7 Solutions for Repetitive Sentence Structure

By Mark Nichol

It takes little time or effort to spruce up a sentence that includes repetitive-sounding phrases. Here are some examples of minor revisions that eliminate echoes of phrasing:

1. “Six models are available, from a one-bedroom bungalow for $81,000 to a three-bedroom, two-story city house for about $200,000.”

Avoid the “this for that, this for that” structure of this sentence by varying the second for phrase: “Six models are available, from an $81,000 one-bedroom bungalow to a three-bedroom, two-story city house priced in the low $200,000s.”

2. “Locations range from Sonoma, Berkeley, and Crockett in the San Francisco Bay Area to Shelter Island in Washington State.”
The “this in that” repetition here is resolved by flipping
the city/state order of the second element by using the possessive form of the larger geographic element: “Locations range from Sonoma, Berkeley, and Crockett in the San Francisco Bay Area to Washington State’s Vashon Island.”

This type of solution is often useful even when no repetition occurs; “Chicago’s downtown hub,” for example, flows more smoothly than “the downtown hub of Chicago.” (Also, note in the example above that the capitalization of state is correct; this is an anomalous usage when distinguishing between the state of Washington and Washington, DC.)

3. “Her designs include the Vitra company’s fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, the Mind Zone at the Millennium Dome in London, and a tram station and car park in Strasbourg, France.”

Introducing variations in this reference to buildings in various locations reduces the number of prepositions from four to two: “Her designs include the Vitra company’s fire station, in Weil am Rhein, Germany; the Mind Zone, at London’s Millennium Dome; and a Strasbourg, France, tram station and car park.”

Note that because formal writing calls for setting off restrictive phrases — without a comma, “the Mind Zone at London’s Millennium Done,” for example, implies that other Mind Zones are to be found elsewhere — the three elements of this sentence have been separated by semicolons.

4. “The story bridges the stylistic gap between the dreams of Tim Burton and the nightmares of David Lynch.”

The fix in the second example, above, can be applied to names of people as well as those of places: “The story bridges the stylistic gap between the dreams of Tim Burton and David Lynch’s nightmares.”

5. “They range from venerable standards such as House Beautiful, with a circulation of 7.6 million, to the local up-and-comer, Dwell, with a circulation of about 250,000.”

Substitution of “which has” for a weak with and elegant variation of one word strengthens this sentence: “They range from venerable standards such as House Beautiful, with a circulation of 7.6 million, to the local up-and-comer, Dwell, which has a readership of about 250,000.”

Various revisions of the final phrase are possible. You could choose a more vivid verb and write “which boasts 250,000 readers,” for example, but be careful about weighted words such as boasts and claims. Also, in some sentences, the grammatical structure of “the 250,000-reader Dwell” is valid, but applying the template here produces awkward wording.

6. “In the white winters, you can sled or cross-country ski, or drive to the North Lake Tahoe ski resorts. In the hot, bright summers, there’s hiking through giant forests, climbing the towering Sierra Buttes, and swimming in the 130 nearby lakes. In the autumn, the deciduous trees glow with vivid fall colors, and in the spring, the masses of wildflowers create a psychedelic dreamscape.”

The repetitive “in the (noun)” introductory phrases in this paragraph are mitigated by some variety in the respective following phrases, but further differentiation is easily accomplished: “In the white winters, you can sled or cross-country ski, or drive to the North Lake Tahoe ski resorts. During the hot, bright summers, there’s hiking through giant forests, climbing the towering Sierra Buttes, and swimming in the 130 nearby lakes. Come autumn, the deciduous trees glow with vivid fall colors, and when spring arrives, the masses of wildflowers create a psychedelic dreamscape.”

7. “She says that over the past month, she’s made over 350 calls on her cell phone.”

Avoid using a word more than once in a sentence, especially if it has different meanings each time: “She says that over the past month, she’s made more than 350 calls on her cell phone.” (But generally, when you come across over used in the sense of “more than,” don’t automatically correct it unless your workplace’s style guide mandates it. If you believe that over, as an alternative to “more than,” is not valid, get over it: Many usage manuals and style guides accept either term to mean “in excess of.”)

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11 Responses to “7 Solutions for Repetitive Sentence Structure”

  • cmdweb @ freewritingadvice.com

    I always feel that repetition is one of the main things that can kill the readability of your page. I tend to advise people to expand their vocabulary through continual reading and use their thesaurus to give their writing feeling and meaning without repetition.

  • Johnny

    I have a beginner question for you. Many of these sentences, like #4, are parallel in forms. I thought as writers, we always strike for parallel structure, and parallel structure often contains repetitive words/phrases. How do we decide when to avoid repetitive and when to strike for parallel structure?
    As a beginner, I often make the wrong choice. Thanks.

