In the course of my editing work I see a lot of mistakes in sentence structure: non-uniform syntax, lack of parallel structure, and misuse of punctuation. In light of this, I thought we’d go over some complex sentence constructions and discuss their do’s and don’ts.
I’ll be using a few formal grammatical terms, but not many.
Pro tip: Don’t obsess about names of terms; just learn the rules and you’ll be good to go.
Keep verbs consistent
When it comes to sentences with more than one verb, you need to keep them consistent.
I enjoyed an opera, went to a restaurant, and ate a hamburger at my favorite diner.
Here I made sure that I kept all the verbs past tense, but that was no reason not to throw in two (direct-object) noun and two prepositional phrases. Notice that the third part (or “clause”) of the sentence has both a noun and a prepositional phrase.
- Tomorrow I will need to get up, get gas, and get to work.
- Tomorrow I will be getting up at 7:00, stopping for gas on the way to work, and walking through the door of my office at 8:00.
The first sentence is meant to be a clever use of language by keeping the verbs exactly the same. The second is a basic list sentence that uses different verbs, but all of them are gerunds. Both sentence use verbs consistently.
It’s a preposition doing a job that is typically associated with adverbs. Rational people can disagree about this. It’s a gray area of grammar.
Get punctuation right
Here the sentences get more complicated, and you’ll have to get the punctuation right, too.
In this sentence we have just one verb, but each noun comes with an explanatory clause. I have separated the noun clauses from each other with semicolons, and have used commas within the noun clauses themselves. (Notice my inconsistent use of italics: one is a verb and one is a preposition. This is generally a no-no.)
Some people would use a comma in place of the semicolons in this sentence, as it would still be pretty easy to understand; we’d still know who was married to whom. This will not be the case in more complex sentences, which will beg both commas and semicolons in the right places in order for us to understand them.
Multiple verbs and descriptors
I gave a belated wedding gift to Bob and Mary, the couple who lives down the street; babysat for Fred and Melinda, who have a boy and a girl; and invited George and Marilyn over (finally), despite the fact that they’ve been living next door to me for over a year.
This one’s not too bad, either. You just need to make sure
- all verbs are in the same tense
- clauses (i.e., each “item” or “entry” on the list) are separated from each other by semicolons
- “mini-clauses” (clause within a clause) use commas
Multiple descriptors for each “item” on the list
These are fun, but you have to be careful that each descriptor corresponds with the correct noun. You do this with commas and semicolons – or with no punctuation at all.
I saw many people at the party, among them Bob, who is married to Mary and has three children; Fred, a man I went to college with, the son of Mr. Green, who is married to Margie; and George, the guy with the long, curly red hair, the son of Mr. Black whose German Shepherd once tried to bite me.
We still have one lone verb here, but a complex cast of characters:
- married to Mary
- has three children
- went to college with me
- son of Mr. Green
- married to Margie
The reason Fred and not Mr. Green is married to Margie is because I have separated between each descriptor (college, father, wife) with a comma. In other words, each “clause” within the Fred clause is of equal weight and therefore must have parallel structure and punctuation.
- has long, curly red hair (I’m jealous)
- son of Mr. Black
- has a German Shepherd that once tried to bite me
The reason the German Shepherd belongs to Mr. Black and not to George is because there is no comma between Mr. Black and the dog. Without that one little comma, I’ve made it clear who owns whom.
George is separated from the other two men with a semicolon; George’s descriptors (hair and father) are separated from each other by commas, and I must therefore separate Mr. Black from his dog with no punctuation at all.
Here are 3 sentences lacking in parallel structure. See if you can figure out what’s wrong with them – and how to fix them.
I traveled over hill, dale, and over the mountain.
Here the problem is unbalanced use of the preposition over as well as uneven use of the article the. The verb traveled applies to all the nouns, which begs some form of parallelism. Here you have a few options:
- Use the same preposition, but use it with all the nouns.
- Use different prepositions, but all nouns must have one.
- Use different verbs and/or different prepositions for each noun.
- Use either all the same article or none at all.
Here are some possible solutions, all of which solve the parallelism problem:
I traveled over the hill, the dale, and the mountain. Same verb and same preposition used once for all nouns; uniform use of the.
I traveled over hill, dale, and mountain. Same verb and same preposition used once for all nouns; uniform absence of the.
I traveled over hill, over dale, and over mountain. Same verb used once for all of them, same preposition used for each of them; uniform absence of the.
I traveled over the hill, through the dale, and across the mountain. Same verb for all nouns; different preposition following each verb; uniform use of the.
I traveled over the hill, ran through the dale, and hiked across the mountain. Different verb for each noun – but they’re all in the past tense; different preposition following each verb; uniform use of the.
I gave a gift to to Fred, Nathan, and babysat Melinda’s llama.
As you are giving a gift only to Fred and Nathan, you need to separate that part of the sentence from the part that has to do with babysitting. Here’s the solution:
I gave a gift to Fred and Nathan, and babysat Melinda’s llama.
Easy-peasy; just connect the nouns that have to do with giving, separate them from the next verb with a comma, and you’re good to go. (If you had more than two people to give a gift to, you can use semicolons: “I gave a gift to Fred, Nathan, and David; and I babysat Melinda’s llama.”)
Alongside his discussion of the relationship between relativity and deconstructionism, Professor Jones addresses several related issues: philosophy in general, the respective beliefs of the existentialists and the ethicists, the relationship between actions and their consequences, the power of prayer, and various bits of practical advice.
This is one long mother of a sentence, but except for the last phrase it’s perfect. Clauses are separated by commas because there are no clauses-within-clauses. Had there been, we’d have to use both commas and semicolons.
Notice that the professor is addressing issues. All the items in the list are issues that can be addressed except for the last one, because 1) you can’t “address” practical advice and 2) “practical advice” is not an issue.
The best way to emend this sentence is to finish the “list” after “the power of prayer,” because the verb “addresses” corresponds with everything up to and including that clause. Then we’ll need a new verb:
Alongside his discussion of the relationship between relativity and
deconstructionism, Professor Jones addresses several related issues: 1) philosophy in general, 2) the respective beliefs of the existentialists and the ethicists, 3) the relationship between actions and their consequences, and 4) the power of prayer. He also gives various bits of practical advice.
That wasn’t too bad, was it? Just remember these 4 rules:
- figure out which verbs are doing what to which nouns
- get your tenses straight and parallel
- make your articles (the, a, etc.) consistent and uniform
- use clear punctuation to separate between disparate parts of the sentence.
Let me know in the Comments if you find your sentence structure improving. And…
Want to improve your writing in 5 days?
Get a FREE email mini-course
- Writing techniques
- grammar that doesn't bite
- inspiration for the writing life