Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

To clarify your sentences, put the subject first

Not infrequently, I find myself trying to help students see that their sentences are not clear. Yes, we see a great many comma splices. True, we see frequent incorrect word choices (too to two; their there they’re, etc). However, all other faults pale before an essential lack of clarity.

It seems to me that the single tidbit of advice that is most helpful in this regard is to have a clear subject and put the subject first. That won’t fix everything — I wish it would! — but it simplifies a whole bunch of writing advice that you often see, for example here at this randomly chosen university writing center website. (Not quite randomly chosen; it came up near the top in a google search about clear sentences.)

Writing advice offered by this writing center (all examples are theirs):

Use active voice:
Passive: It was earlier demonstrated that heart attacks can be caused by high stress.
Active: Researchers earlier showed that high stress can cause heart attacks.

Use active verbs:
Nominalization: An evaluation of the procedures needs to be done.
How to fix it: We need to evaluate the procedures.

Reduce prepositional phrases:
Unnecessary prepositional phrase: The opinion of the manager
Correction: The manager’s opinion

Reduce expletive constructions:
Expletive: It is inevitable that oil prices will rise.
Correction: Oil prices will inevitably rise.

Avoid vague nouns:
Vague: Strong reading skills are an important factor in students’ success in college.
Precise: Students’ success in college depends on their reading skills.

So five of the nine categories of advice at that link could be boiled into one: Choose a clear subject, and put the subject first.

When trying to write in an erudite style, students are especially likely to go for expletive constructions. When using long introductory clauses, students are apt to get lost and throw a period in at random, producing a long fragment. When an instructor comments about lack of concision or lack of clarity, this one principle — clear subject, first thing — can help a lot.

Just thought I’d mention this in case any of you, or your students, or your own children, find it helpful.

Now, if only there were some super-reliable easy advice that would simply help students recognize when a sentence of theirs is complete nonsense. I’m talking about sentences like this: “Numerous people immunizations focusing on disregarded sicknesses in low- and center-wage communities.”

Putting the subject first is good advice, but it won’t help with something like that. If you have a tip for helping with that, please, please share it with me.

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