Pruning Overgrown Sentences

In a recent blog post, Fun Things to Do with Sentences, I suggested a few ways writers could avoid the tyranny of the subject-verb-object sentence structure.

Oh, that all of us lived in such a despotic realm!

TumbleweedSome of us wander the dark forests, wide prairies, and vast deserts of wild abandon where no such structure exists. In these lawless lands, sentence structure is a bramble, scrub brush, or tumbleweed on which to hang one’s thought before allowing it to sprout every which way.

Writers roaming here add introductory phrases, modifiers, dependent clauses, participles, non-restrictive phrases, parenthetical elements, and nominalizations so that the poor sentence becomes an indeterminate mass upon which no amount of pruning will discover a core of meaning.

Let’s see if we can discover a few principles that will allow us to undo what such bandits have done.

Example A) In implementing these principles in this review, we obtained information from FENC regarding the marketing stages involved in making its reported home market and U.S. sales for each channel of distribution.

Tip 1) Strings of phrases are hard to understand, whether they are prepositional phrases – for each channel; of distribution – or participial phrases – in implementing these principles in this review; regarding the marketing stages; involved in making its [reported home market and U.S. sales].

1a) For participial phrases, try using smaller, more precise words:

We used these principles here to obtain …

About the marketing stages it used to make its …

1b) For prepositional phrases, try using adjectives –

For each distribution channel …

– or dependent clauses starting with a relative pronoun – which, who, or that:

For each channel that distributes such goods.

Example A – revised: We used these principles here to obtain information from FENC about the marketing stages it used to make its reported home market and U.S. sales for each distribution channel.

Tip 2): Subjects and verbs are easier to read than linking words, adjectives, and nouns.

Example B) This infrastructure includes advanced oil spill response infrastructure that has been enhanced since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill due to strengthened safety and environmental standards and efforts on the part of industry to comply with new regulatory requirements and provide additional resources, including for example, the readiness of equipment necessary to contain a subsea spill.

There are two subject and verb pairs here – infrastructure includes; and that has been enhanced. If you actually want the reader to follow the sentence to the end, consider a) changing some of these phrases to clauses (thereby introducing some subjects and verbs), or b) breaking these concepts into new sentences (again adding some subjects and verbs).

Example B – revision 1) This infrastructure includes an advanced oil spill response that has been enhanced since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill because we now have strengthened safety and environmental standards, and the industry has worked to comply with new regulatory requirements as well as to provide additional resources, including for example, making ready equipment necessary to contain a subsea spill.

Example B – revision 2) This infrastructure includes an advanced oil spill response that has been enhanced since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We now have strengthened safety and environmental standards, and the industry has worked to comply with new regulatory requirements as well as to provide additional resources. For example, we now have the equipment necessary to contain a subsea spill.

Tip 3) Keep subjects and verbs close together. This is probably the most violated rule in all of technical writing. And it’s probably the easiest to rectify.

Example C) Because the sales process and selling functions FENC performed for selling to the U.S. market did not vary by individual customers, the necessary condition for finding they constitute different levels of trade was not met.

Usually the problem is that the sentence lacks a “character.” (This is a concept from Joseph M. Williams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, a resource I highly recommend.) In this sentence, the subject shifts from FENC’s sales processes to the government’s agency’s testing criteria. The change in topic is enough to confuse anyone without the convoluted syntax.

Find a consistent topic and stick with it, like the company FENC:

Example C- revised) Because FENC used the same sales process and selling function for individual customers within the U.S. market, they did not meet the necessary condition for finding that they had different levels of trade.

Tip 4) Finding the subject and verb should not be an Easter egg hunt.

Example D) If the annual weighted-average price per control number was above the annual weighted-average cost per control number then we considered those sales to have provided for the recovery of costs and restored all such sales to the normal value pool of comparison-market sales available for comparison with U.S. sales.

Use a comma! It’s not strictly necessary. But it’s a courtesy to tell the reader where the independent clause begins.

Example D – revised) If the annual weighted-average price per control number was above the annual weighted-average cost per control number, then we considered those sales to have provided for the recovery of costs and restored all such sales to the normal value pool of comparison-market sales available for comparison with U.S. sales.

Would you like to nominate a sentence for revision? Post it in the comments section and let’s see what we can do with it!

Comments

  1. Like the gardening theme here, Michelle. I like to use run-ons as an artifact, when I’m writing to entertain. But when writing to inform, long sentences are usually the opposite of informative.

    • Thanks Shakirah – I’m not sure that sentence length is the problem. I believe that so long as sentences contain a high ratio of clauses to phrases, meaning they have lots of subject and verb pairs, they can work quite well. I also think that the audience matters. Highly educated audiences might find shorter sentences to be a turn-off.

  2. FRANCESCA says:

    Thank you very much Michelle! I eventaully visited your site, and found it full of interesting suggestions. I am Italian, and my language derives its structures from latin. When I write in Eneglish I find it difficult sometimes to keep subject and verb pairs close to each other.
    Thank you again, I shull turn to you for suggestions as soon as I need it

    • Hello Francesca, and welcome. Many of us have that difficulty, whether English is our first language or not. As they say in addiction counseling, the first step is to recognize that we have a problem – LOL. In all seriousness, I find this is a problem better tackled during the revision stage. I try not to worry about it while I’m writing. It only stifles my flow. All my best – Michelle

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