The Sentence

A sentence expresses an action or a state of being through a self-contained group of words. It expresses even the most complex of the writer's ideas clearly and concisely while adhering to conventional grammar, syntax, mechanics and punctuation.

Is every sentence complete?
Do the subject and verb agree in number?
Are pronoun references clear?
Is the sequence of verb tenses consistent?
Do the sentences show variety?
Do the sentences exhibit parallel construction when called for?
Are the sentences free from misplaced modifiers?
Are the sentences free from wordiness?
Is the word choice precise and idiomatic?


 Is every sentence complete? 

 A complete sentence is a self-contained, complete thought. In grammatical terms, it contains a subject (a noun or noun phrase) and a predicate (verb that expresses the action or state-of-being of the subject), with modifiers.

Incomplete sentences (fragments) lack a subject or a predicate or both and area serious error. Often a fragment is a part of the thought expressed in the preceding sentence.

       He states that the "Religion of Humanity" leaves out the essence of religion. This essence being worship.

  The fragment should be joined to the sentence as a phrase:

       He states that the "Religion of Humanity" leaves out the essence of    religion, which is worship.

 Because the fragment does not express a complete thought, it usually confuses the reader.  However, occasionally a fragment can be used for emphasis:

       In both cases man has no destiny and all good moral deeds seem to be in vain. Depressing.

Another equally common, serious error is the joining of two sentences with a comma (comma splice) or with no punctuation at all (fused or run-on sentence).
 
     Milgram does an efficient job of debriefing his subjects, the reunion between the subject and the learner is a substantial part of the recovery process.

Either separate the sentence:

      Milgram does an efficient job of debriefing his subjects. The reunion between the

or join them with a semicolon if they are sufficiently related, which in this case they are not.

Do the subject and verb agree in number?

Singular subjects agree with singular verbs, plural with plural. Disagreement often results when the writer has not recognized the two most important words in the sentence, the subject and predicate:

     The usefulness of religion through Mill's eyes are the morality which is learned through religion.

The only word that agrees with the predicate are is eyes, yet the writer does not mean that eyes are the morality which is learned through religion. The subject and verb are separated by the modifying phrase through Mill's eyes. Revising the attribution to Mill shows the problem clearly.

     According to Mill, the usefulness of religion are the morality which is learned through religion.

Usefulness is plainly the subject of the sentence and takes the singular is. The repetition of the word religion is more obvious also.

     According to Mill, the usefulness of religion is the morality it teaches.

One more sentence on the way to recovery. 
 
Are pronoun references clear? 

The pronoun agrees in number and gender with the noun that it refers to:

     The Colonists had little faith in the virtues of any man placed in a position of power. They claimed that power corrupted any man who held it.

They in the second sentence clearly refers back to Colonists in the first sentence. When pronoun and antecedent (the preceding noun) do not agree, confusion results:

     Authorities recognize that if the resident has no means of transportation, their activities are restricted.

The plural their technically refers to authorities, but that sense is clearly not intended. Either change the pronoun to the singular:

     Authorities recognize that if the resident has no means of transportation, his or her activities are restricted.

or change resident to the plural form:

     Authorities recognize that if residents have no means of transportation, their activities are restricted.

With too many noun-pronoun combinations in a sentence or group of sentences, the reader cannot be sure what the pronouns refer to:

     Many friends and members of the family have also pointed this out to me at various times, which is most gratifying, because it shows a positive change, which is all the more reason to stay with what I am doing.

Rewrite:
 
     The fact that many friends and members of the family have pointed out this positive change is most gratifying, and all the more reason to continue what I am doing.

Whatever that is. And in the following sentence, the pronoun it does not refer to anything:

     Vonnegut's planet is overwhelmed by rampant technology, and it does not seem as if it will stop until it is too late.

The pronoun this is often misused to bring into a sentence a complex of ideas that it cannot bear:

This reflects that most of the social actors were young college and high school students.

This refers to a long paragraph describing the clothing and shoes of the people whom the writer was observing, as well as their behavior—reading, writing in a notebook, highlighting textbooks with Magic Markers. This simply cannot refer to such a cargo of ideas, spread out over several sentences, and should be helped along with words that summarize the ideas that the writer wants to identify.

     This mode of dress and behavior reflects that most of the social actors were young college and high school students.

Is the sequence of verb tenses consistent?

The tense of any verb indicates the time of the action (past, present, future) in relation to the time of the writing and reading. The sequence of verb tenses within each sentence and paragraph, and within the whole paper, must be consistent to keep the temporal relationships clear. The following sentence begins in the present tense, indicating that the practice discussed continues, but switches inexplicably to the past:

     Some runners train too hard in the week before a race because they felt great, and ended up being burned out by race time.

The sentence would be better if all verbs were in the present tense to indicate a continuing practice.

     Some runners train too hard in the week before a race because they feel great and end up exhausted by race time.

Do the sentences show variety?

