5 Keys to Better Sentence Flow

By Mark Nichol

Sentences can be short. They can also be long. This is a good thing. Lack of variety is wearying. It may drive you to distraction.

It’s a good thing that sentences can be short or long, because lack of variety is wearying and may drive you to distraction.

Which paragraph was easier to read? If you’re like me (and why wouldn’t you be?), you’ll pick the latter example, which employs combination and subordination (the process of making one of two sentences part of the other). It’s easy to get caught up in a ratcheted conveyor belt of short, staccato sentences, but it’s also simple to introducing some variety of sentence length through these two frequently paired strategies.

1. “The money was doled out in what are known as State Revolving Funds. These are pots of cash that finance each state’s drinking-water and clean-water infrastructure improvements. “

If a sentence constitutes a definition for a term introduced in the previous sentence, delete the subject from the defining sentence and link the two sentences: “The money was doled out in what are known as State Revolving Funds, pots of cash that finance each state’s drinking-water and clean-water infrastructure improvements.”

2. “The most famous was called the Wonder Fountain. The attraction shot river water 150 feet into the air from a round pool. It drew visitors from Charlotte and beyond.”

This “See Dick run. See Jane run.” succession is easily folded together: Delete the first verb and make the noun phrase after it an appositive. Link the defining sentence to it as a parenthetical phrase, and emerge from that phrase to close with an additional phrase consisting of the final sentence shorn of its subject. The result: “The most famous, the Wonder Fountain, which shot river water 150 feet into the air from a round pool, drew visitors from Charlotte and beyond.”

3. “Religious or purely spiritual models are found in several faiths. They are often considered folk models because they derive from the rank-and-file citizenry.”

A sentence that provides additional detail about the previous sentence can often, absent its subject, be inserted into the midst of the first sentence as a parenthetical phrase: “Religious or purely spiritual models, often considered folk models because they derive from the rank-and-file citizenry, are found in several faiths.”

4. “He stood in front of the half-empty San Luis Reservoir, built in 1962 to store water for the feds’ Central Valley Project. He painted a Dust Bowl-grim picture of Central Valley’s storied farming economy.”

Replace a sentence’s subject with a participle (a verb with an -ing ending), then clip the following sentence’s subject and tack the rest of the sentence on: “Standing in front of the half-empty San Luis Reservoir, built in 1962 to store water for the feds’ Central Valley Project, he painted a Dust Bowl–grim picture of Central Valley’s storied farming economy.”

5. “Following the principles of Ayurvedic medicine, the flavors, numbering six, are defined as follows: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, astringent, and spicy. These flavors are divided into six categories, which are associated with earth, water, and fire.”

When combining and subordinating sentences, look for opportunities to make a passage more concise as well. Stating the number of listed flavors is superfluous, and “are defined as follows” is a verbose and unnecessary obstacle between the reader and the list.

Note, too, how em dashes are employed in order to avoid a bewildering succession of commas: “Following the principles of Ayurvedic medicine, the flavors—divided into categories associated with earth, water, and fire—are sweet, sour, bitter, salty, astringent, and spicy.”

Successions of sentences don’t always merit these steps, but judicious application will improve the flow of your writing.

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15 Responses to “5 Keys to Better Sentence Flow”

  • Frank Elliott

    A corollary to this post, pounded into me by the editors at my first daily newspaper jig: Whenever possible, choose short, single-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words over multi-syllabic Latin-derived words.

    They’re the building blocks for simple, declarative, muscular sentences.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for these tips on better sentence flow. I read other blogs posts that advised writers to write shorter sentences, especially for the internet, instead of longer ones. I guess it’s a matter of opinion.

  • Gildawie

    Don’t you mean “Dust-Bowl-grim”?

