Think subject-verb-object for most of your sentences
The best way to make your sentences tighter and easier to understand is to simplify them. That is, write mostly simple sentences.
Allow me to channel your fifth-grade English teacher for a moment to remind you that a simple sentence uses a subject-verb-object sentence structure:
Subject > Verb > Object
We won the game.
It contains one independent clause and no dependent clauses.
Types of sentence structures
As you move up the ladder of complexity, you reach compound and complex sentences — sentences with dependent and independent clauses glued together with conjunctions and punctuation.
This is where your fifth-grade teacher yammered:
Blah blah blah compound verbs blah blah blah blah compound subjects blah blah basic sentences blah blah blah subordinate clauses blah blah only have one subject blah blah blah blah expresses a complete thought blah blah types of simple sentences blah blah blah
Let’s skip all that, shall we? Instead, let’s turn to Al Borowski, president of Priority Communication Skills Inc., who delivers my favorite reminder of the types of sentences structures:
This is a simple sentence.
This is a compound sentence; it contains two independent clauses.
This is a complex sentence that contains one dependent clause and one independent clause.
This is a compound-complex sentence, and because it contains two independent clauses and a dependent clause, it becomes a long sentence.
Here are four ways to simplify your sentences:
1. Get to the verb faster.
Quick! Where’s your verb?
It should be near the front of your sentence, right after your subject. But here, the verb doesn’t show up until 28 words in:
Don’t bury your verb under a long parenthetical phrase (let alone your whole boilerplate). Remember: You can always explain what your company is the leading provider of in a separate sentence.
2. Write ‘low-depth’ sentences.
That’s an example of a high-depth sentence. Depth refers to the number of words before the verb in a sentence. High-depth sentences are harder to understand than low-depth sentences, found readability expert G. R. Klare in a 1976 review of 36 readability studies. The deeper the sentence — the more words before the verb — the lower the comprehension.
Twenty-two words, for instance, delay the verb in this sentence:
3. Force the verb to the front.
Here’s a quick trick for forcing the verb toward the front of the sentence from Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:
“Run a line under the first five or six words of every sentence. If you find that (1) you have to go more than six or seven words into a sentence to get past the subject to the verb and (2) the subject of the sentence is not one of your characters, take a hard look at that.”
4. Lean to the left.
Here’s a trick for making even the longest sentence easier to read and understand: Write “right-branching” sentences. A right-branching sentence starts with the subject and verb, branching off into subordinate elements on the right.
“If meaning is created by subject and verb, then a sentence that begins with subject and verb MAKES MEANING EARLY,” writes Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute’s and author of Writing Tools.
And that makes it easier to understand.
Once you’ve established meaning at the beginning — the “left side” — of the sentence, you can branch out on the right side with “almost limitless clauses” and still remain understandable, Clark counsels.
Here’s how it works, using a sentence from J.D. Salinger’s 1945 Esquire short story, “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise”:
|Make meaning on the left||Branch out on the right|
|Subject, verb||“almost limitless clauses”|
|“I am||inside the truck, too, sitting on the protection strap, trying to keep out of the crazy Georgia rain, waiting for the lieutenant from Special Services, waiting to get tough.”|
That’s a 30-word sentence. Under normal circumstances, it would achieve less than 50 percent comprehension, according to American Press Institute research. Yet it’s perfectly understandable. That’s because it makes meaning on the left and branches out on the right.