1.29 Writing effective sentences
What is a sentence?
A sentence is a group of words, almost always containing at least one subject and one verb, which expresses a complete thought or idea. Sentences always start with a capital letter, and always end with a full stop, a question mark or, in more informal writing, an exclamation mark.
Why are sentences important?
In more formal written English clear structure is of paramount importance, and sentences are the foundation to achieving this. Unlike in spoken English, where the listener’s understanding is greatly aided by intonation, facial expressions and body language, and where repetition, vagueness and uncompleted ideas are perfectly acceptable, in order to express yourself in formal written English you must write in clear, concise, complete, well-punctuated sentences.
What errors are made in writing sentences?
There are four types of errors made when writing sentences:
Sentences are incomplete
Look at the following example:
We decided to go out for a walk. Although it was raining.
The second sentence here is incomplete, as it does not make sense by itself; it is in fact part of the first sentence. These are often referred to as sentence fragments.
Sentences are incorrectly punctuated
This is usually a question of poor use of commas. A fairly common problem are what are called run-on or comma-spliced sentences. This is when the writer separates two or more individual simple sentences with a comma, when what is needed is a linking word such as and, but, or however (See Guide 1.39), as semi-colon ( ; ) or a colon ( : ), or separate sentences altogether.
I went to a party last night, I left early because I didn’t feel well.
I went to a party last night but left early because I didn’t feel well.
Alternatively, commas may not be used at all, or used in the wrong place.
Sentences are too long
The longer your sentence, the more control you need over punctuation, linking words, and use of pronouns. If you use any of these badly, then your reader will become confused. The last thing you want is for your tutor, getting through a pile of 50 essays at midnight, to have to start reading a sentence three or four times to try and make sense of it. It is therefore usually recommended that you write in fairly short sentences, maybe a maximum of around 20-25 words or a couple of lines. As you get more practice and your writing improves, you can start to make your sentences longer.
Sentences are too short
Don’t go to the opposite extreme and write lots of very short sentences of just a few words. Your writing will become “bitty”, and again will become tiring for the reader. Occasional short sentences can be very effective to emphasise a point, but don’t put lots of them together.
There is more detail on these four points later in this guide.