We have a confession to make. At Transtutors, we are obsessed with sentence construction. Why? As English tutors, we want our students to write the best sentences they can so that they can communicate ideas powerfully and effectively. Also, as essay writers, we think about sentence construction all the time too, because it is one of those pieces of writing advice that is often overlooked but has profound implications for how your work will be received by others.
The goal here isn’t for you to become an expert in grammar or punctuation – there are plenty of resources out there for this if you need them – but rather to explore some key concepts behind what makes good sentences great and why following these guidelines helps writers express themselves more powerfully. Let’s get started!
What are the basics of writing a sentence?
When you’re first learning how to write a sentence, it may seem like a meaningless string of words. You need to read them carefully to understand them. We can say that a sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought. The main parts of a sentence are the subject and predicate, which consist of more than one word.
- Subject: The subject is usually a noun or pronoun that tells whom or what the sentence is about. In many cases, the subject will appear at the beginning of a sentence. However, when the sentence expresses an action, you might find the subject at the end.
- Predicate: The predicate is usually made up of a verb in some form. It tells what happens in a sentence.
For example, in the sentence, “Mary went over to her teacher’s desk“, the word “Mary” is the subject because it refers to whomever or whatever is doing the action in this sentence. The verb “went” is the predicate, because it tells what she did.
Typically, a sentence is composed of at least two words. These two words are usually an action word and the subject of the sentence. For example “I am.”
Sentences can be in various lengths but they must always have a beginning, middle, and end so they have meaning. Popularly, sentence construction requires at least two of these three elements: subject, verb, object (sometimes).
- The subject is who or what the sentence is about,
- The verb tells what’s happening with that person or thing, and
- The object tells where or what happens to them–or why we’re talking about them in the first place!
In the above example, “Mary” is the subject, “went” is the verb, and “teacher’s desk” is the object.
What is the schema of writing a sentence?
There are four sentence writing schemas:
- Interrogative, and
Each one has its own purpose for creating or evaluating text. Also, each schema has its specific rules to follow to suit the purpose of the text you’re trying to create; otherwise, it won’t work out too well.
Descriptive sentences are used to give the reader a description of something, for example: “The sky is blue”, or “This building has five floors”. The purpose of using descriptive sentences is to describe an object, environment or event, so this schema will suit most situations when you’re writing about how things look.
Descriptive sentences are structured in the following way:
For descriptive sentences, you begin with an adjective, then a comma. Then comes the main verb or predicate. Finally, end your sentence by following it with another comma and describing what the action of the main verb means in full detail.
Imperative sentences are used to give the reader direct commands on what to do. It’s the type of sentence you’ll usually hear when people are giving directions or suggestions, for example: “Please go home”, “Shh! Don’t say anything”.
The purpose of using this schema is to give specific orders that need to be followed to achieve something favorable. So if you’re writing a command, this schema is for you.
Imperative sentences are structured in the following way:
For imperative sentences, you begin by using an auxiliary verb or a modal verb, then a comma. After that comes the main verb or predicate which gives a clear order. Finally, end your sentence with a period.
Interrogative sentences are used to ask questions, for example: “Do you have the time?”, or “Do I have to go?”. The main goal is to ask a question that requires an answer.
This schema is to ask questions to get information from someone else. So if you’re writing about asking a question, this schema is for you.
Interrogative sentences are structured in the following way:
Questions begin with a pronoun subject, followed by a comma. Then comes the auxiliary verb “do”, another comma, and finally the main verb or predicate that asks your question. End your sentence with a period.
Exclamatory sentences are used to express strong emotions. They give the reader the chance to show their feelings about something, for example: “Wow! I can’t believe it!”, or “Oh no! What are you doing here?”.
The purpose of using this schema is to express your emotions in a particular situation where you feel strongly either positively or negatively. So if you’re writing an exclamation, this schema is for you.
Exclamatory sentences are structured in the following way:
For exclamatory sentences, begin your sentence with an interjection. Then comes a comma followed by the predicate which is usually the main verb of your sentence. Finish it with another comma and then a statement that shows what you’re feeling about the situation.
How our brain interprets a sentence?
