How to build a sentence

SENTENCES are the building blocks of news stories.

Get them right, and your writing will have strength and direction.

Here are a few tips to help you:

Keep it simple: The key to good writing is simple thoughts simply expressed. Use short sentences and short words. Anything that is confused, complicated, poorly written or capable of being misunderstood risks losing the reader; he has much competing for his time and will not persist with a story (or newspaper) that makes unnecessary demands of him.
The basic sentence structure of subject-verb-object works every time. The cat (subject) sat (verb) on the mat (object).
Avoid all but the most basic subordinate clauses:
The cat was an old ginger with torn ears and a scarred face. It sat on the mat and purred, not The cat, which was an old ginger tom with torn ears and a scarred face, sat on the mat and purred.

Voice of a sentence: Sentences have a voice; they are either active or passive. The voice of a sentence is the kind of verbal inflection used to express whether the subject acts (active voice) or is acted upon (passive voice). In journalism we strive to use the active voice whenever possible because reports written this way have more vitality and impact: Teenagers throwing stones clashed with police during riots in parts of Worcester last night, not In several parts of Worcester last night there were riots in which police
clashed with stone-throwing teenagers.
Sometimes, though, the passive is better. We would write: Prince Charles was trampled on by a prize bull at the show, not A prize bull trampled on Prince Charles at the show because Prince Charles, not the bull, is the presence in which we are most interested.
Politicians, bureaucrats and the police love the passive voice because individual actions are buried beneath a cloak of collective responsibility. When things go well a minister will say: “I decided on this course of action”. When they go wrong he will say: “It was thought to be the right thing to do”. Be on your guard against such use of language.

Mood of a sentence: Another quality of a sentence is its mood; it can be indicative, imperative or subjunctive. The first two need not concern this guide. The third sometimes
requires grammatical know-how of a high order so most people tend to ignore it. However, careful writers will use the subjunctive mood to express hypothetical situations in sentences usually containing if and that. If the river were (not was) to rise further there may be flooding.

Overloading: Overloaded sentences do not need to be long, but they are saturated with facts, eg. A man living alone was approaching his house when he was attacked
by seven armed robbers who forced him at gunpoint to open the front door of his secluded cottage in Worcestershire before leaving him so badly beaten that he is now afraid to return home.
The main points in this sentence are (a) that a man was badly beaten by robbers in his secluded cottage in Worcestershire; (b) he was beaten so badly he is now afraid to return home. The additional facts can wait a moment. Give the facts first, and if you think
there are too many facts for a single sentence, distribute them in two or more sentences to
construct a gripping, but clear narrative. To avoid overloading, re-read and re-write. Restrict sentences to just one or two facts.

Non sequiturs: A common feature of many overweight sentences is the presence of non sequiturs. A non sequitur is a statement that has little or no relevance to what
preceded it, resulting in a sentence that tries to join the unjoinable, eg. The egg-and-spoon race was won by eight-year-old Billy Brown, whose parents taught him advanced maths when he was just three years old.
You might well ask, what does maths have to do with an egg-and-spoon race? That is a non sequitur.

Companion words: Put companion words as close as possible together: The letter has been sent to parents; in it the headteacher outlines his plans for stricter discipline, classroom repairs and more after-school clubs, not The letter, in which the headteacher outlines his plans for stricter discipline, classroom repairs and more after-school clubs, has been sent to parents.

Danglers: What do you make of these sentences:
If found guilty, the Football Association could fine the Newcastle players.
• After eating my lunch, the waiter engaged me in conversation.
• When trying to log on, the system rejects my password.
Phrases at the beginning of a sentence need a noun or pronoun, and they will cling to the first one that comes along. This can make a nonsense of your writing. In these examples, the Football Association is not at risk of being found guilty, the waiter did not eat my lunch, and the system is not trying to log on. If your writing causes confusion, so that readers have to pause and check the parts of your sentence to work out exactly what you mean, you have lost them. Write simply, write clearly, and if you must use the sort of sentence construction shown above (called a dangling modifier), make sure that the
something to be modified is right next to the phrase.

Clauses: Put clauses in the right order to make your meaning clear: On the day of his retirement the policeman caught the disgruntled cashier robbing the bank, not The policeman caught the disgruntled cashier robbing the bank on the day of his retirement.
Do not begin a sentence with a subordinate clause (sometimes called an inverted sentence), eg. Asians closed their shops on the anniversary of the attack because they feared reprisals from racist thugs, not Fearing reprisals from racist thugs, Asian shopkeepers closed their doors on the anniversary of the attack.
In the latter example readers would have to read through to the end of the sentence before finding out exactly who were fearing reprisals.

Lists: Where a verb is to be implied in a list, it has to be established in the first item, not in the middle (or end): Until motorists driver better, motorcyclists learn left from right and cyclists how to pedal, we will have death on our roads will not do. There has to be unity; which could have been supplied with Until motorists learn how to drive better, motorcyclists how to tell left from right, and cyclists how to pedal… Keep sentence construction uniform when dealing with a list. The Army, the Navy and the Air Force, not The Army, the Navy and Air Force. Do not try to make the odd man out in a list relate to the wrong verb. The clock is fast and unreliable and it chimes only every two hours, not The clock is fast, unreliable and chimes only every two hours.

Rhythm: Good writers are sensitive to the rhythm of their words. Keith Waterhouse offered this observation: Rhythm is mainly about putting words and punctuation marks in the right places so that they don’t jut out like loose paving stones to trip up the reader as he travels from one end of the sentence to the other.
So, avoid staccato sentences: Police said they moved in after a fire bomb was hurled at their lines, their response swift and uncompromising. They pressed forward in formation, a water cannon backing them up. Officers fought running battles with protesters, wielding their batons to push them back.
Each sentence here has the same rhythm. It is difficult for the reader to follow the thread of the narrative when it is delivered in this disjointed way. Vary the length of your sentences and use punctuation like traffic signs, telling your reader to slow down, notice this, or stop. Read your words and listen to how they sound. Does your story flow, or does it stumble along in fits and starts? If sounds pleasing, the chances are it will read well.

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About John Wilson

Group deputy editor of the Worcester News, Berrow's Worcester Journal, Malvern Gazette and Evesham Journalist. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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