  • Kathryn

    Rebecca: Oh, nicely played! Your sequence of short/long/short demonstrates perfectly the real underlying rule (which Marc adverts to): vary your sentence length. But, although I agree with Mark that the longer of his two opening paragraphs is better, I think those who advise shortening sentences do so wisely. Unpracticed writers are more likely to produce long incomprehensible sentences than short ones, perhaps because long sentences seem more. . .impressive.

    Marc, I liked your demonstration of ways to combine long sentences into longer but better sentences. An excellent reminder that length is not the most important consideration!

  • Mark Nichol

    Gildawie:

    Actually, though in this post the phrase in boldface erroneously includes a hyphen, the second reference in the item properly employs an en dash. When you link a permanent open compound to another word, a muscular en dash is used in place of a weakling hyphen to show that the words in the compound constitute a single term.

    Two or more words in a proper noun are never hyphenated to temporarily link them to each other and another word (unless the hyphen is already part of the name, but that’ll look awkwardly complicated). Many Web sites and print publications alike, whether out of ignorance or to simplify matters, rely on a simple hyphen: “Dust Bowl-grim.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Rebecca:

    I agree that, in general, short, tight sentences are advisable for online reading: See this post: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/7-tips-for-writing-for-online-readers. But strive for variety; don’t outlaw occasional extended sentences. (And I indulge my propensity for such with the justification that I have a highly literate, logophilic readership.)

  • Peter

    Actually, though in this post the phrase in boldface erroneously includes a hyphen, the second reference in the item properly employs an en dash.

    Except “Dust Bowl–grim” makes “Bowl–grim” “bind tighter” than “Dust Bowl”. It would better to hyphenate to “Dust-Bowl–grim”, if you have to use dashes with elements comprising more than one word.

  • Kathryn

    Or. . .you could rethink it entirely. Dustbowlgrim, however punctuated, is a clunky phrase–sometimes you can make things too compact. “He painted a picture of Central Valley’s storied farming economy as grim as any Dust Bowl ballad.”

    No, I don’t think mine is particularly good; I’d probably do a tear-down and start from scratch. I just don’t think the original phrase is worth the effort of defending its punctuation.

  • Mark Nichol

    Peter:

    Most style guides agree: The en dash is specifically called for in such constructions, and its presence precludes the redundant inclusion of the hyphen as well.

  • Mark Nichol

    Kathryn:

    Thanks for the reminder: There’s often more than one way around an error, and sometimes the wisest course is to relax the sentence.

  • Peter

    The hyphen is far from redundant; it’s absolutely necessary to make the sentence read as intended.

    I don’t know “most style guides”. I use the Oxford Style Manual/Hart’s rules, which gives as an example “the Winston Churchill–Anthony Eden Government”: it suggests that the hyphenated “Winston-Churchill–Anthony-Eden Government” is better, but not much, and recommends “the Churchill–Eden Government” instead of either.

  • Mark Nichol

    Peter:

    Let’s agree to disagree. Please also keep in mind that I — and most visitors to this site, speak and write American English — and that my posts will reflect this bias. On this side of the Pond, Oxford style, at least in this regard, is just wrong — but I will keep in mind that many British English speakers and writers read these posts, too.

  • Mark Nichol

    Correction: Please also keep in mind that I — and most visitors to this site — speak and write American English, and that my posts will reflect this bias.

  • Jon

    The ‘rules’ for writing for the web, and writing for print vary with the constraints of the media.

    A hyphen and en-dash, – –, can be harder to distinguish in some fonts, in some browsers, (especially when they are in situ) than might be the case in print where — all things going well — you will have tighter control over the final appearance.

    It helps if you can avoid making a reader backtrack, and visually compare the lengths of dashes to decipher the meaning.

    (I’d personally go for “Churchill–Eden” over the other two choices, if only to avoid the erroneous “Churchill–Anthony” visual link or the four headed Winston–Churchill–Anthony–Eden, which looks too much like part of a bus timetable to my eye.)

  • Vincent

    Good post. It has given new directions to me – on how to create a sentence structure.

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