Writing Tips

Sentence Structure

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A Fighting Bull in the Corrals

What to Do With Parenthetical Asides

In a sentence, we often give our readers the first half of a thought, then we stop, stick in a comma—I’ll be right back in just a second—give them the first half of a second thought, and then the second half of that second thought, so that by the time they reach the next comma, separating the second half of the second thought from the second half of the first thought, they have forgotten the first half of the first thought. You with me? Now our readers have to go back and connect the first half of the first thought with the second half of the first thought.

If we have one job as writers of anything, it is to keep our readers moving forward. No matter how convoluted, complicated, and confusing our writing sometimes needs to be, we don’t need to make it even more convoluted, complicated, and confusing by jamming one of our thoughts into the middle of one of our other thoughts. Putting two pieces of information in the same sentence is fine, but we need one to follow the other, so our readers always move forward.

Usually, we mark these parenthetical asides with a pair of commas, which makes them easy to spot. Once we’ve spotted the interruption and pulled it out of the sentence, we have three choices: put it at the beginning; delete it; make another sentence out of it.

PUT IT AT THE BEGINNING

Most interrupting clauses will serve us better if we place them at the beginning of the sentence to set the stage for what follows:

These organizations had, at Smooth Water’s request, agreed to advise on Project design.

At Smooth Water’s request, these organizations had agreed to advise on Project design.

Sometimes we interrupt our sentences and don’t even put commas around the interruption, making it harder to find, but the solution is the same:

The tanks appear from the EPS report to have been abandoned.

From the EPS report, the tanks appear to have been abandoned.

or

According to the EPS report, the tanks appear to have been abandoned.

DELETE IT

About one in five times we have a parenthetical aside in the middle of a sentence, the aside is unnecessary anyway, so we can remove it:

Since an express agreement is required, whether a contract was formed with any or all part-time supervisors that requires AMP to pay additional compensation for additional hours will depend on the sworn testimony of the relevant witnesses and the credibility of that testimony.

MAKE ANOTHER SENTENCE OUT OF IT

Below we have a double interruption: the suggestion and when it was advanced; deal with each one at a time:

The Department’s suggestion advanced for the first time on appeal that the chase plane function may have been unrelated to the experimental flights ignores the language of the Stipulation.

First, let’s make it two sentences:

The Department suggests for the first time on appeal that the chase plane function may have been unrelated to the experimental flights. But this ignores the language of the Stipulation.

Then let’s put the remaining interruption at the beginning:

For the first time on appeal,the Department suggests that the chase plane function may have been unrelated to the experimental flights. But this ignores the language of the Stipulation.

Now we have one point following another, following another. And happy readers.

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

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