Sentence structure: How to make your sentences much easier to read

Drawing of scientist holding a beaker

These extracts say the same thing but using a different sentence structure. Which one do you find easier to read?

Version 1

The use of polymers to produce prosthetic heart valves that have the positive attributes of current commercial and mechanical valves without any of their drawbacks, has been a focus of research since the 1950s. (34 words)

 

Version 2

Since the 1950s, scientists have been trying to use polymers to produce prosthetic heart valves that have the positive attributes of current commercial and mechanical valves, but without any of their drawbacks. (32 words)

 

The subject matter is the same. The language is equally technical. The sentences are of similar lengths (in fact, both are longer than the maximum length I would recommend for business writing).

Yet most people would say version 2 is far easier to get through. But why? To find out, we need to look closely at the sentence structure of each.

Let’s start by looking at who or what is doing the main action of each sentence.  In the grammatical parlance, this is the subject of the sentence – I call it the sentence’s main ‘do-er’.

The subject/doer of the sentence

Version 1: The use of polymers

Version 2: Scientists

 

In Version 2, the subject or doer of the sentence is a person – or rather persons. Scientists. Real-life human beings you can see. In fact, I bet you’re picturing someone in a lab coat right now.

In Version 1, the subject or doer of the sentence is much harder to visualise. That’s because it’s not a person or even a thing, but an abstract concept -‘the use’.

If I asked you to draw a scientist, I’m guessing you could have a pretty good crack at it – even if it’s just a stick man holding a test-tube. But if I asked you to draw a ‘use’, where would you start?

And that’s where the difficulties with Version 1 start. It opens with an abstract concept that’s hard to imagine, something that’s hard to hold in your head while you read the rest of the sentence.

Next, let’s look at the main verb or doing word of the sentence – highlighted below.

 

Verb/doing word of the sentence

Version 1

The use of polymers to produce prosthetic heart valves that have the positive attributes of current commercial and mechanical valves without any of their drawbacks, has been a focus of research since the 1950s. (34 words)

 

Version 2

Since the 1950s, scientists have been trying to use polymers to produce prosthetic heart valves that have the positive attributes of current commercial and mechanical valves, but without any of their drawbacks. (32 words)

 

Notice the striking difference in position?

In Version 2, the main doing word is right next to the main do-er or subject of the sentence (those scientists). In Version 1, the main doing word has 21 words between it and the subject (‘the use of polymers’).

That’s 21 words the reader has to hold in their head before they get to the main action of the sentence. No wonder that sentence is hard to digest!

Notice, too, the difference in character of those doing words. The phrase ‘trying to use’ is dynamic. It conveys effort, striving, a search for answers. You can picture those scientists working away at their benches.

In Version 1, the verb ‘has been’ is static and dull by comparison.

Finally, let’s look at the main thing that is on the other side of the doing word (can you tell I’m trying to avoid technical grammar-speak here?)

Version 1

The use of polymers … has been a focus of research

Version 2

scientists have been trying to use polymers

In Version 1, we have the same problem we had with the subject or ‘do-er’ of that sentence: just like a ‘use’, a ‘focus’ is not something you could see or touch or picture or draw very easily. Like ‘use’, ‘focus’ is an abstract concept.

The sentence basically amounts to a statement that ‘the use of something has been the focus of something’. What a lot of fluff!

In contrast, in Version 2, we have real-life scientists working with something real and concrete.

You may not have knowingly held a polymer in your hand, but it is, quite literally, a material thing.

Sentence structure: four tips for readable prose

  1. Try to make the subjects (‘do-ers’) of your sentences people rather than concepts – for example, ‘scientists’ rather than ‘the use of’ something.
  2. Keep your main verb (‘doing word’) as close as possible to the subject (‘do-er’) of the sentence. Don’t separate them with intervening verbiage.
  3. For your sentence’s main verb, choose something dynamic – a word that shows your sentence’s main character or characters taking action. Avoid using the verb ‘to be’ in its various forms (e.g., ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘has/have been’, ‘will be’).
  4. Finally, always ask: does this sentence paint a picture? Does it allow the reader to visualise real people taking real action? Or, on the contrary, does it talk about abstract concepts? If the latter, rework your sentence to make it more concrete.

20 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Amandachen says:

    Version 1 has faulty comma.

  2. Sue Horner says:

    Terrific and useful analysis of why one sentence works and the other does not!

  3. Paul Eveleigh says:

    As usual, clear and simple advice on a complex topic. Great read, thanks Clare.

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks, Sue. Glad you found it useful!

  5. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks, Paul! Glad I was able to convey the ideas clearly!

  6. Chris says:

    Really great piece Clare. I suppose it’s no coincidence that you picked a science example since this kind of ‘throw the subject to the end of the sub-clauses’ is rife in some science circles. It sounds like the passive voice vs the active voice? Or is that different?

  7. Kelsey says:

    Great analysis! I strongly believe in diagramming sentences to improve one’s writing skills. Thank you for this post.

  8. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks, Kelsey! Sentence diagramming isn’t really taught in the UK – I rather feel we’ve missed out!

  9. Clare Lynch says:

    Interesting that you’ve noticed this construction in other science writing, Chris. I wondered if it was because the writer was a non-native speaker but perhaps it’s her scientific background? The construction here is not exactly the same thing as passive voice, but it has the same deadening effect!

  10. Ken Grace says:

    Good post, Clare. Nice to see someone going beyond the usual boilerplate rules and providing real insight into what makes writing effective or not.

  11. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks, Ken. I was worried the post might have been a bit technical, so I’m glad you liked my digging a bit deeper.

  12. Lea says:

    Great analysis of how to fix a complex sentence. One suggestion, though, is to change “trying to” to “researching,” which is a more active verb. “Trying to” always leaps out at me to be changed (inspired by Yoda: Don’t try, do).

  13. Phyl Good says:

    This is great. I often need to rearrange sentences in this way during ESL edits. And most of my ESL papers are also scientific — so it’s kind of a double whammy. Thanks for writing this.

  14. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks for the editorial suggestion, Lea!

  15. Clare Lynch says:

    Glad you found the post helpful, Phyl!

  16. Liat says:

    Hi Clare,

    Succinct and useful post, as always. Thank you for the four easy-to-remember takeaways.

    Suggestion: at the end of a post such as this it might be useful to present us with a similar hard-to-read sentence and ask for us to rewrite it in the comments according to your tips. Then we’d see other readers’ efforts as well and learn even more.

    Cheers,
    Liat

  17. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks, Liat – great idea!

  18. Michael says:

    ‘Scientists’ is an example of what Wikipedia calls ‘weasel words’. What scientists? Where? How do you know? Science writing may be slow and hard to read but business writing is degenerating into soundbites. Remember how Thatcher rewrote Dawkins’s selfish gene ideas into a manifesto for self centeredness and greed.

  19. bransom says:

    Excellent – very helpful as always and certainly not too technical – thank you

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