26 Sentence Structure and Variety
Unless otherwise noted, content in this chapter has been adapted from pages 71-98 & 99-126 in Communicating for Results: A Canadian Student’s Guide (3rd Edition) by Carolyn Meyer.
No matter who your readers are or what your purpose is, good grammar is critical to effective writing. Poor grammar can confuse your message and will almost certainly negatively affect your reader’s opinion of you and your company.
After completing this chapter, you will be able to
- identify common sentence structure errors (Meyer, 2014, p. 112-115)
- modifier errors
- missing words (elliptical constructions)
- faulty predication
- mixed constructions
- identify a variety of sentence structure types (Meyer, 2014, p. 103-104)
Common Sentence Errors
Sentence errors are unprofessional. They can negatively affect your readers’ overall impression of your company or organization and they can cause confusion in meaning.
1. Sentence fragments
A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence.
Sentence “Completeness” Test
❑ Is there a verb?
❑ Does the verb have a subject?
❑ Do the subject and the verb make sense together and express a complete thought?
❑ If the sentence contains subordinating words – relative pronouns (that, which, who) or subordinate markers – does the sentence also contain an independent clause?
If the answer to every question is yes, the sentence is complete.
If the answer to any question is no, you have a fragmented sentence error.
|Fragment:||We will discuss the Orkin account. Which has been experiencing problems lately. [relative clause punctuated as a complete sentence]|
|Revision:||We will discuss the Orkin account, which has been experiencing problems lately.|
|Fragment:||Sales figures for the year were strong. Even though there was weakness in the third quarter. [subordinate clause punctuated as a complete sentence]|
|Revision:||Sales figures for the year were strong even though there was weakness in the third quarter.|
|Fragment:||The company has experienced numerous setbacks. For example, the failure of its light industrial division. [The example cannot stand on its own as a sentence.]|
|Revision:||The company has experienced numerous setbacks — for example, the failure of its light industrial division.|
2. Two Types of Run-ons
Fused sentences combine two or more independent clauses without an adequate connecting element or full stop between the
|Run-on:||Most companies reported moderate growth this year some anticipate similar growth next year.|
|Revision:||Most companies reported moderate growth this year, and some anticipate similar growth next year.|
|Revision||Most companies reported moderate growth this year. Some anticipate similar growth next year.|
In a comma splice, independent clauses connected with just a comma. To eliminate this error, add a conjunction or change the comma to a period or semicolon.
|Comma splice:||I decided against purchasing an extended warranty, however when my credit card statement arrived this month I noticed an extra $149 charge from Info Service, Inc.|
|Revision:||I decided against purchasing an extended warranty; however, when my credit card statement arrived this month, I noticed an extra $149 charge from Info Service, Inc.|
Exercises: Watch this video to review your understanding of fragments and run-ons.
3. Two Types of Modifier Errors
A modifier is a word or word group that describes another word or words. Misplaced modifiers are in the wrong spot and can make your message unintentionally funny and make your meaning ambiguous. Position modifiers as close as possible to the word or words they describe.
|Misplaced modifier:||The changes in personnel taking place recently affected productivity. [In this case, recently could refer to the changes in personnel or when those changes affected productivity.]|
|Revision:||Recent personnel changes affected productivity.|
|Revision||Changes in personnel recently affected productivity.|
In a dangling modifier, the descriptive words do not clearly apply to another word in the sentence. This problem often occurs with introductory verbal phrases containing a past participle (informed). an infinitive (to inform), or a present participle (informing) but no subject. Make sure the subject being described in the introductory phrase comes immediately after the phrase itself. Otherwise, convert the dangling phrase into a dependent clause using the technique shown in the second revision below.
|Dangling phrase:||Sent by overnight courier, you will receive your package by 9:00 a.m. the next day. [This sentence says you are sent by overnight courier.]|
|Revision:||Sent by overnight courier, your package will arrive by 9:00 a.m. the next day.|
|Revision||When a package is sent by overnight courier, you will receive it by 9:00 a.m. the next day. [In this case, the dangling phrase has been converted to an initial dependent clause.]|
Sometimes a dangling modifier results from misuse of the passive voice, as in the following example:
|Dangling phrase:||To qualify for our points program, your mother’s maiden name must be provided. [This sentence says your mother’s maiden name will qualify for the program.]|
|Revision:||To qualify for our points program, you must provide your mother’s maiden name.|
|Revision||To qualify for our points program, please provide your mother’s maiden name.|
To learn more about modifier errors, watch this short grammar video.
