Examine Your Boundaries

Has your writing ever been described as a “choppy?” Does your website or blog feel “dense”? Do you wish your copy had “flow”? Then you need to examine your boundaries.

Your sentence boundaries that is.

Let’s talk about the types of sentences you’re using, and how you can manipulate them so your reader can move through your text easily.

First, a quick review. There are 4 sentence types in English, based on two types of clauses. A clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb. Independent clauses express a complete thought. Dependent clauses don’t.

While I was walking to the store, I almost got hit by a bus.

Dependent clause: While I was walking to the store. SUBJECT: I. VERB: was walking.

Independent clause: I almost got hit by a bus. SUBJECT: I. VERB: got hit.

If you’re writing on the web, get familiar with FANBOYS. FANBOYS are the 7 coordinating conjunctions:

For And Not But Or Yet So

And if you find them, and if what follow is a complete thought (aka an independent clause), you should start a new sentence.

*Myth: you can’t start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. I just did. And if you find them …

People like transitions. Keep the coordinating conjunction. But start a new sentence. Because when people read on the internet, they like short, simple sentences.

Now, if you’re writing documents offline, you can keep the coordinating conjunction. That’s called a compound sentence. (Just remember to add a comma.)

But whether you’re writing online or offline, remember to include complex sentences too. Complex sentences allow for a more subtle arrangement of ideas. That’s because dependent clauses are just that, dependent on other ideas for their meaning. So when we use a relative pronoun or a subordinating conjunction, we are telling our reader that this idea is not so important as the others around it. Compare:

The judge has not yet ruled in the case, but we are already preparing our appeal.

Although the judge has not yet ruled in the case, we are already preparing our appeal.

In the second sentence, we are pointing the reader to the most important bit of information – our appeal. We’ve done that by subordinating the less important idea, the judge’s ruling. That’s the power of dependent clauses.

By consciously combining sentences into more complicated structures, we can show more complex relationships between ideas, vary our prose – giving it rhythm, harmony, and balance – and thereby demonstrate how talented we really we are.

Make a conscious effort to have at least one compound-complex sentence per page, at least one complex sentence per paragraph, and no more than three independent clauses in a row. Remember, variety: the spice of life, and prose.

Image: Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. Hi Michelle
    Your tweet alerted me to visit. This was a very enjoyable experience thanks. I started to look at sentence structure in a different way. (More analytically. )
    The short forms we use when writing Internet communication remove nuance and colour from our writing. Although it’s challenging to write short snappy sentences, the more complex sentences give the variety as you say.

    What is the rule (if any) on placing a comma before “and”?

    As in: I see it everywhere, and I’m not sure that I like it.

    • Thanks Julia. The internet does challenge us to write more to the point. I’m still trying to decide whether that requires the loss of nuance and color. Often when I craft a Tweet, the 140 character limit forces me to say something more creatively than I did before..
      As for the comma – if what follows is an independent clause (i.e., a complete sentence), the comma is required. Your example is correctly punctuated, because “I’m not sure that I like it” is an independent clause.
      If what follows is just a phrase – a group of words without a subject and a verb, no comma should be used. For example, I see it everywhere and think it is irritating. “think it is irritating” is a group of words; no subject and verb – no comma. Best–Michelle

  2. Julia brings up an important point with her ‘and’ question. I see quite a bit of improper use of the comma with both ‘and’ and ‘but’. In most cases, the writer uses a comma following those words rather than before. I like to read the New Yorker for quality writing, but almost all of their writers overuse (or improperly use) commas.

    • Yeah, I don’t get that. It is almost never necessary to use a comma AFTER a coordinating conjunction. As in:
      But, Frank and I decided to go to the movies anyway.
      No comma necessary. While the writer may have intended it for emphasis, it’s visually interrupting, and I agree with Sally and Julia that it’s a bit irritating.

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