Sidebar: Introduction to Sentence Style, Sentence Diagrams

Let’s see what else Jane and Spot can show us. Compare these three versions of the story of Jane and Spot:

A) Jane and her dog Spot like to play fetch. Jane throws the ball to Spot. Spot runs to the ball. Spot brings the ball back to Jane.

B) Jane and her dog Spot like to play fetch. The ball is thrown to Spot by Jane. The ball is run to by Spot. The ball is brought back to Jane by Spot.

C) The mutual enjoyment of fetch by Jane and her dog Spot is an important aspect of their relationship. Throwing the ball to Spot is Jane’s role, while running to the ball and bringing it back to Jane is Spot’s part in the game.

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You might have noticed already that the sentences in the “normal” version of the story clearly reflect the basic structure of every English sentence: they start with a clear subject followed immediately by a clear verb. In each sentence the subject is its main character and the verb is this character’s action:

SUBJECT VERB COMPLEMENT
CHARACTER< ACTION< ----------
Jane and her dog Spot like to play fetch.
Jane throws the ball to Spot.
Spot runs to the ball.
Spot brings the ball back to Jane.

Notice how the main character/subject changes. First it is Jane and Spot together. Then Jane is the main character of the sentence that describes her action. Then when the story focuses on Spot’s actions, he becomes the subject.

However, in the other two versions, the sentences are much less clear about the story, even though they are grammatically correct. In version (B), the problem is in the choice of characters. All the sentences after the first one feel a little odd, because they make the ball the main character.

SUBJECT VERB COMPLEMENT
CHARACTER< ACTION< ----------
The ball is thrown to Spot by Jane.
The ball is run to by Spot.
The ball is brought back to Jane by Spot.

These sentences feel wrong because this is a story about Jane and her dog, not about the ball. We expect each sentence to begin with these main characters, not with the ball. Here it’s the characters/subjects that throw us off. The verbs still name concrete actions (even though they are in the passive voice).

In version (C), however, everything seems to go haywire. Now, subjects and verbs have little connection to characters and their actions:

SUBJECT VERB COMPLEMENT
The mutual enjoyment of fetch by Jane and her dog Spot is an important aspect of their relationship.

In the sentence from (C), the whole story is crammed into the subject (mutual enjoyment=likes to play), the verb has no action at all, and the complement is full of information that seems to be just filler, something just to fill out the sentence. The sentence is grammatically correct, but it is hard to read. Easily readable sentences match characters with subjects and actions with verbs. But the sentences in (C) do not:

SUBJECT VERB COMPLEMENT
Throwing the ball to Spot is Jane's role,
while running to the ball and bringing it back to Jane is Spot's part in the game.

Here all of the actions are in the subjects, the verbs are empty, and the characters are in the complement. That’s why this sentence feels so backwards.

As adults, we must often write about difficult concepts, so we cannot avoid writing sentences that are more complicated than the story about Jane and Spot. But we can take a lesson from such stories. When you must present complex ideas to your readers, try to avoid making your sentences more complex than their ideas require. Take advantage of the basic story-structure of sentences that we all learn as children to help you explain complex ideas in clear ways. Your readers will thank you for it.

Take, for example, the following sentence:

An understanding of market segment growth is the basis for the identification of new threats and opportunities and the development of forecasts of future sales for ABCO Industries.

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This sentence expresses a sophisticated story, but its author made it unnecessarily complex by losing track of its major characters and actions. Diagrammed, it would look like this:

SUBJECT VERB COMPLEMENT
ACTION< --- ACTION + ACTION + CHARACTER<
An understanding of market segment growth is the basis for the identification of new threats and opportunities and the development of forecasts of future sales for ABCO Industries.

The main character of this story is ABCO Industries, since the sentence offers advice about what the company should be paying attention to. Yet, the writer places ABCO at the end of the sentence, and instead uses the story’s action (“understanding”) as its subject. Because this sentence uses its action as its subject, the main verb becomes the vague “is.”

A more readable version of this sentence might look like this:

ABCO Industries must understand which market segments are likely to grow so that it can both forecast future sales, and identify new threats and new opportunities.

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Most readers find this version clearer because its major characters and their actions are expressed as subjects and verbs, as the following diagram shows:

SUBJECT VERB
CHARACTER< ACTION<
ABCO Industries must understand
which market segments are likely to grow
so that it can both forecast future sales,
  and identify new threats and new opportunities.

Here, no one needs to search for the story’s characters, since the main character (ABCO Industries) is the grammatical subject of the sentence’s main clause. The sentence offers its major action right away, too, by expressing it as a verb ("must understand"). All of the other clauses in the sentence also begin with characters/subjects ("market segments" and "it" [ABCO]) followed by actions/verbs ("to grow," "forecast," "identify"). Because the writer has structured this sentence to make the essential elements of its story clear, the relatively complex story is also relatively easy to understand. The basic storytelling principle still works for the writer here, even though the characters and actions are more complex than Jane and Spot playing with a ball.