In elementary school, children are taught that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. However, these rules only describe what a sentence looks like on the page. To qualify as a sentence, a series of words must contain both a subject and a verb. Moreover, it must express a complete thought.
The subject of a sentence is whatever performs the action indicated by the predicate, and the predicate (i.e., the rest of the sentence) must include a verb. In the case of imperative (or command) sentences, the subject is always “you” and can therefore be omitted if desired (e.g., “Wait for me!”).
Basic Sentence Structure
Simple sentences start with the subject and follow with the verb and the object:
I shot the sheriff.
From this simple foundation, you can create complex sentences by adding one or more dependent (or subordinate) clauses:
I shot the sheriff, which is a capital offense.
Or you can join two sentences with a coordinating conjunction to create a compound sentence:
I shot the sheriff, but I didn’t shoot the deputy.
Compound-complex sentences consist of two or more independent clauses and at least one independent clause:
Acting in self-defense, I shot the sheriff, who always hated me, but I didn’t shoot the deputy.
How to Improve Sentence Structure
Every sentence you write should express a thought clearly and concisely. It should be neither ambiguous nor unnecessarily complicated. Here are five tips from our editors to help you structure your sentences effectively:
1. Write in the active voice.
2. Use a parallel structure for connected items.
3. Watch out for misplaced or missing modifiers.
4. Avoid overusing subordinate clauses.
5. Vary the length and pattern of sentences.
Read on for a full explanation of these tips for improving sentence structure:
1. Use the Active Voice for Dynamic Writing
When you use the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action toward the object:
Kelly scored the winning goal.
Conversely, when the passive voice is used, the object being acted upon becomes the subject of the sentence:
The winning goal was scored by Kelly.
The active voice places the emphasis on the one performing the action. It tends to be clearer and more concise than the passive voice, which can sound clumsy and less assertive. Sometimes it’s appropriate to use the passive voice, like if you’re describing the method of a scientific experiment. But in most writing, the active voice is preferable.
2. Connected Items Must Follow a Parallel Structure
When a sentence includes a list or series of actions, it’s vital that each item follows the same grammatical form:
My favorite things at the fairground are riding the roller coaster, be terrified on the ghost train, and eat cotton candy. ✘
My favorite things at the fairground are riding the rollercoaster, being terrified on the ghost train, and eating cotton candy. ✔
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My favorite things to do at the fairground are ride the roller coaster, be terrified on the ghost train, and eat cotton candy. ✔
You should also pay attention to parallel structure whenever you connect clauses with a FANBOYS coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) or a correlative conjunction (e.g., not only…but also).
As well as watching out for mismatched verb forms, be careful to avoid mixing nouns and adjectives like this:
Too much cotton candy makes me feel nausea and ashamed. ✘
Too much cotton candy makes me feel nauseous and ashamed. ✔
Too much cotton candy makes me feel nausea and shame. ✔
3. Master Your Modifiers
A modifier is a word or phrase that adds a description to something else in the sentence. Used correctly, modifiers make your writing more interesting. However, if you use them wrongly, they can cause confusion! Therefore, whenever you use modifiers, be sure that there is no ambiguity about what is being modified.
Gazing at the distant island, the waves lapped at my feet. ✘
This sentence reads as if the waves are gazing into the distance. This is a classic case of a “dangling modifier” and can be fixed by restructuring the sentence to include the one doing the gazing:
Gazing at the distant island, I felt the waves lapping at my feet. ✔
In the following example, the noun being modified is present, but in the wrong place:
Generously sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, Gwen adores churros. ✘
Because the modifier “generously sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar” has been placed next to “Gwen,” the sentence suggests that Gwen specifically adores churros when she has been liberally coated with cinnamon and sugar! This confusion can be avoided by moving the modifier nearer to the noun it’s intended to modify:
Gwen adores churros generously sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. ✔
4. Don’t Use Too Many Subordinate Clauses
Subordinate (or dependent) clauses provide extra information in a sentence. They make writing more interesting, but if you use too many of them, you risk confusing your reader by overloading them with too much detail at once.
Rather than using one rambling sentence with several dependent clauses, try breaking your writing up into shorter sentences:
After looking forward to it all week, I had a fantastic time at the fairground and went on every ride, including the rollercoaster, which is my favorite, but I felt ill by three o’clock, because I had eaten way too much cotton candy, so I went home early. ✘
After looking forward to it all week, I had a fantastic time at the fairground. I went on every ride, including the roller coaster, which is my favorite. However, I felt ill by three o’clock because I had eaten way too much cotton candy. I went home early. ✔
5. Use a Mixture of Long and Short Sentences
By varying the length and structure of your sentences, you can make your writing more engaging and enjoyable to read. If you’ve produced a series of short, choppy sentences, try joining some or all of them together with conjunctions.
Likewise, long, complex sentences benefit from being split into a number of smaller ones. When you do this, remember to use transitional words (e.g., nevertheless, furthermore, consequently) to indicate how your ideas are connected.
We hope our tips will help you write clear, concise, and engaging sentences. We know that when you’re focused on the content and structure of your work, it’s easy to miss typos, punctuation errors, etc. Our proofreaders are here to correct mistakes in your writing and will offer feedback on any potentially confusing sentences. Why not check out our service today with a free trial?