after the game started
    before her mother served dinner
    if the speaker was right
    when the judge finally made his ruling
    because the story held my interest to the end

In each case, the group of words contains a subject and verb, but because of the conjunction that introduces the clause, the thought is incomplete. (Bonus coverage: these conjunctions are called subordinate conjunctions because they subordinate a dependent clause to the independent clause).

I love these complex sentences because the comma use is so straightforward. If the dependent clause comes first, use a comma between the two clauses. However, when the independent clause comes first, you don’t need a comma between the two.

Notice the first sentence in the above paragraph. The dependent clause because the comma use is so straightforward came after the independent clause, so no comma was necessary. However, in the next two sentences, the dependent clauses came first, so each needed a comma at the end of the dependent clause.

Here are some additional examples of dependent clauses beginning sentences, and therefore requiring commas.

    Because his brother finished first, he won the prize.
    Since the rain stopped, we put away our umbrellas.
    If the pitcher strikes out the next batter, she will set a personal record for the season.

Here are examples of dependent clauses following independent clauses and therefore not requiring commas.

    The defendant thanked his attorney after the hearing ended.
    The road won’t open until Monday because the workers haven’t finished clearing away the debris.
    The media attention increased when the two best skiers each moved into the semifinals.

As I said, this comma use is straightforward (read, easy). No exceptions and no judgment calls. That’s my kind of punctuation rule. 😀

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Filed under Commas, Sentence structure