Scientists have been able to figure out the most important parts of a sentence that an interpreter uses when trying to understand what has just been said.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute (LTI) found that, with the help of brain imaging, they could anticipate how someone was interpreting language. The research shows that language processing is more than simply understanding individual words or grammatical structure-—rather it begins with learning the meaning of verbs.
Other studies over the past decade have found evidence for this “prediction principle” -– the idea that our brains anticipate what will come next in a sentence, based on experience.
The first key finding of the LTI study was that brain activity related to understanding verbs and their arguments (objects, actions, etc) occurred in conceptual areas of the brain ––rather than sensory-related areas—at around 200 milliseconds, long before the 350-millisecond mark at which verbs are identified.
This indicates that the meaning of a verb is accessed very rapidly after the verb is encountered. It shows that our mind has already made significant semantic predictions even before we know what the word is.
The researchers also found that certain types of probes were easier to process when they appeared at particular points in the sentence. They found that if a probe appeared after a verb, it was more likely to be identified as associated with the object of the sentence (“break” is more easily recognized as “object” than “motion”). If a probe came between the verb and its object (the “prepositional” position), it was more likely to be seen as having abstract meaning.
Another finding of the research is that the brain processes concrete objects and actions in a similar manner, suggesting an early reliance on function–-such as opening, breaking, or folding—in addition to, form. These results indicate that the verb’s argument structure influences how a probe is processed. The brain’s syntactic and semantic expectations help us understand language more efficiently.
In a study published in the “Journal of Neuroscience”, neuroscientists at the University of Rochester have shown that successively exposing ourselves to written material can speed up our brains’ processing of it.
It turns out we can learn to read faster, and we might even enjoy it more as well.
The material can be processed faster by our brains if we read it repeatedly over time. Moreover, the process might even be more pleasant for us.
What makes a sentence hard to read and understand?
Sentences are hard to understand when the structure makes it difficult for readers to process their meaning. Sentences that do not clearly identify their main elements, or that link closely related ideas with unclear connectives (such as “and”, “but” and “or”) can confuse readers. A sentence may also be hard to read if the length is too long or the vocabulary is too advanced.
The structure of a sentence can be improved by placing words and phrases in more explicit, engaging ways. For example, if a sentence begins with “The girl was walking down the street,” it would be better written as “In the middle of the crowded city street, a young woman walked briskly.”
A sentence that uses too many ambiguous connectives may be reworked to use more explicit language or tighter phrasing, e.g., “The mayor suggested the idea of starting a project, but her colleagues weren’t really on board” can become “The mayor suggested starting a new project, but her colleagues were unsupportive.”
Sentences that are too long often cause readers to lose their place while they are reading, or have trouble understanding all of the content. Sentences that contain many ideas in a single clause can be broken up into several smaller sentences. If necessary, more complex information can be reserved for subsequent sentences, which allows the main point to come through earlier and with greater clarity.
Finally, some sentences are difficult because they use words that might be unfamiliar to the reader. A sentence such as “The toddler demanded more sweets from her mother with a feet stomping and arms flailing tantrum” could be rephrased as “When the toddler’s demands for more candy were not met, she threw an angry tantrum.”
What makes a sentence boring?
You may agree with me that there are some sentences which you feel bored when reading them. For example, you read sentences such as “It was a night in late January,” “She had long brown hair,” “He worked in construction,” and so on.
Do these kinds of sentences sound boring to you? Why do you think so?
How about sentences such as “John felt angry,” “The aircraft was flying over the Pacific Ocean,” or “Edmund wanted to go home.” They are all very simple.
Do they sound boring? Why do you think so?
To answer these questions, we need to know that what makes a sentence boring is the use of words such as “it,” “he,” “she,” and “they.” There is no action in these sentences. They are not interesting.
Now let’s look at some examples:
- Jack was happy when he saw Mary after she returned from London.
- It was a cold winter day and I went to the grocery store to buy some milk and eggs.
- She had long brown hair and she walked down the street.
- He worked in construction.
Some of these sentences may sound boring because there is no action in them. For example, sentence 1 simply tells us that Jack was happy when he saw Mary after she returned from London. It doesn’t show any interesting action. Sentence 2 describes an ordinary day that most people experience many times in their lives, so it is boring. Sentences 3 and 4 are both descriptions of things or people. So they are boring too.
