Blog Post

In sentences: put together ideas that belong together

Sentences with awkward or confusing structure – particularly sentences that separate ideas that should be kept together – create all sorts of problems for readers.

Sometimes they lead to misunderstandings that can undermine the purpose of their document. Sometimes they cause the reader to trip – which slows reading, creates momentary confusion, and draws attention to the writing rather than its content. Sometimes, they’re simply good for a giggle.

Here’s an example of an awkward sentence included in this week’s school newsletter:

For the remainder of the week, normal classes will be replaced by rostered activities conducted by teachers that you select each day when you arrive at school.

This sentence suggests that students will select a teacher each day, rather than an activity. Good for a giggle, for cheeky comments to teachers, and perhaps for some momentary confusion.

It would be clearer to write:

… normal classes will be replaced by rostered activities, which you’ll select each day when you arrive at school.

In my solution, I’ve removed the mention of teachers (I don’t think it’s relevant; if necessary, I could write ‘teacher-run rostered activities’). And I’ve replaced ‘that’ with ‘which’ because I feel that the daily selection of the activities is extra information in this sentence, rather that essential information.

Here’s a second example, from an award received by my son:

… for passionately sharing his knowledge of the conditions plants need to thrive with the class.

An interesting idea, but I don’t think  plants need to thrive with the class. Clearly, readers are meant to understand that my son shared his passionate ideas with the class – ideas about the conditions that plants need to thrive.

Here’s a suggestion solution:

… for passionately sharing with the class his knowledge of the conditions that plants need to thrive.

Note that I’ve inserted ‘that’: I feel it helps readers to better follow the structure of the sentence.

Fiddling with the order of ideas is a great activity for a word-nerd. The trick is to keep fiddling until you’ve linked together the ideas that belong together, and you’ve created a pattern that readers can quickly read and easily understand.

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