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Improving your writing

Make your assignments easier to understand by using clear sentences

This page introduces accessible, clear and grammatically-correct sentence writing for academic writing. 

This information covers some basic ideas and can be used as a guide, but should not be your only resource. This page might be useful to you if you've received feedback on an assignment which says that you need to ‘check your sentences’ or ‘take care with grammar’, or commenting that the meaning of some of your sentences is not very clear.

Why do I need to know about sentences?

The sentence is the basic building block of written English. A huge amount of communication – perhaps more than ever – is done with text. Being able to write clearly and completely accurately will be enormously beneficial to you at university and work.

What is a sentence?

In English, a sentence has to have two elements: a subject and a verb. Here are some examples:

  1. Most students work hard.
  2. This fact notwithstanding, some people believe, probably because of stereotypes in some popular media, that most students are lazy.
  3. This perception is wrong.
  4. Stereotypes persist.

Key points

  • the subject is the thing or person that is performing the verb
  • a verb is a ‘doing word’ (i.e. indicating an action, such as ‘work’ in example 1) or a ‘being word’ (i.e. indicating state, such as ‘is’ in example 3)
  • the grammatical use of ‘subject’ is different from the more everyday meaning
  • example 4 shows that a sentence can consist of just a subject and verb and still make sense and be perfectly grammatical

Breaking down sentences

Most sentences, however, contain more than just a subject and verb: they also contain a complement. In very simple terms, the complement is ‘the bit that comes after the verb’. In examples 1 and 3, the complement is provided by the words ‘hard’ and ‘wrong’.

You do not really need to remember the idea of the complement in a sentence. What is useful, though, is to remember the idea of the subject and verb. One way to apply this important idea is to remember that most sentences have three main elements: something – being/doing – something

The following table shows some examples of how to apply this idea:

 

Subject (something) Verb (being/doing) Complement (something)
Most students work hard.
The clearest sentences are short and simple.

 

Even when a sentence is much longer, with lots of extra information included, it should be possible to spot the main point of the sentence (something being or doing something):

 

Subject (something) Verb (being/doing) Complement (something)
It should be possible to spot the main point.

 

Sentences with more than one subject or verb

Sentences can contain more than one main subject and more than one main verb. In these kinds of sentences, conjunctions (words than connect complete ideas) are used to ‘move on to’ the next idea. The following sentence provides an example of this:

Sentences with a single subject and verb may be clearest, but academic writing often necessitates longer sentences that explain relationships between ideas, so we are not suggesting that you use short sentences all the time.

,

Here’s that sentence broken down: 

 

Subject (something) Verb (being/doing) Complement (something)
Sentences with a single subject verb may be clearest,
but academic writing often necessitates longer sentences....
so we are not suggesting that you use short sentences all the time.

 

The conjunctions used in the sentence above are ‘but’ and ‘so’. It’s really important to remember to use conjunctions when you want or need to write more complex sentences that contain several subjects and verbs – in other words, when there is more than one ‘something being or doing something’.

Key points to remember

To recap, there are two reasons why you need to understand sentences:

  1. Knowing that sentences need to show ‘something being/doing something’ can help you to write with greater clarity.
  2. Being able to spot the main subject(s) and verb(s) can help you to improve your sentences when you are editing your work.

Good and bad sentence examples

To demonstrate how awareness of sentence function can help with academic writing, we’ve presented below two versions of the same piece of writing. The sentences in the left-hand passage are neither grammatically correct nor especially clear. The right-hand passage attempts to address the problems of the first, resulting (hopefully!) in a piece that is both grammatically correct and easier to read. About half of the ‘bad’ and ‘better’ examples of sentence features have been explained beneath. What others can you spot?

Bad paragraph

There are a number of ways to impress your marker with your writing, perhaps the most important goal is the importance of writing clearly because clarity allows complex ideas to be understood. Shorter sentences are often the clearest, much clearer than long sentences. Which can easily ‘go wrong’. Because ideas can appear rather disjointed however it is probably in academic writing not wise to use too many short sentences – not fluent. So a mix of short length sentences and medium length sentences is probably best, shorter sentences can be used for key points in your argument, medium length sentences up to perhaps three lines in length can be used to develop ideas. This might of course vary though. Depending on your assignment.

Better paragraph

There are a number of ways to impress your marker with your writing. Writing clearly is perhaps the most important goal. Clarity allows complex ideas to be understood. Shorter sentences are often much clearer than long sentences, which can easily ‘go wrong’. However, it is probably not wise to use too many short sentences in academic writing, because ideas can appear rather disjointed. As a result, the writing loses fluency. Thus a mix of short- and medium-length sentences is probably best, because shorter sentences can be used for key points in your argument, and medium-length sentences, up to perhaps three lines in length, can be used to develop ideas. This mix might vary, of course, depending on your assignment.

Paragraph breakdown

The bad sentence example is very long for a first sentence, and also repetitive (‘important’ and then ‘importance’). The second attempt is better because three sentences have been used, each clearly stating one thing being/doing something.

The second sentence of the bad paragraph uses: “Which can easily ‘go wrong’”. Thus is a fragment – what is the subject? (i.e. what is it that can easily go wrong?) The word ‘which’ cannot often be used to start a sentence.

The third sentence of the bad paragraph makes us wait for the subject (“it”) and verb (“is”), whereas the subject and verb come immediately after the introductory word in the improved sentence.

The sentence beginning “So a mix…” in the first example contains three main points, and the sentence ‘runs on’ without conjunctions after the commas. The better sentence still has three main points, but is grammatically correct because the conjunctions “because” and “and” have been used.

The final sentence of the bad paragraph is also a fragment.

Do you want help with writing clear sentences?

We can help. Book your Academic Skills Unit (ASK) tutorial by emailing academicskills@port.ac.uk
Contact us

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