What Makes a Sentence Work?

A handwritten letter of text with ink pen close by

If we think of words as the building blocks of written and spoken communications, sentences are like the cement or glue that binds together our words so that others can "make sense" of what we want to say. In this tip, we'll examine sentence structure a little closer and discover just what makes a sentence so important.

Although we can provide various definitions of what a sentence really is, consider the following definition provided by the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • A series of words in connected speech or writing, forming the grammatically complete expression of a single thought.

More formally, each sentence should have two components:

  • Verb: a "being" or "doing" word that is associated with the subject (defined below). We often think of verbs as "action" words. For example, in the sentence: "Sarah made a galactic spaceship, the word "made" is the verb.
  • Subject: the person or thing that is doing the doing or being. For example: "Sarah made a galactic spaceship", "Sarah is the subject.

How to repair a Sentence With an Incorrect Subject-Verb Pair

Key tip: remember: a singular subject always has a singular verb. Likewise, a plural subject requires a plural verb.

For example, look at the following sentences with incorrect subject-verb matching:

  • To operates correctly, your computer should only have compatible software installed.

In the example above, the singular subject "computer", has incorrectly been given the plural verb form of "operates", instead of the singular verb form of "operate".

So purely for completeness, our grammatically accurate version should read:

  • To operate correctly, your computer should only have compatible software installed.

Arguably, even with little knowledge of English grammar, most adult fluent English-speaking readers could detect what is wrong with the previous example sentence purely through listening to the sentence and using previous experience, and therefore, know how to correct the problem.

Key tip: errors in some sentences are not quite so easy to fix at first glance as in our example above. That's when a little knowledge of sentence construction and basic grammar can ensure that you don't make any embarrassing errors in your writing or speaking presentations.

Creating Short, Snappy Sentences

A longer sentence is not necessarily a better choice to make your point. Sometimes, a short, direct sentence excels. You may want to:

  • Stress a particular emphasis, or
  • Create a self-contained command, or
  • Devise a slogan, and so on ...

... and therefore are seeking to create a written or spoken "thought" that may not have all of the components of a formal (grammatically correct) sentence. In such instances, don't be afraid to push the boundaries in terms of how you think you should or should not form your sentences.

Key tip: your sentences can be formed with just a few words, or even use a single word if you believe that is sufficient to share your meaning.

Key tip: don't let the impact you want to create with your sentence be watered down by formality, tradition, and other biases, especially when writing fictional material. You may seek fluidity, flow and a certain "naturalness" in your writing. So why not explore, discover and test the boundaries - and maybe even go beyond?

Here are three examples of "lighter" statements that can be considered as made up of less rigid sentences:

  • Write your way to a debt free life!
  • Be bold.
  • Yes!

However, here are some special guidelines to also consider:

  • When writing formal or technical documentation however, every sentence should have only one interpretation. Why? Someone's life may depend on how you communicate. As the writer, you have a special responsibility to interpret clearly.
  • Whichever way you decide to craft your sentences, do ensure each sentence contributes to help make your document easier to understand, more precise, more concise, entertaining, and interesting.

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