Sentenced for Life: Structure it Right

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As a new writer, you may be faced with a unique struggle – you know what you want to say, but not how to say it. The ideas are there – but not the structure. As you become more comfortable with your craft, you will also enhance your knowledge of the correct use of grammar in your work. It is often difficult to learn how to use correct sentence structure in your fiction or non-fiction writing. There are four main issues to address that will improve the quality of your writing: non-agreement of verbs and their correlating subjects; sentence fragments and incomplete thoughts; run-on sentences and comma splice errors; and improper order of sentence elements.

Subject/Verb Disagreement

When you are proofreading to ascertain noun/verb disagreement issues, remove all unnecessary elements from the sentence, leaving just the subject and predicate. Read aloud just those words – does it sound correct to your ears? Have you used the correct tense of verb with your noun or pronoun?

Build-up of troops in the Middle East progress at a steady pace.

In the sentence above, carefully pick out your subject: is it troops, or build-up? The correct answer is build-up. To check the validity of your sentence, remove “troops in the Middle East” and “at a steady pace”. Your sentence now reads “Build-up progress”. That doesn’t sound pleasing to the ear, does it? This sentence should correctly read as follows: “Build-up of troops in the Middle East is progressing at a steady pace. Your grammar is now much better.

He walks down the sidewalk and twirled his yo-yo.

In this example, we have one disagreement. Can you point it out? Two separate verbs refer back to the subject. “He walks” and “He twirled” both sound correct, don’t they? And they are – just not in the same sentence. It is grammatically incorrect to use verbs of a different tense when referring to the same subject. This sentence structure can be corrected in two ways. First, you can write “He walks down the sidewalk and twirls his yo-yo”. The second option is “He walked down the sidewalk and twirled his yo-yo”.

Sentence Fragments and Incomplete Thoughts

Sentence fragments can be hard to find in your writing because your eyes may view what you believe to be a complete phrase, but what is actually an incomplete thought. When reading for fragments, consider the grammar of each sentence structure individually. Is there a subject and a verb? This may seem tedious at the start, but as your mind becomes accustomed to automatically picking out necessary sentence elements, your editing will progress at a faster pace.

Too much work to be done before the exam.

Examining the sentence structure above, can you find a subject? What if you revised the sentence structure to read “There is too much work to be done before the exam”? What is the subject now? When the words “there is” were added to the sentence, it was transformed from a fragment to a complete thought.

Run-Ons and Splices

While fragmentary sentences are missing part of the equation, run-on sentences and comma-splice errors have too many additions to the equation. To weed out this error, read your sentence out loud. If you have to stop for a breath, or to figure out what you’ve just said, your sentence structure needs revision. Possible corrections for run-on sentences include splitting into two sentences, adding commas or semi-colons, or including a coordinating conjunction.

My favourite restaurant is the Chop House because they have friendly waitresses the food is good and my friends like to go there often.

When you read the sentence above, add punctuation wherever you would naturally pause or take a breath. What is your resulting structure? One possibility is “My favourite restaurant is the Chop House; they have friendly waitresses, the food is good, and my friends like to go there often.

The sidewalk is wet, the children are covered in mud.

A comma-splice error is the combining of two independent clauses with just a comma. To fix this error in grammar, the most common solutions include separating into two independent sentences or replacing the common with a semi-colon. For the example above, your solutions would then be “The sidewalk is wet. The children are covered in mud” or “The sidewalk is wet; the children are covered in mud”.

Sentence Element Order

As a writer, you can employ a variety of sentence structures when developing your writing. At the same time, Grammar Nazis advise that certain rules of the road must always be followed. You may remember from early writing classes that English teachers will always point out when you’ve used a preposition at the end of your sentence. Although this may sometimes seem to be unavoidable, precaution should be taken to avoid this structure as often as possible. Consider the examples below:

Where is he at?

Who are you attending the concert with?

Who did you send a Valentine to?

How can we best revise these examples to become more grammatically correct? In the first example, the solution is easy to even the novice writer: remove the preposition, and the intent of the question remains the same. The second and third examples are trickier. Both formats have become acceptable in colloquial conversation but are frowned upon in more formal writing. Consider the context of your writing before changing. Are you writing dialogue between two characters? If so, the structure used in examples two and three may be acceptable. But if you are writing a formal document, revision is necessary.

To revise, there are two main considerations. First, where should the preposition be located for clarity of thought? Second, are noun/pronoun usages correct? After pondering those considerations, what sentence structures will you consider? The second sentence should be revised to read “With whom are you attending the concert?” The third sentence should appropriately read “To whom did you send a Valentine?” In both sentences, you must change the word who to whom to preserve correct grammar and intent.

Your main goal as a writer should be to clearly convey your thoughts to your audience. Though at times, you must follow a specific format in order to use correct grammar while maintaining understandable sentence structures. At others, options are available for you to explore in order to maximize the effectiveness of your writing. In any case, practice will make your editing impeccable, allowing you to say whatyou want exactly how you want.


Kristy Taylor is a syndicated freelance journalist with articles and short stories strewn across all forms of media. She has written and published numerous books, and is the executive editor of KT Publishing, which encompasses several web sites. For free listings of short story competitions visit http://www.shortstorycompetitions.com

To contact Kristy, email her at mail@kristytaylor.com


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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