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. In this lesson, we’re concerned with the choices you make at the sentence level: What choices do you need to make? What are some criteria for making them? The following stylistic rules of thumb are exactly that: rules of thumb, not ironclad laws. Use them to help you make smart choices; and if you believe that the thought you want to express would be more effectively communicated by breaking a rule than by following it, then — by all means — break it!
1. Eliminate wordiness.
WORDINESS: when there are words in your sentences that don’t add anything to the sentences’ meaning; wordy is the opposite of concise. Examples
wordy: The dogs who were barking outside in the alley next to my house kept me up and awake all night long. not wordy: The barking dogs in the alley kept me up all night. wordy: My sister is a nice, kind person who cannot understand or comprehend how other people in our town can be so mean and cruel to people. not wordy: My sister is a nice person who cannot understand how others can be so mean. wordy: The struggle for liberty and freedom is a struggle that has gone on for a very long time indeed. not wordy: The struggle for liberty has gone on for a long time.
2. To express actions and conditions, use specific verbs, adverbs, or adjectives rather than abstract nouns.
The term ACTION here includes physical actions, like walking, speaking, sleeping, raining, developing, etc., and also non-physical actions, like believing, meaning, representing, conceptualizing, etc. The term CONDITION refers to a “state of being,” as in “The sun is larger than the moon,” or “Tim is angry,” or “Calculus is a challenging subject.” ABSTRACT NOUNS are verbs turned into nouns: e.g., the noun “investment” from the verb “to invest;” the noun “interpretation” from “to interpret;” “sight” from “to see;” etc. Examples
abstract: We had a discussion of the matter. revised: We discussed the matter. abstract: A review was done of the relevant regulations. revised: The team reviewed the relevant regulations. abstract: The intention of the committee is the improvement of the company morale. revised: The committee intended to improve company morale.
3. When it is appropriate, make the subjects of your verb the agents of the action the verb describes.
VERB: A word that describes an action or condition. SUBJECT: The word or phrase in the sentence that names who or what is doing/being that the verb describes. AGENT: The actual who or what named by the subject. Here’s an example of a sentence where subject and agent match:
“Elvis recorded ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’”
The subject of the sentence is the word “Elvis.” And the agent of the action (recording) is this guy Notice, however, that subjects and agents can be mismatched, as in this example:
“’Blue Suede Shoes’ was recorded by Elvis.”
Here, the agent of the action described the verb “recorded” remains the guy pictured on the right. However, the subject of this sentence is not the word “Elvis” but the phrase “‘Blue Suede Shoes.” Did the song record itself? Of course not. So unless you want to displace attention from singer to song, you’ll stick with first, matched sentence: “Elvis recorded ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’” Examples
mismatched: The case was vigorously prosecuted by the District Attorney. matched: The District Attorney vigorously prosecuted the case.
Baed upon Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (New York: Longman, 2003).
mismatched: A decision on the part of the Dean in regard to the funding by the Department must be made for there to be adequate staff preparation. matched: The Dean must decide on the Department’s funding if the staff is to prepare adequately. mismatched: The Bunsen burner was lit. 2 matched: Tom lid the Bunsen burner.
4. Use the beginning of your sentences to refer to (a) what you’ve already mentioned or (b) knowledge that you can assume you and your readr readily share.
example: Jon Stewart is perhaps the most accomplished satirist working today. Satire, as mentioned previously, attacks those in power in the name of truth. revised: Satire attacks those in power in the name of truth. Perhaps the most accomplished satirist working today is Jon Stewart. example: The huge number of wounded and dead in World War I exceeded all the other wars in European history. One of the reasons for the lingering animosity between some nations today is the memory of this terrible carnage. revised: Of all the wars in European history up to that point, none exceeded World War I in the huge number of wounded and dead. The memory of this terrible carnage is one of the reasons for the animosity between some European nations today.
5. Put your most important ideas at the end of your sentence, as well as the information you intend to develop in the next sentence.
example: I crashed the car last Saturday afternoon, on my way home from a trip to the supermarket and the Laundromat. I escaped without a scratch, though the car was totaled. revised: Last Saturday afternoon, on my way home from a trip to the supermarket and the Laundromat, I crashed the car. The car was totaled, but I escaped without a scratch. example: President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, while watching a play at Ford’s Theater. The nation was shocked by this act of violence. revised: On April 14, 1865, while watching a play at Ford’s Theater, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. This act of violence shocked the nation.
6. Don’t write all short or all long sentences. Vary them.
This one’s fairly self-explanatory. It can be hard on the ear/brain to take in long strings of long sentences or long strings of short ones. So mix it up. If you see a long string of long sentences, see if you can break some of them down into shorter sentences — without, of course, damaging their meaning. And if you see long strings of short sentences, see if you can combine some of them into longer sentences — again, without damaging their meaning.
7. If your sentences are feeling tangled, observe this rule: The greater the logical complexity of the thought is, the simpler the syntax of the sentences expressing it ought to be.
Democracy has been around since the time of Socrates and has continued into the present day, in countries such as the United States, where the citizens hold power under a free electoral system. Though democracy operates differently in different places, all democracies have two characteristic features, which are that all citizens have equal access to power, and that all citizens enjoy universally recognized liberties, including freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech.
Democracy has been around since the time of Socrates. It continues to thrive today. Democracy operates differently in different places. However, all democracies have two characteristic features. First, all citizens have equal access to power. Second, all citizens enjoy universally recognized liberties. These liberties include freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech.
Note that in a lab report (i.e., the place where you’re most likely to be talking about lighting Bunsen burners), it is the mismatched sentence — “The Bunsen burner was lit” — that would likely be the preferred one. Why? Because the validity of scientific experiments depends upon their being replicable: It shouldn’t matter whether Tom lights the Bunsen burner, or Maria lights it, or James lights it — anyone should be able to get the same results. The style reflects these underlying epistemological values: By taking the human agent out of the picture, the mismatched sentence focuses our attention on the experimental process.
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