Sunday, April 19, 2009

Keep subject and verb together.

If you look at a lot of bad writing (especially business and academic writing), you'll find the same mistakes in each sentence. Typically the bad sentences use nominals and passive voice, and typically the subject and verb are 15-20 words away from each other (if not further). These bad sentences look like this one:

"The implementation of the project specifications for which we've been waiting at least six months, an implementation that should have been completed by now and was, in fact, begun well before the present team came on board to pick up the slack from the previous team, is critical to the project's success and the maintenance of the account."

Pretty bad, huh? Pretty typical, too! Let's look at it.

What's the subject of the main clause of the sentence? What's the verb of that subject? I'm not going to tell you for a minute. But, I am going to tell you that readers like to find the subject and verb quickly. This tells them what the sentence is about. And, readers like the subject to be a "character" who takes some kind of action. That means we need an action verb, especially in business writing where we usually write for action.

Well, if you guessed correctly, you said that "implementation" is the subject of the main clause of my bad sentence and "is" is the verb. Besides functioning as a being verb in the sentence, the word "is" doesn't sit anywhere near its subject, "implementation." Forty-six words separate "implementation," the subject, from "is, "the verb. And, to make matters worse, the word "implementation" isn't what you'd call a character as a subject. It's a nominal (a verb turned into a noun).

That sentence contains a 58 words. Any reader begins to lose comprehension of a sentence after it surpasses 20 words. But, that doesn't mean you can't write a 20-word sentence. You can write one even longer; just keep the subject and verb close to each other and keep balance in the sentence.

For example, suppose I write, "The woman fought the villain." The subject and verb sit next to each other in this subject-action verb-object sentence (the best kind). Now I can modify it in many ways, making it longer. I will do this and keep the sentence as a "simple sentence" (remember simple, compound, complex and compound-complex sentences from 8th grade?). A "simple sentence has only one clause. Here goes:

"On the first Monday of the month, on a rainy and windswept evening at 9:00pm, in a little town near Pittsburgh called Scenery Hill, the tall, dark-haired woman fought the evil, sinister and ugly villain valiantly and with the courage of a lioness."

That sentence has 43 words yet it can be easily read and understood because it uses a character as subject, action verb, active voice and because it keeps the subject and verb together. They need not be next to each other. I could have put some modifiers next to the verb. The subject and verb only need to be near each other and, for best results, in the subject-verb-object pattern so familiar to most readers.

When you keep the subject and verb close, you help the reader. Remember, no writing is understood until a reader understands it. Until then, it's only noise.

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