A Quiz About Compressing Accordion Sentences

By Mark Nichol

Brisk, lively writing requires attending to phrasing that slows readers down and or trips them up. Be vigilant about finding ways to make sentences less wordy and more direct. Firm up these five flabby sentences, and compare your revisions with mine:

1. “The kit includes a set of five food containers, and they are dishwasher safe.”

Insert the key information in the second clause of this sentence as a phrasal adjective preceding the subject: “The kit includes a set of five dishwasher-safe food containers.”

2. “In 1995, he published a book called Bowling Alone, which introduced the term ‘social capital’ into our nation’s vocabulary.”

Shift the focus from the author’s act of publishing the book to the result of the publication by deleting compacting the phrase “he published a book called” to “his book,” then delete the comma and which: “In 1995, his book Bowling Alone introduced the term ‘social capital’ into our nation’s vocabulary.” (Use this solution cautiously, as such a shift in focus may cause the passage to veer from fidelity to the author’s intent.)

3. “The film was commissioned by the US Treasury Department, and it was troubled from the beginning.”

When a sentence includes more than one form of the verb phrase “to be” — is, was, were, and the like — discover a way to eliminate at least one of them; in this case, alter what follows was in the first clause to a subordinate clause, and jettison the conjunction: “The film, commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department, was troubled from the beginning.” (Look for opportunities in such cases to replace not one but both “to be” verbs, which are inferior in impact to more vivid verbs — doing so may encourage you to be more specific, too: “The film, commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department, suffered from bureaucratic interference from the beginning.”)

4. “Smith is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and frequently represents evangelicals in the media.”

This sentence is improved in the same fashion as the previous one, with the additional improvement of replacing the verbose “part of the whole” construction with a “whole’s part” revision: “Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, frequently represents evangelicals in the media.” (Take care, however, that this more concentrated restructuring is not more ponderous than the original phrasing.)

5. “My cousin, who is employed as an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, claims that a scenario similar to that one could occur if the circumstances were right.”

Delete the redundant indicators that the writer’s cousin is a person (who) and is employed at the place of employment, and tighten the rest of the sentence by converting phrases that contain an adjective and follow a noun into adjectives preceding the nouns and modifying them on their own: “My cousin, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, claims that a similar scenario could occur under the right circumstances.”

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7 Responses to “A Quiz About Compressing Accordion Sentences”

  • Michelle Baker

    I caution clients against making the change you recommend in sentence number 1. Too many modifiers in a row cause the readers eyes to glaze over. Three modifiers is one too many.

    I would recommend that the coordinating conjunction AND be changed into something more useful to the reader. Start a new sentence and say something, like BEST OF ALL, THEY ARE …

    Or, CONSUMERS CONCERNED ABOUT CONVENIENCE WILL BE PLEASED TO KNOW THAT …

  • Nicole

    An English Literature major with a strong hold on grammar who wants an even better understanding because too many of her friends expect her to know ALL grammatical rules.

  • Nicole

    Please ignore and do not post my comment; I thought I was signing up for your email list and was able to make a general comment. Oops!

  • John Silberberg

    “My cousin, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, claims that a similar scenario could occur under the right circumstances.”

    – to me, this is unwieldy. I’d like to see it broken into two sentences:

    “My cousin claims that a similar scenario could occur under the right circumstances. He is an epidemiologist at the…”

    It depends on what’s important in the context – the claim, or the qualification.

  • Janey

    #2 I would have kept published:
    Published in 1995, his book Bowling Alone introduced the term ‘social capital’ into our nation’s vocabulary.

  • Andy Knoedler

    I found #3 a bit sleepy in its concept. I’m sure you don’t mean that the film itself was “troubled from the beginning”. This suggests that from the opening frames onwards the film was not a smooth production.

    Probably a better solution would be to say that “Production of the film, which was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department, was troubled from the beginning”.

    Incidentally, I assume the added information–“suffered from bureaucratic interference from the beginning”–came from the context, not from your active imagination.

  • Precise Edit

    #4 Yours: Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, frequently represents evangelicals in the media.

    #4 Mine: As president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Smith frequently represents evangelicals in the media.

    Mine keeps the subject and verb close together and puts them at the beginning of the main body of the sentence, thus making the sentence easier to read and understand.

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