English for Everybody - Writers' corner
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A Practical Guide to Writing Good English


Word order in sentences

Here is a spoken conversation written verbatim (exactly as the words were spoken).

'Where's Bill? Because you know, I went to his room.'
'Well, it's raining, so you can't go, like, well, the cold also.'
'Not the beach. Yeah. Sure, that's right. But I thought maybe the mall '.
'Oh, okay, right I got you. The garage he mentioned getting stuff.'
'Well, it's not too late. I'll go get him then, . thanks.'

A basic rule of writing is that text is not speech. A normal conversation is a mess. In conversations, people start sentences and do not finish them, or they change direction in the middle of the sentence. Unnecessary words are inserted and important information is left out, and information is given as it occurs to the speaker. This is normal and acceptable, because a conversation has many extra layers of information, including tone of voice, gestures and facial expression. All these help to get the meaning across.

Writing, on the other hand, is one-dimensional. The writer has only words and punctuation with which to convey meaning. Furthermore, while a listener expects that a conversation will be full of irregularities, a reader expects a text to be organized.

A basic problem with a lot of writing is that the writer does not meet this expectation. Instead the text is written as though the writer were talking to his pen (or keyboard). The result is a disorganized jumble which is probably acceptable in a personal email, but no-where else. Good writing is organized.

Organizing a sentence

A useful guideline is to use one fact per sentence, and one idea per paragraph. If a sentence contains more than two ideas and more than twenty words, you probably need at least two sentences. (Remember that guidelines are not rules. Sometimes you need not follow guidelines, and on some occasions you should not follow them. However, it is generally a good idea to do so.)

With a sentence, one should start with the most important part. For example if we write 'Bill is coming tomorrow', the reader understands that the important information is who is coming. However, if we say 'Tomorrow, Bill is coming', then the key information is not who is arriving, but when. Sometimes the most important part is not a word, but a clause. For example, 'Bill was not in his room when I went there' gives first the most important information (we can't find Bill) and then the extra information (we know he is missing because I checked his room).

Likewise, it is a good idea to give cause, then effect. So 'It is raining, so you can't go to the beach' has a more logical progression than 'You can't go to the beach because it is raining.' Sentences should follow a logical path from beginning to end, with bits of information that go together being written together.

'Bill, when I looked, was not in his room', inserts a clause between Bill and the location. This makes the reader work harder to understand the sentence. 'Bill was not in his room when I looked', gives the same information more coherently. In such cases, the comma is your friend. Sentences that flow naturally need fewer commas than a sentence with poor word order. Many commas in a sentence are a sign that the sentence can be better organized.

Remember also that in a sentence, pronouns usually refer to the last proper noun and otherwise to the subject. The sentence 'Bill was planning to go with Joe to the beach, but he saw that it was raining', is an example of an unhelpful pronoun because we do not know if 'he' refers to the last proper noun (Joe) or to the subject (Bill).

One way get around the issue are to use two sentences of one fact each. ' Bill was planning to go with Joe to the beach. However, he saw that it was raining.' Here the pronoun 'he' clearly refers to Bill. Alternatively, if we must use one sentence it is better to use the proper noun where there is a risk of ambiguity. 'He was planning to go with Joe to the beach, but Bill saw that it was raining.' This acceptable, but not ideal, because it is better to start with the proper noun.

In summary, when preparing a sentence, make the most important part the subject and then put the parts after that together in logical order.

Next we will move on and examine how to organize sentences into paragraphs.

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