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Good sentences maintain little and large links

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Also see exercises in maintaining coherence.


Have you ever thought about how golf courses are laid out?

Not far from the green of one hole is the tee for the next. Because one hole is linked to another in this logical green-to-tee fashion, you save walking distance and time.

Makes sense, doesn't it? There's a reason golf courses are not laid out green-to-green. Who would want to finish playing one hole and then have to walk the distance of a fairway to get to the next tee?

Well-constructed sentences work the same way. They maintain both large links (between sentences) and little links (within sentences).

Most writers know about the large links. They know one sentence should follow logically from another. They might even know that this sentence-to-sentence linking can be achieved by placing old information at the beginning of each sentence and new information at the end. (In Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams calls this the principle of "something old/something new.")

Consider, for example, this sentence: "The little links are equally important." Note that the new information comes not at the end but at the beginning of the sentence. Now try reversing the sentence parts so that they follow the something old/something new principle: "Equally important are the little links."

Can you see how the order of the revised sentence leads the reader--logically, coherently, and efficiently--from what has been developed (something old) to what will be developed (something new)? This method of linking is particularly useful in a topic sentence connecting the thought of one paragraph to the next.

Equally important as sentence-to-sentence links are the little links within sentences. There are two types of internal connections you should maintain in green-to-tee order:

Do not split comparative or adjective phrases.

We often make comparisons using phrases such as such as, different from, similar to, and other than. When we split the adjective phrase ("such phrases as" rather than "phrases such as"), we create what Williams calls a "hitch in the rhythm of a sentence." To avoid this minor break in continuity, place the entire phrase after the noun rather than split it around the noun.

For example, change "The pro used as creative a design as any in existence in laying out this golf course" to "The pro used a design as creative as any in existence . . ."

See if you can reconnect the split adjective phrases in these sentences:

"She offered a different proposal from mine."

"I offered a similar proposal to John's."

"We acted for other reasons than those you cited."

If you would like to practice editing more sentences, click on "Exercises linked to columns" on my Web page.

Use passive, not active, constructions in certain relative clauses.

A second technique for maintaining continuity and coherence is to begin a relative dependent clause (a clause that relates to the main clause) with an adjective rather than with a noun. To achieve this order, use a passive construction to introduce the dependent clause.

For example, compare the momentary discontinuity in "We are studying advertisement strategies other companies use to recruit minorities" with the smoother connection in "We are studying advertisement strategies used by other companies to recruit minorities."

See if you can eliminate the "hitches" in these sentences:

"Information our engineers provide to our marketing staff must be accurate."

"The plan our marketing staff unveiled is ambitious."

"A goal all writers share is clarity."

Again, you can visit my Web page for more practice.

In writing as in life, it's the links that count. Or as the 19th century English author Thomas De Quincey once wrote, "All fluent and effective composition depends on the connections."

I wonder if De Quincey ever played golf.




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