One way to make sentences more interesting is by adding detail and changing the order of words. The following examples show how we can do that:
- Jack was overjoyed when he saw Mary after she returned from London.
- It was a cold, dark winter day and I went to the grocery store to buy some milk and eggs.
- She was a beautiful woman with long, brown hair that hung down her back as she walked down the street.
- He worked on construction sites during the day and helped build new homes for families who couldn’t afford them otherwise at night.
The first sentence is more interesting than the first sentence of the original example because it provides more descriptive information about Jack’s feelings. In sentence 2, we add details about what kind of day it was and where I went for groceries. Sentence 3 is less boring because we add a description of the woman’s appearance.
In sentence 4, we give some detail about how he helped people who couldn’t afford homes. These modified sentences are all interesting because they contain actions that you can imagine or relate to in your own life.
Here is one more example:
Maude was on her porch, drinking a glass of lemonade as the sun sets behind her house.
This sentence is not very interesting because the speaker is just observing a scene, not taking part in any action. To make it more interesting, we can add some detail to show Maude’s feelings:
Maude watched as the sun sets behind her house from her porch, sipping a cold glass of lemonade as she did so.
Or we could change the order of the words to make it more interesting:
As the sun sets behind her house, Maude watched from her porch, sipping a cool glass of lemonade.
As you can see, adding sentence detail can help us make our writing more interesting and enjoyable for readers. Doing so also makes it easier for readers to follow what we are saying.
Should you use right-branching sentences or left-branching sentences?
Two of the most common sentence structure types in English are:
- the left-branching sentence structure, and
- the right-branching sentence structure.
Left-branching sentences have a subject, followed by a verb, then an object. An example is “He walked home.” Grammatically this is often seen as being SVO (subject-verb-object) with the subject coming before the verb, although this is not always true.
Right-branching sentences have an SOV structure where the object comes before the verb. An example would be “He walked home his dog.”
The sentence structures are named based on their branching paths to determine which part of speech goes where. Left-branching sentences are “right” for other parts of speech other than the subject because they branch right. Right-branching sentences are “left” for other parts of speech like direct objects because they branch left.
There is a debate over which is better to use in writing and speaking. Left-branching is commonly used in informal speech and right-branching is typically seen as being more formal. Some, such as Strunk and White, say that “transitions between a subordinate clause and the main clause” should be made by the use of a comma or period rather than a right-branching structure because it is “the way we speak.” Others prefer right-branching because it is seen as being better for emphasis and consistency.
Transtutors essay writing experts say that from the viewpoint of information packaging, right-branching sentences are often considered better to use in writing because they make a larger impact on the reader with only one shift from subject to object. In the speech, however, left-branching is often used because it allows for a smoother sentence with less chance of miscommunication.
Some linguists and theorists advocate for no preference and claim that “the choice between whether to use left-branching or right-branching should depend on what strikes you as sounding better.”
A sentence can also be identified as being active or passive. This is helpful when looking at different kinds of left- or right-branching sentences. Active sentences are distinguished by the subject being the agent doing the action, while passive sentences are concerned with what happens to an object.
For example, “The ball was thrown by him” is active whereas “The ball was thrown” uses the passive voice.
According to Wren et al., “the choice between whether to use active or passive voice should depend on what strikes you as advantageous for purposes of emphasis and coherence.”
How to make each sentence you write interesting for your readers?
Want to know how to make each sentence you write interesting for your readers? Then, here are the tips from our Transtutors paper writers:
- Writing is very much like cooking. If you’re preparing a meal for someone else, or even yourself, wouldn’t you try to choose ingredients that are good quality and flavorful? The same can be said for writing a paper, a report, or even a book. Think about it: the language you’re going to use to write your piece should be chosen based on their impact and power – not based on how cliché or tired they might be.
- It’s all too easy to fall into the habit of using the same words or phrases to describe an object, person, or action. Although many words are considered “basic” in the English language, it doesn’t mean they can’t be used creatively when writing for your audience.
- At the very least, writers should research familiar words and find out how other people use them vernacularly. Plus, it’s always a good idea to avoid being so obvious about your message.
All the above points boil down to this one point: avoiding clichés and finding new ways to frame familiar words or phrases will allow you to write with greater power, creativity, and conviction. It’ll also make your writing all the more interesting to read and all the more fun for your readers.