Combining Sentences

By Mark Nichol

One cure for flabby prose is greater attention to more lean, muscular writing by, whenever possible, creating a subordinate clause for one sentence by combining another sentence with it. Here are five examples of this approach.

1. “Robert Gordon Sproul was a member of the University of California’s class of 1912. He was appointed to serve as comptroller of the university in 1914 and then served as president from 1930 to 1958.”
The two pieces of biographical information can be unified into one sentence by deleting was in the first sentence and making the rest of the statement a parenthetical, then deleting the subject of the second sentence and combining the subject and parenthesis of the first with the rest of the second: “Robert Gordon Sproul, a member of the University of California’s class of 1912, was appointed to serve as comptroller of the university in 1914 and then served as president from 1930 to 1958.”

2. “Senate Bill 7 had been written by the Water and Forest Association. It called for the creation of an unpaid three-member commission.”
These sentences can be combined with the same procedure as used in the previous example, but the context may require the addition of which and the retention of “had been”: “Senate Bill 7, which had been written by the Water and Forest Association, called for the creation of an unpaid three-member commission.”

3. “The group meets once a week. During each meeting, students participate in a mini-lesson that explains specific conventions or spelling patterns.”
Here, cannibalize the first sentence to insert modifying words or phrases based on the two nouns into the second one: “During each weekly meeting, students in the group participate in a mini-lesson that explains specific conventions or spelling patterns.”

4. “He started work on a project he called Real Life/Reel Life. It was based on a book called Screen Test: How Movie Stars Separate Real Life and Reel Life.”
Alter the first few words of the second sentence to change it to an introductory subordinate clause, then attach the first sentence to it as the main clause: “Inspired by a book called Screen Test: How Movie Stars Separate Real Life and Reel Life, he started work on a project he called Real Life/Reel Life.”

5. “The documentary was based on Major Alexander De Severksy’s book Victory through Air Power, which was published in 1942. The book made the case that the nature of war was changing dramatically.”
The easiest revision, “The documentary, based on Major Alexander De Severksy’s book Victory through Air Power (published in 1942), made the case that the nature of war was changing dramatically,” changes the meaning somewhat, attaching the thesis to the documentary rather than the book (which may be valid, as both the book and film may make the case). Here’s an alternative that preserves the intent of the original sentences: “The documentary was based on Major Alexander De Severksy’s book, Victory through Air Power, published in 1942, which made the case that the nature of war was changing dramatically.”

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6 Responses to “Combining Sentences”

  • Elli Pirelli

    While I usually enjoy the tips given here, I don’t quite agree on this one. In my opinion, one should strive to _shorten_ sentences, not make them even longer – I’d rather break sentences up than combining them. Isn’t it harder to keep your reader focused when he has to keep the thought across several subordinate sentences?

  • Lucas

    Are we sure that the solution N.2 has the same meaning of the original sentence?
    Thank you, lucas

  • Scott Mellon

    I notice far fewer subordinate clauses in the media lately, especially in the news. I think it appeals because it produces a lower FOG index, which the moguls imagine, wrongly I think, that it will broaden their audience. It certainly sounds clunky, in fact childlike.

  • Bill

    The revised sentences could be tightened.
    In the first example, substitute “was appointed to serve” with “served,” given that he did, apparently, serve. Do without soft verbs like “was” when possible.
    In example 2, be active: The Water and Forest Association wrote Senate Bill 7 to call for the creation of an unpaid three-member commission.
    In 4, I’d use “the book” instead of “a book called,” and get rid of the second “called”: “he started work on the project Real Life/Reel Life.”
    In 5, it’s understood that a year referring to a book is the year it was published and you can use the year as an adjective: “The documentary was based on Major Alexander De Severksy’s 1942 book, Victory through Air Power, which made the case that the nature of war was changing dramatically.”

  • Precise Edit

    This is a good strategy for reducing redundancy and tightening sentences. 300 Days of Better Writing, day 106, addresses this strategy, as follows.

    Let’s say you have two short sentences or one average-length sentence with a short sentence that provides additional information. To prevent your document from sounding too choppy or repetitive, you can combine the two sentences into one. One way to do this is to create an introductory clause or phrase from the additional information. Consider these sentences.

    “Our grant writing consultant expressed his belief that the proposal will be funded.”
    “He made this statement to the district superintendent.”

    These two sentences are nearly the same: the person + speak + statement. This makes the two sentences sound repetitive. Sentence two provides some extra information about the main concept in sentence one. Using this tip, we can create an introductory phrase from sentence two. This gives us the following revision.

    “While speaking to the district superintendent, our grant writing consultant expressed his belief that the proposal will be funded.”

    With the extra information in an introductory phrase and not in the main sentence, the main idea of the sentence is clear. This is also a good way to vary sentence length, resulting in more engaging writing, without making your sentences difficult to understand.

  • Michael

    Love the site! I think the point of the article was to just show how to combine sentences in an efficient manner, and not necessarily a comparison of which is better: shorter or longer sentences. But I could definitely see the confusion.

    As writers, I feel we must always strive for clarity since words are the only source of conveying our thoughts to the reader. Thus, depending on the complexity of a message or chapter or passage in a book, long and short and medium sentence lengths should be used. And avoiding repetition of either length for too long is good I find because then it can distract from the meaning.

    Can’t wait to read tomorrow’s tip. Keep up the great site.

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