Grammar AdviceGrammar, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2005

Sentence Structure Mistakes You’ll Never Make Again

Do you sometimes wonder why your editor moves words around, rephrases your sentences or adds/deletes words? The goal is to place your words and/or phrases, and in some instances Replace words and/or phrases, so that there can be no misunderstanding on the part of your reader as to your message.

Sentence structure is the backbone of your paper, letter, story, email, script or any other written communication. If you are aware of the following missteps and vigilant about watching out for them, your writing will become clearer and better understood by your readers.

1. Placement of sentence parts.

If even one word is placed in the wrong position in a sentence, the meaning of that sentence can be changed dramatically. Re-read every sentence as if it were the only sentence you were writing, and focus on whether the meaning of each sentence is completely clear.

Examples:
ONLY you have paid $60 for the concert tickets.
(You alone have paid $60.)
You have ONLY paid $60 for the concert tickets.
(You paid the $60 and nothing more.)
You have paid ONLY $60 for the concert tickets.
(You got a deal on the concert tickets.)

You should AT LEAST try to get 10 concert tickets.
(You should attempt to get 10 tickets.)
You should try to get AT LEAST 10 concert tickets.
(You should get a minimum of 10 tickets.)

2. Parallel construction.

To help your reader identify and recognize the similarity of ideas in a sentence, make sure that ideas of equal value are expressed in the same form. This applies most often to lists within sentences, bullet-point copy and complex sentences. To check parallel construction in your writing, read each element separately and determine if they are expressed in the same way.

Examples:
Wrong: The best things about a concert are the band, sound and the lighting.
Right: The best things about a concert are the band, the sound and the lighting.

Wrong: The three things I like most about a concert are: (1) hearing the loud music, (2) to see the pyrotechnics, and (3) to yell loud enough to get the band to do an encore.
Right: The three things I like most about a concert are: (1) hearing the loud music, (2) seeing the pyrotechnics, and (3) yelling loud enough to get the band to do an encore.

Wrong: You could inform the class about the concert either by making a telephone call or send an email.
Right: You could inform the class about the concert either by making a telephone call or sending an email.

3. Complete comparison.

When making a comparison within a sentence, make sure you supply all the words necessary to complete the comparative thought so that your reader doesn’t have to assume facts that are not in evidence.

Examples:
Wrong: She sings louder.
Right: She sings louder than anyone else in the band.

Wrong: This concert was much better.
Right: This concert was much better than the one in January.

4. Pronoun reference.

My personal pet peeve is the misuse of pronouns. Remember that pronouns take the place of persons, places or things, and they must agree with the persons, places or things to which they refer. Your reader should not have to re-read the sentence to determine the person, place or thing to which the pronoun refers. Again, read each of your sentences for clarity, asking yourself whether your reader might be confused with your pronoun reference, and rewriting when necessary.

Examples:
Wrong: I enjoy concerts because you get to hear great music.
Right: I enjoy concerts because I get to hear great music.

Wrong: After James spoke to Alan, he wanted to go, too. (Does “he” refer to James or Alan?)
Right: Alan decided he wanted to go, too, after he spoke with James.

Wrong: Everyone should get their autographs after the concert. (“Everyone” is singular; “their” is plural.)
Right: All concert-goers should get their autographs after the concert.

Wrong: Someone left their program in their seat. (“Someone” is singular; “their” is plural.)
Right: A program was left in someone’s seat.

5. Positioning words and phrases for emphasis.

Placing emphasis on certain words or phrases by placing them at the beginning or end of a sentence is a technique used to focus your reader’s attention on certain ideas, opinions or facts.

Example:

Emphasis 1: Based on the audience response, the first band rocked the house. (Emphasis is on the audience.)
Emphasis 2: The first band rocked the house, based on the audience response. (Emphasis is on the band.)

Emphasis 1: Once the concert had ended and the students had gone outside, they saw the star of the show signing autographs. (Emphasis on the end of the concert; autographs by the star is secondary.)
Emphasis 2: The students saw the star of the show signing autographs outside once the concert had ended. (Emphasis on the exciting prospect of getting an autograph.)

As a general rule, always read every sentence you write from your reader’s viewpoint, to ensure that words and thoughts are connected in proper relationships so that there is no chance for misunderstanding. Whereas you are intimately familiar with your subject matter, your reader is presumably reading your message for the first time and is looking forward to reading your paper smoothly without confusion or the need to re-read for clarity. Sentence coherence is successfully achieved when all the sentence parts are correctly related, and you proceed positively toward the goal of making the sentence clear and easily understood.
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