Sentence structure is important. If your reader cannot follow what you intend, he/she is not likely to continue reading.
For more explanation and examples, click the linked title.
Active voice keeps a reader involved. It follows a simple pattern which can be modified, expanded, and complicated.
The initial pattern is subject (doer) and predicate (verb/verb phrase denoting the action).
- The dog chases the cat.
- The black dog, trailing his chain, sees the cat digging through the garbage, barks to notify the cat of his presence, and chases it.
- The cat runs up a tree.
- TC, short for “The Cat,” hears the dog barking, jumps from the garbage bin, and runs to the nearest tree, which he then climbs.
The passive voice has a subject and a predicate, but the verb is often a form of “to be” and a past or present participle of the verb relaying the action. The doer of the action comes in a prepositional phrase (usually “by”).
- The cat is chased by the dog.
- The garbage is being dug through by the cat, which is alarmed and chased away by the barking of the dog, trailed by its chain.
- The tree is climbed by the cat.
- The nearest tree is climbed by TC, the cat alarmed by the barking of the dog trailed by its chain, and frightened from the garbage bin.
A sentence in the passive voice may be well written and appropriate, but it may also be confusing. The decision to use the passive depends upon the focus of the sentence. The reader will first see the subject.
- The bill was passed by a margin of four to one.
- (If what the reader wants to know is whether or not the bill passed, this focuses on “the bill.”)
- The Senate passed the bill by a margin of four to one.
- (If what the reader wants to know is who passed the bill, this focuses on “the Senate.)
Proper nouns (names of people or places) should always be capitalized.
- John visited Spain and France on Tuesday, the first of May.
- He spoke Spanish, but his French was limited.
The pronoun “I” should be capitalized. “I” am important.
- Tom and I went to Germany.
- I never learned to speak German.
The first word in any sentence begins with a capital letter.
- We rented a car to tour the country.
- The car broke down five miles from the rental agency.
Contractions combine two or more words into one by using an apostrophe. Several verbs and the negative “not” often form contractions.
- It’s going to be late before I’m home.
- I can’t start the car without the key.
Participles come in two flavors: present (“-ing”) and past (usually “-ed”). They are considered dangling if they do not refer to the subject of the main sentence.
- Whittling away on the block of wood, a dove appeared.
- (The dove was not the one doing the whittling.)
- Leaning against the fence, the wires broke.
- (The wires were not leaning against the fence.)
Avoid double negatives in the narrative of a story or in formal writing.
- Never would Hannah be expected to eat nothing in the vegetable family
- (“Never” and “nothing”)
- None of the apples in the tree could not be expected to ripen after the hailstorm.
- (“None” and “not”)
Some fragments are phrases, lacking either a subject or a predicate or both.
- When sleeping in the tent in the forest after the fire.
- No subject, no verb (a participle [“sleeping”] by itself does not qualify as a verb).
- Nathan, the son of the engineer and cousin to all the children of the third generation, lying on the ground and kicking and screeming.
- No verb (the participles [“lying,” “kicking,” and “screaming”] by themselves do not qualify as verbs.
Fragments are often used in speaking, so grammar rules don’t always apply in dialogue. However, in narrative and formal writing, a clause beginning with “although,” “when,” “if,” or other conjunctions should be attached to an independent clause.
- If it rains all night, they will not be able to cross the river.
- (dependent clause = “if it rains all night,” needs the independent clause = “they will not …” to complete the thought.)
- Because the bridge is old, the planks were rotten.
- (dependent clause = “because the bridge is old” needs the independent clause = “the planks were rotten”)
Words in sentences are classified by their function: subject, verb, or object (direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition).
Example: (1) George Washington did not tell his father a lie (2) after he cut down the tree with his ax.
The subject is the doer of the action: “(1) George Washington”, “(2) he.”
The verb tells what the subject does: “(1) did … lie,” “(2) cut.”
A direct object identifies the receiver of the action: “(1) lie,” “(2) tree.”
The indirect object is the one the action was done to or for: “(1) his father,” none in the second clause).
No preposition or its object in the first clause. In clause (2), the object of a preposition is “ax.”
Each word in the English language belongs to a family:
George Washington did not tell his father a lie after he happily cut down the elm tree with his almost new ax.
- noun (person, place, or thing): “George Washington,” “father,” “lie,” “tree,” “ax”
- verb (action or linking): “did … tell,” “cut”
- pronoun (a word that takes the place of a noun): “he”
- adjective (a word that describes something/someone): “his,” “elm,” “his,” “new”
- adverb (a word that describes a verb, an adjective, or another adverb): “not,” happily,” “down,” “almost”
- article (definite=”the” or indefinite=”a” or “an”): “a,” “the”
- preposition (a word that gives a relationship between its object and what precedes it): “with”
- conjunction (a word that combines clauses): “after”
Questions come in two styles: “yes/no” questions or information-seeking questions.
“Yes/no” question seek an affirmation or a denial.
- Do you know if George really cut down the tree?
- Did his father punish him?
Information questions may begin with a question word: “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” “how.”
- Who was George Washington?
- When did he live?
Tag questions begin with a sentence but add an affirming or denying word or phrase.
- Elm trees grow in the eastern part of the country, don’t they?
- The story is a legend, right?
A sentence can be a statement, a question, or an exclamation.
- This is a sentence.
- Can you ask a question?
- I couldn’t believe it!