Effective Sentences

Bad English acts like a label that some joker has stuck on a friend’s back. The victim doesn’t know it’s there, so doesn’t see the need to do anything about it. To many people, including potential employers, the label will say: “Dim, lazy, careless – or all three. This person has never bothered to understand how their own language works.”

A sentence is a group of words expressing a complete thought. It should contain a statement that can stand on its own and make sense.

Sentences should start with a capital letter and end with a full stop, a question mark, or, very occasionally in journalism, with an exclamation mark.

Sentences contain a subject, a verb and (usually) an object. The subject is the person or thing the sentence is about. The verb tells us what the subject is doing and the object is the person or thing that receives the action.

Look at the following sentence …

The firefighter rescued the driver.

The subject is the firefighter, the verb is rescued and the object is the driver. The sentence makes a single statement, which makes it very easy to understand.

A sentence with one verb is called a simple sentence. If we want to add a second statement, we must use a conjunction to join the two statements together to make one sentence. For example:

The firefighter rescued the driver and an ambulance took him to the hospital.

The most frequent error with which students unconsciously give themselves an unfair label is the use of a comma where a full stop is needed. This fault occurs most often where the second of two sentences begins with the word this.

Here’s an example of how not to do it:

Newspapers were expensive in the 18th century, this was because stamp duty had to be included in the price.

There should be a full stop after the word century, and the word this should start with a capital letter to indicate a new sentence.

Here’s another example of bad English, from a student’s essay:

Both physical and unconscious factors prevent neutrality in journalism, both are equally prevalent.

Again. there are two simple sentences, so a full stop should replace the comma, and both should have a capital. Alternatively, a conjunction could be used, in this case and, to join the simple sentences to form a compound sentence.

A third way would be to remove the verb from the second sentence so that it becomes merely a tacked-on clause:

Both physical and unconscious factors prevent neutrality in journalism, both equally prevalent.

Use a verb

Every sentence in a news report should contain a verb, that is, a doing (action) word. The action is often simply being – as in ‘both are equally prevalent’. The verb to be has many forms – am, are, is, was, were. Inexperienced writers sometimes produce sentences that are so complex that they lose their way in a maze of subordinate clauses.

The result is that the main verb gets left out:

Unless the United States concentrates more on the underlying causes of terrorism, which would involve radical changes in foreign policy and might be unpopular with the electorate as well as the business community, something neither of the parties would be prepared to face.

All you have there is a subordinate clause, with various sub-clauses attached, all waiting for the main clause to start after ‘face’.