Shift Syntax to Strengthen Sentences

By Mark Nichol

English syntax is flexible, enabling writers to shape a given sentence in various ways, and we should take advantage of this lack of rigidity to enhance the impact of our statements. Here are several sentences that benefit from rearrangement.

1. “Complex adaptive systems can respond more quickly the more complex they are.”
This sentence is clear and straightforward, but it would be stronger with a shift in emphasis. What’s the key point? Speed increases as complex adaptive systems become more complex. This revision begins with the key point, but it’s often more effective to withhold significant information until the end of a sentence: “The more complex that adaptive systems are, the more quickly they can respond.”

2. “It’s the world of impressions, in which we can do no wrong, not the world of action.”
In the previous example, the distinctions between the three variations of the statement were minimal, although the key point popped out more in the suggested revision. In this case, however, the statement begins vigorously, peaks in the middle, and limps to a close, and the key point is relegated to a parenthetical statement that separates two elements of a contrast. Reorganize the sentence by establishing the contrast and culminating with the conclusion: “It’s the world of impressions, not the world of action, in which we can do no wrong.”

3. “America should rely on the entrepreneurship and goodness of its citizens to be a great society, not on the well-intentioned but ineffective policies of government agencies.”
Again, the heart of a sentence is buried in its middle, and the juxtaposition of the two approaches is interrupted. This sentence makes an assertion about how the United States can be a great society, and that final phrase should punctuate, not be buried in the midst of, the statement.

Here are two variations that, as in the previous example, introduce a contrast and then ride the momentum of that tension to drive home the argument: “The United States should rely on the entrepreneurship and goodness of its citizens, not on the well-intentioned but ineffective policies of government agencies, to be a great society,” or “The United States should rely not on the well-intentioned but ineffective policies of government agencies but on the entrepreneurship and goodness of its citizens to be a great society.”

Note how one variant is internally punctuated and the other isn’t. In the first alternative, the counterpoint, the phrase beginning with not, is parenthetical — it could be omitted without affecting the coherence of the sentence. In the second revision, the two elements of the contrast are an integrated thought, and there is no parenthesis. If the second element of the contrast were omitted, the sentence would read, “The United States should rely not on the well-intentioned but ineffective policies of government agencies to be a great society” — an incomplete statement. Insertion or omission of punctuation can change meaning.

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2 Responses to “Shift Syntax to Strengthen Sentences”

  • Curtis

    I favor a slightly different arrangement of #3:

    “To be a great society, the United States should rely not on the well-intentioned but ineffective policies of government agencies, but on the entrepreneurship and goodness of its citizens.”

    This shifts the desired result of the statement from the end to the beginning and mentions the preferred method of affect at the end. Maybe that’s putting effect before cause, but it still works.

    It’s up to the writer to choose where they want the emphasis.

  • Gloria Besada

    In the last example, how about this order:

    “To be a great society, the United States should relay not on the well-intentioned but ineffective policies of government agencies but on the entrepreneurship and goodness of its citizens.”

    Thanks!

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