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Make Sentence Structure Work for You
By Catherine S. Hibbard, Business Writing Expert, Cypress Media Group

One of the easiest ways to improve your business writing is to create strong sentences; it will give your documents a polished, professional touch.

It really doesn't matter what you are writing; it could be an informal memo or an important report or proposal. Sentences that are concise, varied, and focused will help you be viewed by your peers with more respect and esteem.

Reviewing the Basics

The Simple Sentence

There are three basic kinds of sentence structure: simple, compound, and complex. The simple sentence forms the building block for the other two. A simple sentence has two requirements. It must have a subject and a verb, and it must express a complete thought. Would the following words make a sentence? Birds fly. If you answered "yes," you are on the right track. Do the following words make a complete sentence? Because the traffic was heavy. If you thought, "No way!" you are right again. It doesn't matter how many words are grouped together; they must express a complete thought.

The Compound Sentence

A compound sentence is formed when two simple sentences are joined together with a conjunction. The most common conjunctions are and, but, and or. We use and to show addition, but to show contrast, and or to suggest a choice. The following example is a "traditional compound sentence": The plane was an hour late leaving, and many of the passengers appeared upset. Note the comma before the conjunction and. Always use a comma before the conjunction in a traditional compound sentence.

The first variation of a compound sentence is called a "compound predicate." Read the following sentence: Bob applied for the job opening, and he was hired. You might wonder if it is necessary to include the word he in the sentence when it is obvious that he refers to Bob. By dropping the second subject, he, you would have the following sentence: Bob applied for the job opening and was hired. Note that when you dropped the second subject, he, you also dropped the comma before the conjunction and. You have created a streamlined version of a traditional compound sentence.

The second variation of a compound sentence is called a "compound sentence with a semicolon." By replacing the comma and the conjunction in a traditional compound sentence, you create a different sounding and looking sentence structure. Read the following sentence: I like Italian food, but my family prefers Chinese cuisine. If you remove the conjunction, you would have a sentence with a brisk effect: I like Italian food; my family prefers Chinese cuisine. The semicolon is also a good choice if you already have too many ands in a sentence: Earning and saving money is a challenge, and investing and increasing the amount is even more challenging. Compare that to the following: Earning and saving money is a challenge; investing and increasing the amount is even more challenging. You have created a stronger sentence by dropping the conjunction and in a sentence that already has two ands.

The Complex Sentence

Of the three types of sentence structures, the complex sentence is the most sophisticated. It allows you to use clauses to change the ordinary pattern of "subject-verb-predicate." A complex sentence contains a clause, which is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb but does NOT express a complete thought. There are three kinds of clauses: adverb, adjective, and noun.

Of the three types of clauses, the business writer uses adverb clauses the most. Adverb clauses answer questions such as "when, where, how, why, and under what condition" something is done. Two examples of adverb clauses are as follows: Since I joined this company


Catherine S. Hibbard is a nationally recognized expert in business and technical writing. Her company, Cypress Media Group ( www.cypressmedia.net ), is an Atlanta-based advertising, public relations, and training firm that provides training and consulting primarily related to business and technical writing, presentation skills, and media relations. She can be reached by e-mail at cypressmedia@mindspring.com.

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