    Johnny

  • Roberta B.

    Actually, I think the original forms of examples #4 and #5 provide a more direct and understandable comparison than the improved versions.
    In example #7, I understand that style guides now allow the contraction “she’s” to be used for “she has,” but I still disagree with that usage and believe “she’s” (both written and spoken) should be limited to the contraction for “she is.”

  • Precise Edit

    One of our major writing / editing techniques to improve clarity is to place the subject and main verb together and close to the beginning of the sentence. This helps the reader identify the main point of the sentence and answer the question “Who did what to whom?”

    However, this technique can lead to form of repetitive sentence structures that we call the “washboard effect.” The washboard effect produces a series of sentences that suffer from a similar problem as your example #6. Here’s what 300 Days of Better Writing (http://hostileediting.com), day 299, has to say about this problem with repetitive sentences.

    Imagine running your fingers down a washboard, the type with the ridged surface that people once used to wash clothes. Your fingers are going to go bump-bump-bump-bump-bump.

    Now imagine you are reading a series of sentences that all start with the subject as the first word. Your brain will quickly realize the pattern of subject-content-subject-content-subject-content. And so on. Each subject makes a mental “bump.”

    This is called the “washboard effect” because it provokes the mental equivalent of running your fingers down a washboard.

    The effect on the reader is significant and negative. After a few such sentences, the reader will tire of reading and lose focus. Additionally, you will seem like a boring and amateurish writer. Consider this paragraph.

    “The automobile industry suffers from heavy labor demands. Labor demands have grown over the years. They now include extended time off with pay and greatly increased pension plans. The cost of supporting these labor demands is high. Manufacturers have had to reduce their profit margins to meet them. Lower profit margins cause slower or no growth. Automotive laborers are the ones who will suffer most. Fewer jobs will be available for new hires. Some current laborers will be retired or laid off. Manufacturers will find robotic technologies to reduce the need for expensive workers.”

    In each sentence, the first words are the subject. Although the sentences are clear and the paragraph is well organized, they quickly become tedious to read due to the washboard effect.

    To solve this bump-bump-bump pattern, we can vary the sentence openings. For example, we can start some sentences with adverbial or prepositional phrases. Others we can start with single transitional words, such as “therefore” and “however.” We can even re-arrange some sentences to push the subject farther back.

    Here are some sentences that have been revised to break up the washboard pattern.

    –“Over the years, these labor demands have grown.”

    –“In spite of their good intentions, these demands will hurt automotive laborers most.”

    –“To reduce the need for expensive laborers, manufacturers may find robotic technologies to replace them.”

    Consider your own sentences and look at the patterns they create, if any. If you find yourself using the same pattern consistently, revise to provide more variety.

  • Kelly

    I agree with Roberta. In the case of #4, the parallel structure of the original is far more euphonious than the correction.

  • Precise Edit

    Re. #7:
    Another possibility is “She claims to have made more than 350 calls on her cell phone during the last month.”

  • Brian

    Variety is good. Parallelism is good. Don’t these two ideas contradict each other here?

    Is it just a matter of ear, intuition, and preference?

  • Kathryn

    Brian–agreed, both variety and parallelism are good, each in measure and in its place. “Ear, intuition and preference” seems as good a way as any to sort out when to emphasize one or the other. I agree with Roberta, the original form of #4 is better. And, although I concede Precise Edit’s point about #6, I think in that particular case it is more rhetorically effective to keep the repetitive parallel structure for the beginnings of the sentences (although it might be good to add an adjective before “autumn”). But it isn’t always easy to come up with sentences in isolation that demonstrate the point you want to discuss and are also clearly wrongly constructed.

  • Mark Nichol

    I, too, prefer the original form of the fourth example, but as Kathryn astutely notes, compiling effective examples of grammatical errors is a challenge. (Most of the sample sentences I present are taken from published or soon-to-be-published content, though sometimes I create a sentence to fill out a post or illustrate a variation for which I have no example.) These specimen sentences are intended to be studied as templates for how to improve writing.

  • Mark Nichol

    Johnny:

    When I think of parallel sentence structure, I think of problems like “He likes hiking and to fish” or “His pursuits include hiking, camping, downhill and cross-country skiing.” “Parallel structure,” the achievement of grammatical consistency, is not synonymous with “identical structure,” the achievement of syntactical consistency, which has no benefit.

  • JKB

    Love and affection.
    I’m happy enough I found this website. It helps me in learning English basic and advance. Sometimes some definitions need explanation, specially for students (me too). Beside all this, I’m very much thankful to you for building such a beautiful website.
    Thank you very much and regards.

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