The Heart of the Matter: Writing Tips for the Middle Sections of Sentences
In a recent blog, I noted humorously that I use three highly technical terms for the main sections of sentences: the beginning, middle, and end. That piece looked at the best uses of the beginning sections , which I find are not always deployed enough by non-native writers of English. This follow-up will look at the central part of the sentence, where the main subject and verb are located, and offer a few key tips to keep in mind.
At the most basic level, effective sentences focus on a subject that we can grasp easily—and ideally one that we care about or can relate to. That sounds simple, but a few things often get in the way. Passive constructions are a common issue, and they can make it hard for your reader to understand what you’re writing about. Compare “Albania negotiated a trade agreement” with “A trade agreement was negotiated.” The second sentence is passive because its grammatical subject is not the entity that performed an action—the country—but instead the entity that was acted upon—the trade agreement, which it would generally be clearer to have as the object of the sentence.
While some writing teachers say that you should avoid passive constructions completely, I recommend instead not to overuse the passive, because it makes sentences less clear and engaging. It’s much harder for a reader to care if it’s rarely explicit who or what is performing the actions.
But sentences can still feel lifeless even if they have an active construction. Another common problem is that we don’t do a good job of identifying the entity that’s performing the action. Consider this example: “Modernizing the way that governments deliver social welfare payments to poor and disadvantaged people also encourages better customer service by promoting competition.” If you look closely, you’ll see the sentence has used 14 words—up to the word “also” —to convey its subject. The reader is expected to absorb an entire concept as the subject, before any action can take place. While the sentence is grammatical, it’s not as easy to understand or relate to as we need it to be.
I urge writers to start simplifying their grammatical subjects: usually you can pick out the entity that’s really doing something and express it in no more than two or three words. When we take this approach to the sentence above, we see that “governments” would be a better subject. We can revise to make it clearer that governments are acting, and to convey better what the actions are.
We could express the same content this way: “When governments modernize the way they deliver social welfare payments to poor and disadvantaged people, they encourage better customer service by promoting competition.” This makes it clearer that governments are doing things: they modernize, deliver, and encourage. The revision also shifts most of the content from the overlong subject of the original into a beginning section, up to the first comma. This creates a much stronger sense of cause and effect: by modernizing payments, governments improve customer service.
Another way to simplify: since the main subject and verb are the core of every sentence, for clarity we need to keep them adjacent whenever possible. Consider this sentence: “Cities, home to half the world’s people and more than 80% of its GDP, are at the front lines in tackling climate change.” The content is well expressed, but there’s no advantage to separating the subject and verb when we could easily use an introductory section, thus: “Home to half the world’s people and more than 80% of its GDP, cities are at the front lines in tackling climate change.” You help readers if you limit the interruptions between subjects and actions.
While shortening the subjects of sentences makes things clearer, when your writing still feels unengaging it’s often because you’ve expressed the action with nouns and adjectives instead of verbs. For example, this sentence— “Maintenance of assets is necessary to good city management”— is concise but could easily be made less abstract. A stronger revision would unpack some of the action: “Cities need to maintain their assets as part of good management.” Not only does this revision establish a more concrete subject (“cities”), but it uses two verbs— “need” and “maintain”— to express actions that were conveyed by other, less active parts of speech in the original.
To recap: in the central sections of sentences, aim for clear and simple subjects, keep the subject and verb closely connected, and guard against abstraction by making sure you express actions with verbs rather than other parts of speech.
An upcoming blog will conclude our look at the main sections of sentences, by tackling the best uses of the end sections.