Saturday, February 21, 2009

Keep Subject and Verb Close Together for Easy-to-Understand Sentences

Readers (you) like to find the Subject and Verb in a sentence quickly. The Verb tells you what is happening in the sentence (the action), and the Subject, of course, tells you to whom the action is happening (or who is doing the action). The Subject and Verb, therefore, serve as the two critical elements of any sentence. Naturally, when you have to search for either the Subject or the Verb, the writer has confused you and wasted your time.

Examine this sentence where one of my academic colleagues has done his best to confuse you:

The notion that our company’s critical infrastructures are highly interconnected and mutually dependent in complex ways, both physically and through a host of information and communication technologies (so-called “cyber-based systems”), is more than an abstract, theoretical concept.

Say what? If you can't understand that sentence, don't feel lonely. I couldn't, either, the first time I read it. If you, like me, had to read it again, or said, "duh," the writer has obviously wasted your time, in some feeble effort to impress you. Academic and bureaucratic writers create these kinds of sentences routinely. Believe me. I see them every day.

Are the academics and bureaucrats purposefully trying to deceive us or bugger us? Or, do they simply use bad craft. In this case the academic who wrote the sentence above has simply crafted the sentence poorly. For one thing, it does not have a Character as Subject. What word serves as the Subject of that sentence? “Notion.” That is not what we consider a character. Now, look closely again at the sentence. What word serves as the Verb? “Is”? Yes. Do we call this an Action Verb? Noooooo, the word is called a Being Verb. You may recall we suggested you use Action Verbs whenever possible, especially in business writing. Then, to top things off, the writer has placed the Subject and Verb far, far away from each another.

How many words separate the Subject ("notion") from the Verb ("is") in the example sentence above? 28!! Yep, 28 words separate the Subject from the Verb. If the reader wants to know what is being affirmed (the Verb) about whom (the Subject), the reader (you) will have a helluva time figuring it out. So, what is to be done about this? You'd be best served to scrap the sentence and start over again. Then, you might re-write the sentence in this way:

Our company’s critical infrastructures depend on each other greatly. They are highly interconnected and mutually dependent in complex ways, through a host of information and communication technologies (so-called “cyber-based systems”) and through physical interconnectedness.

You may still not prefer my revised sentence for a variety of reasons; for example, you might say it uses too many multi-syllable words (and it does) and it uses some technical language. Nonetheless, you should be able to grasp its meaning more readily because in the new sentence the Subject “infrastructures” and the Verb “depend” sit next to each other. (I have also changed the sentence to active voice and split it into two sentences.) But, note: when you keep the Subject and Verb close together, readers will have essential information and an essential understanding of the sentence. Therefore, when you write, examine the first few words of all your sentences to look for the Subject and Verb.

Then, you will write better sentences. But, if you want to impress everyone, you can still write crap like this:

Our estimation of the allocation of the necessities of the project variables when attached to our systematized transitional capabilities, especially with integrated management programming, is a heuristic incremental opportunity.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, I'm more inclined to take exception to beginning a sentence with such a weak work as 'nonetheless', which traditionally is separated from the previous sentence by a semi-colon, to which by context and definition it attaches itself.