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Sentence structure

Sentence order

Poorly constructed sentences are usually the greatest obstacle to understanding. Put the main clause first, then qualifiers and conditions:

use rather than
Bronte tripped and broke her leg while running through the bush. While running through the bush, Bronte tripped and broke her leg.

Maintain a logical and chronological order:

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Read the instructions and then fill in the form. Before filling in the form, read the instructions.

Keep the essential components – subject, verb and object – together:

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Staff must complete these forms before the end of each month. Staff before the end of each month must complete these forms.

Avoid putting too many ideas in one sentence:

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Revolving beaters thrashed the heads of wheat from the chaff. Then came a blast from a giant fan. Heads of wheat were beaten off and thrashed by revolving beaters and the separated mass was subjected to a blast from a giant fan.

Split infinitives

Be bold: split an infinitive if it makes for a more comfortable flow, or to keep your meaning precise:

She wanted to really hear what they had to say.

means something different from

She really wanted to hear what they had to say.

Active voice

Be personal, and be active rather than passive:

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Boulton and Watt built this engine. This engine was built by Boulton and Watt.

Be positive and direct:

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They thought that attending the meeting would be a waste of time. They did not think that attending the meeting would be a useful way of spending their time.

Think about whether you need all those adjectives and adverbs. Your writing will often have more impact without them:

use rather than
That is all we know. That is the sum total of our knowledge.

Dangling participles

Watch out for ‘dangling participles’, which modify an unintended subject:

'Tall, lantern-jawed and elegantly dressed, Dennis’s eyes were a mirror of his emotions'. Dennis was tall, lantern-jawed and elegantly dressed; his eyes were not.