Variety in syntax is a means both of avoiding monotony and of conveying the relative priority among pieces of information. Simple and compound sentences, where subject precedes verb precedes object, tend to weight every assertion the same and grow monotonous. For example, this compound sentence, "The temperature of the gas reached 600 degrees, and the liquid boiled," equates the two ideas in typically child-like fashion (We went to the circus and we ate candy and we had a picnic). By subordinating the phrase about temperature, the writer can make clear the relationship between the two facts: "When the temperature reached 600 degrees, the liquid boiled." 
 
The following three sentences are all simple in construction, monotonous, and wordy: 
  
      I made two collections at this location. One collection was in the stream at the bottom of the last waterfall. The second collection was at the top of the first waterfall.

By subordinating the ideas in the second and third sentence to the first and combining them in a single sentence, the writer eliminates a third of the verbiage:

     I made two collections here: one in the stream at the bottom of the last waterfall, the other at the top of the first. 
 
Do the sentences exhibit parallel construction when called for?

Similar ideas are best expressed in similar grammatical forms:

     Customers were rounded up and discussed common problems.

One predicate (were rounded up) is passive and the other (discussed) is active, making the noun customers both the subject and the direct object of the sentence.  Make both verbs active:

     Customers gathered and discussed common problems.

The next sentence is a formless, limp thing:

     This religion would not include an afterlife, the result being people striving to live for now, striving to be happy while they exist, and the continuation of life being longer because one wants to exist.

Making the last three phrases (and the first two clauses) parallel gives us a more rhythmic and readable sentence:

     Because this religion would not include an afterlife, people would strive to live for now, to be happy while they exist, and to live longer.

Are the sentences free from misplaced modifiers?

Place the modifier (whether it be a single word or a phrase) as close as possible to the word it modifies.

     I want to drum some statistics into your heads, which are concrete.

Rewrite:

     I want to drum some concrete statistics into your heads.

An introductory dependent phrase modifies the noun that follows it:

     Painted a pretty green so as not to disturb the surrounding community, we entered the iron gates of the Pleasantville Home for the Emotionally Disturbed.

Surely the iron gates were painted green, not the writer and his or her friends.

     I can also positively say that the movie has its effect on many people, because having worked in a sports store, more weight sets are being sold daily than ever before.

We cannot tell whether the movie drove many people to lift weights or to work in a sports store. The participial phrase having worked in a sports store appears to modify the next noun, weight sets. The phrase dangles because it has no noun that it can sensibly modify. Rewritten with the subject that was implied in the original, the sentence becomes:

     I know the movie affected many people, because having worked in a sports store, I sold more weight sets than ever before.

We still cannot be sure whether he sold more weight sets after the movie appeared or after he started working in the store, but some mysteries may never be solved.

Are the sentences free from wordiness?

Wordiness occurs when a writer uses more words than necessary to convey an idea. Judging how many words is too many is a matter of each readers sensibility, but usually wordy writing abounds in adverbs, adjectives, modifying phrases, passive verbs, and important-sounding, convoluted phrasing.

     Birds as a species are a perfectly logical image for a poet to choose to represent liberty as they have traditionally been associated in literature with freedom because of their ability to fly.

Consider how the writer wants to appear to the reader in these phrases:

     as a species : scientific, precise

     perfectly logical :  clear-headed, firm, reasonable

     have traditionally been associated in literature : well read, at home in the labyrinth of learning

But if we reduce the sentence to what it is saying, we come to a modest, clear, and supportable assertion. 

     Because they can fly, birds have traditionally been symbols of freedom in literature. 

Is the word choice precise and idiomatic?

The writers of the two sentences below should have checked the dictionary.

     The freshman enters his dorm not acknowledging where to go first. 
 
     (Rewritten) The freshman enters his dorm not knowing where to go first.

     Students are not specified to study any one thing.

     (Rewritten) Students are not required to study any one subject.

Precise word choice results in clarity; imprecision in vagueness:

     When one begins to push things into available time, everything begins to be a surface value and not reflect true feelings.

The writer uses "things" and "everything" as if the reader were clairvoyant and knew what they stood for. Also imprecise is the writer's use of "available" to describe time: the context calls for "spare" rather than "available" time. An attempt to supply more specific vocabulary might be:

     When one begins to push activities into one's spare time, one's actions begin to reflect surface values and not true feelings.

The writer needs to clarify the distinction between "surface values' and "true feelings" before we can understand what the sentence says, but already the more specific words help.

 Words are chosen to accord with common usage or idiom.  

     The same selection of food week after week discourages students to eat at the Commons.

The food may be no better, but the sentence would be much improved if the selection would discourage students from eating at the Commons. Unidiomatic word choice frequently involves prepositions: different from, not different than. A good dictionary is a reliable solution.
 
Overused or trite language tends to be imprecise because its meaning is usually taken for granted:

     The horse opened doors for the Indian.