Describing good style in writing is one of those things that is hard to explain. Like fashion sense or a winning personality, either you have it or you don’t. But you can learn how to improve your sentence style by following a few easy steps.
Avoid Using Vague Nouns
The words below are examples of vague nouns. Relying on vague nouns often leads to wordy construction, so it’s always best to avoid them if you can:
Vague: Consumer demand is rising in the area of services.
Precise: Consumers are demanding more services.
Vague: Strong reading skills are an important factor in students’ success in college.
Precise: Students’ success in college depends on their reading skills.
Vague: Photography took on new aspects during the Civil War.
Precise: The Civil War saw the advent of graphic battlefield photography.
As you can see in the examples above, the sentences become wordy and confusing when vague nouns are used. This often can impede rhythm in sentences, which hurts the flow. This means that the reader must slow down to read the sentence, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Incorporate Absolute Phrases
If you’ve ever felt your essay plodding along in a repetitive “subject/verb/object” order, you probably could use some absolute phrases to enliven your rhythm and sharpen your style.
What exactly is an absolute phrase? An absolute phrase is a group of words that modify an independent clause. Just as an adjective modifies a noun, an absolute phrase modifies an entire clause.
Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class.
In the sentence above, the absolute phrase is at the beginning of the sentence – Her arms folded across her chest.
The clause, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, is an independent clause, which means it can stand alone as a sentence. The absolute phrase (a dependent clause) is modifying this entire clause.
Building Sentences with Absolutes
Absolute phrases can be arranged in different positions in a sentence. In the example above, the absolute could be placed after the independent clause:
Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, her arms folded across her chest.
Absolute phrases can also be placed in the middle of a sentence, between the subject and verb:
Professor Smith, her arms folded across her chest, warned the students not to text in class.
Note that the absolute phrase is set off in the sentence with a pair of commas.
Do you ever get your essays back from instructors with such comments as, “tighten,” “condense,” or “wordy”? What this means is that you are trying to communicate your point with more words than necessary. For example, note the difference in
“It is the opinion of our professor that we have failed to meet his expectations.”
“We have failed to meet our professor’s expectations.”
The second sentence is tighter, uses fewer words, and is stronger and more direct. Just remember, if you can communicate your point in fewer words, do it. Less is more.
Consider the following redundancies in italics:
It is absolutely essential that all students meet with their advisor on a regular basis.
If something is “essential,” can it be any more essential with “absolutely” in front of it? Probably not.
The advance preview of Transformers scored big at the box office.
You might have seen this one in film reviews, or even on E TV. If a movie is a preview, doesn’t that mean it is in advance of the release?
In my personal opinion, everyone could benefit from eating more chocolate.
Everyone, at one time or another, has at least said this, if not written it. So what is wrong with this example? If it is your opinion, isn’t it personal?
The final outcome of the Literature exam was better than I expected.
The outcome of something is always final, right?
These are all examples of redundant words that create inflated sentences. Carefully edit your final drafts to make sure you’re not redundant.
Avoid Dangling Modifiers
A modifier is a word (or group of words) that qualifies or adds to the meaning of other parts of the sentence. A dangling modifier is created when the modifier is joined to the wrong words in the sentence.
To correct, make the “doer” of the action the sentence’s subject, as in the example below:
Wrong: Coming over the hill, the barn was seen. Who saw the barn?
Correct: Coming over the hill, we saw the barn.
Wrong: Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.
Who arrived late? This sentence says that the written excuse arrived late. The possible revision might look like this:
Correct: Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse.
The main clause now names the person (the captain) who did the action in the modifying phrase (arrived late).
Choosing the best words to express your ideas in the best possible way sounds easy, but often is more difficult than we think. Improving your writing style may take some time and effort, but by following a few simple rules, your writing will become more readable and your style will be the envy of your peers!
(Sources: Purdue Owl, Essentials of English Grammar, writing.wisc.edu/Handbook.)