4. Elliptical Constructions
An elliptical construction leaves out words that have already appeared in a sentence because their meaning is inferred from the context: Private-sector administrators earned on average $80,000 a year, their public-sector counterparts significantly less. Don’t automatically assume that a word appearing elsewhere in the sentence will stand in for the omitted word in the elliptical construction. The implied word has to he exactly the same as the one already used for the construction to be correct:
|Word omitted:||The new treatment was intended and administered to patients who had not responded to conventional therapies.|
|Word added:||The new treatment was intended for and administered to patients who had not responded to conventional therapies.|
5. Faulty predication and mixed constructions
Mixed-construction sentences pair mismatched elements that do not logically fit together and must be untangled in order to make sense. In a sentence with faulty predication, there is sometimes an illogical pairing of subject and verb.
|Faulty predication:||The solution to this problem was remedied when Johnson proposed a splitting of company stock. [Solutions don’t need to be remedied, but problems do.]|
|Revision:||This problem was remedied when Johnson proposed a splitting of company stock.|
To fix a sentence featuring an is when or is where construction, drop when or where, add a classifying word, or substitute another verb for the verb to be:
|Faulty predication:||Direct channel is when you sell and distribute products directly to customers.|
|Revision:||Direct channel is a marketing term for selling and distributing products directly to customers.|
|Revision||Direct channel refers to selling and distributing products directly to customers.|
The expression the reason … is because is redundant (akin to saying because … because); replace it with the reason is that:
|Faulty predication:||The reason he can’t travel overseas is because he has family obligations.|
|Revision:||The reason he can’t travel overseas is that he has family obligations.|
|Revision||He can’t travel overseas because he has family obligations.|
ln a sentence of mixed construction, the sentence starts in one grammatical form, then shifts to another. Common culprits in mixed construction sentences are introductory phrases such as the following:
|Mixed construction:||The fact that more job seekers submit their resumés electronically than they do by more traditional methods.|
|Revision:||The fact is that more job seekers submit their resumés electronically than they do by more traditional methods.|
|Revision||More job seekers submit their resumes electronically than they do by more traditional methods. [drops troublesome opening phrase]|
Having some variety in your sentence structure can make your writing more pleasant to read. Done correctly, using some complex sentences can also increase the clarity of your message. By joining simple sentences to create more complex sentences, you are demonstrating how the ideas in the two sentences are related.
Good writing relies on a natural mix or sentence styles and lengths. Let the patterns of normal, everyday speech be your guide to fresh and energetic writing. The following tips will help you break sentence monotony and create useful distinctions among ideas:
Vary the rhythm by alternating short and long sentences.
Please complete and return the enclosed survey [short sentence]. Your answers to our questions will help us review our current practices so that we may provide the highest standard of customer service [long sentence]. By completing the entire survey, you will also receive a 25 per cent discount coupon that you can apply to your next purchase from Software Plus [long sentence].
Sentences of ten or fewer words have the greatest impact and readability; however, sentences of up to twenty words also have a high rate of reader comprehension. Beyond that point, readers’ ability to easily grasp a sentence’s meaning falls off sharply. Your word-processing software will usually flag sentences that are too long to be comprehensible.
How to create longer sentences:
1. Use prepositional phrases. A prepositional phrase is a group of words beginning with a preposition (a word such as with, at, to, of, by, against, toward, from, above, on, or in that provides additional description).
|Original:||The plan has the support of upper-level management. It will include extended health benefits.|
|Revised with prepositional phrase:||With recent support from upper-level management, the plan will include extended health benefits.|
2. Use relative clauses. A relative clause (a clause beginning with that, which, or who) acts like an adjective by adding information to define or describe a particular word or group or words.
Revised with relative clause:
|The plan has the support of upper-level management. It will include extended health benefits.
The plan, which has the support of upper-level management, will include extended health benefits.
3. Use modifying phrases. A modifying phrase, sometimes called a participle phrase, can also be used to streamline sentences. A participial phrase is easy to spot as it contains a present participle (working), infinitive (to work), or past participle (worked). These are words that look like verbs but don’t actually qualify as verbs.
Revised with modifying phrase:
|The plan has the support of upper-level management. It will include extended health benefits.
Supported by upper-level management, the plan will include extended health benefits.
4. Use a descriptive phrase or clause. Use appositive commas around the descriptive phrase or clause.
|Original:||Frederica Schmidt is an investment consultant. She is a frequent speaker at trade shows and conferences.|
|Revised with descriptive clause:||Frederica Schmidt, an investment consultant, is a frequent speaker at trade shows and conferences.|
Watch this video for tips on how to create sentence variety WITHOUT creating sentence errors:
- Meyer, C. (2014). Business style: Sentences and paragraphs. In Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide (3rd ed., pp. 99-126). Oxford. ↵
- Shannon, D. (2021, March 28). Fragments and runons [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Gr35gD7aWc ↵
- Meyer, C. (2014). Business style: Word choice, conciseness, and tone. In Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide (3rd ed., pp. 71-98). Oxford. ↵
- Shannon, D. (2021, March 31). Sentence variety [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/-dacQbooTNo ↵