Sentences That Make Sense

Close-up photo of book text

Contrary to what many readers might think in order to communicate effectively, I believe we need only understand the basics of grammar. Just a few key elements are necessary: the rest can come with regular practice, an open, willing mind and a desire to keep learning and experimenting.

I'm not not suggesting that grammar is irrelevant today, rather that, the way we live and communicate is changing as our world moves into the 21st Century.

For example, growing numbers of symbols are being used more and more to respresent thoughts, ideas, even entire sentences, especially on electronic devices.

Symbols can also help break through language barriers providing the intended meaning of those symbols is universally communicated clearly, understood, and accepted.

As website providers, writers, speakers, e-publishers and authors who seek to communicate, engage and persuade, we certainly need to aware of changing times and adjust our approaches accordingly.

Exploring Standard and Non-Standard English

One of the most important building blocks of communication is the sentence. Today, a sentence can take a variety of different forms. Reggae musician, Bob Marley, often used non-standard English with great success. For example, in one excerpt, when singing about his ancestors, he used:

"Pirates, yes they rob I / Sold I to the merchant ships / Minutes after they took I / From the bottomless pit."

Unusual, perhaps. But who are any of us to say what is better or worse? Bob Marley fans understand and identify with what he's saying. What's more, Bob Marley's music sales testify that to Bob Marley devotees at least, his lyrics offer a good choice.

Furthermore, Queen Victoria may have said: "We are not amused!" when referring to her own reaction rather than including others. We can smile glibly today, yet during the time in which Queen Victoria lived, such a more formal style was customary and an accepted form of standard English for the British Royal family to use.

Key point: your minimum goal is for your listener or reader to understand what you're saying at the time you write, speak, present, or communicate. However, if you want to persuade, engage, cajole or entrance your audience, the precise language style and tone you use benefits from more consideration, thought, planning.

Since all communication starts with the sentence, let's dig a little deeper.

What's In a Sentence — Really?

In standard English, ordinarily, for a sentence to make sense, it contains a subject and a what is often referred to as a finite verb. For example, in the previous sentence, the subject is: "standard English" and the verb is "it contains".

To recap, a sentence:

  • Verb explains what is happening or expresses action. The verb often uses a "being" or "doing" word. A finite verb means that the verb is limited by its subject.
  • Subject is the person or thing that is doing the "doing" or the "being". The subject is what the sentence is about: the central element.

Let's put those two statements together in another example. Consider the sentence: "John loved Alice", the:

  • Subject is "John".
  • Finite verb is "loved". Alternative finite verbs, that may require some additional wordage to make sense, could include: "loving", "love" and "loves".

However, the verb "to love" is considered infinite since anyone can love and "to love" can stand on its own without a subject.

Yet in the sentence "John loved Alice", the subject, John, has limited the idea of "to love" so in our sentence example has converted that to "loved", thereby converting the verb to finite.

Key tip: for a sentence to make sense in standard English, usually any verb you use is made finite.

For example: we don't say, "John to love Alice", "John love Alice" or "John loving Alice" — none of those versions make a complete sentence or make any real sense. Instead, we would say something like: "John loves Alice", "John loved Alice", or "John is loving Alice".

Let's Recap on Some Basic Writing Tips and Guidelines

When you want to create a direct, authoritative and quick-to-understand sentence:

  • Place the sentence subject and its associated verb at the start of your sentence. Example: "John loves Alice".
  • Keep the subject and verb close together. Example: "Writers write; painters paint".
  • Put the most important element of your paragraph topic at the start of your paragraph. Use extra sentences to provide additional information to support the main core topic covered in first sentence.
  • To present your topic points in order of importance, consider using the inverted pyramid method that journalists often model their writing on. That means, insert the most important piece of information at the start of your article, then continue to add supporting topics, in order of importance in paragraphs that follow.
  • Remove any words, phrases or sentences that repeat points you've already made or which don't add something unique to the overall topic or "conversation".
  • If you consider that a sentence is clumsy or seems too long, break the suspect sentence up into several shorter sentences. Then, if you're writing in standard English, make sure each separate sentence contains a subject and a finite verb.

Exceptions: When to Break the Rules

When first starting to craft your writing for best effect, usually, you'll feel more confident following accepted rules or conventions and that's fine. However, as you become more practiced at what you're doing, don't necessarily let any rules interfere with your creativity.

Be prepared to break rules if you consider doing so helps you deliver the impact you want! Just understand, in detail, why you're breaking an accepted pattern. Without doubt, breaking accepted norms can be fun and worthwhile. All true progress only happens because someone, at some point, said something like: "No, there's a better way!"

For example, if you want to introduce suspense, tension, awe or wonder, or lead your reader on some kind of journey of discovery, consider separating your subject from its verb. For example:

  • "A Web page designed specifically as a sales letter that appears too "pushy" could contain a lot of information, take more than three minutes to read and therefore could fail in its core goal." Here the subject is "Web page" and the verb is "could fail". Experiment placing the verb toward the end of your sentence to determine whether you think the change delivers a better presentation.
  • Other exceptions could include:
    • Any sentence in which you want to achieve a specific effect. Example: "Forever green".
    • Slogans. Example: "Think Different!" (from Apple Inc).
    • Commands. Example: "Jump!"

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