The concept of the sentence appears to be both simple and basic, but in fact, it is rather mysterious. Rei Noguchi, in his book Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilities, says, "The main problem with defining a sentence semantically as a 'complete thought,'. . . is specifying just what qualifies as a complete thought. Unfortunately, that often depends on the person with the thought" (39). Similarly, the "complete subject and complete predicate" definition requires that the student understand what subjects and predicates are, and a person who knows that probably has no trouble identifying a sentence. The sentence is the basic linguistic unit of a grammatical analysis, yet an understanding of the sentence is presented both as the goal of grammatical instruction and as the means toward an understanding of grammatical categories, a chicken and egg problem.
We want sentences to be meaningful, grammatically complete and correct, and if not elegant, at least readable and easy to process. Here is a tutoring process for getting at the meaning of unclear sentences:
Problems with sentence “boundaries” can have many different causes. If the words and phrases are ok, but the punctuation is incorrect or in the wrong place, the writer probably needs to work on punctuation. In other words, such a writer has enough fluency to write complete sentences, but does not understand the punctuation system well enough to use it properly. The writer may be relying on oral language patterns, such as breath points and pauses, to place punctuation marks. Modern punctuation relies on grammatical structures more than breathing patterns.
If the writer is producing sentence fragments that should generally be attached to the previous sentence, using a period where a comma would be better, he or she may be getting caught up in the flow of the discourse and not recognizing that the fragment doesn’t make sense standing by itself. One technique to catch this problem is to have the writer read the paper backwards, sentence by sentence. This causes the writer to see each sentence as a grammatical unit rather than part of the flow of the paper.
Other writers may not be able to recognize subjects and main verbs, and may not be able to write complete sentences in any consistent way. In ordinary conversation, we generally don’t speak in complete sentences, and this writer may be having trouble moving from oral to written discourse. Often, this is a writer who doesn’t read very much. Working on identifying subjects and main verbs may help.
Writers who write very long sentences may be trying to cram everything about a certain topic in one sentence. Non-native speakers who write this way may be following a rhetorical or stylistic pattern from a different language or culture. Look for places to divide the sentences. In some cases it may be helpful to work on organizational structures higher than the sentence such as paragraph topics. Another problem for non-native speakers is that sometimes they don’t have the word in English for a particular concept, so they have to write around the gap with a long description of what they are trying to say. A tutor can help by finding the right word.
Often tutors and students are so concerned about making sentences correct, eliminating grammatical errors and other mistakes, that no time remains to work on making them more effective. However, effective use of sentence variety, sentence rhythms, word choice, even the sounds of the vowels and the consonants, is the difference between a competent writer and a great one. Some matters of style require lots of reading and a good ear to master, while others are easier to employ. When the paper in front of you is competent in other aspects, here are some questions of basic style to think about. Remember, that any stylistic “rule” can and should be broken in the appropriate context.
Certain words, idioms, and phrases in the writing may be inappropriate for the intended audience and purpose. For example, a paper for an upper-division Child Development class probably should use the word “children” instead of “kids.” Ask yourself if the writing sounds professional and academic, or intimate and chatty? If the writing is informal, is it appropriately so? What impression does the style give you of the writer?
In lively, clear writing you can easily tell who is doing what to whom. Passive voice and nominalized verbs tend to hide these basic relationships. If we read “A careful analysis of the data was done and a report written,” we don’t know who analyzed the data or wrote the report. “Analysis” is the grammatical subject, but it is not the actor. Constructions like this are not always ineffective, but a lot of them make for difficult processing. Ask the student, “Can you easily tell who the actors are?”
Another common problem occurs when the grammatical subject is not the topic of the sentence. Rutherford says "The extent to which English tolerates . . . 'distance' between grammar and meaning sets English apart from many other languages of the world" (75). Rutherford notes that information is usually supplied in a given/new or theme/rheme pattern. The first part of a sentence generally refers to old information (theme), while the second part gives new information (rheme). However, English commonly varies this pattern. According to Rutherford
If every sentence in English were said to contain a (given) theme, then we would be hard-pressed to explain the existence of sentences like A man stood in our path, which are not only grammatical but also perfectly common. Our dilemma arises from the fact that although man in this example appears in thematic position, the indefinite article a(an) cannot accompany given information. We are thus forced to conclude that although thematic material normally appears at the beginning of the sentence, it is also possible in English for non-thematic or rhematic material to occupy that position as well. Again, it is important to remind ourselves that this characteristic of English is not shared by a lot of other languages (77).
Confusing style is often a result of the wrong thing being the grammatical subject of the sentence. For example, students commonly start sentences with gerund clauses.
The second sentence is simpler, easier to process, and allows for a stronger verb. Overuse of dummy subjects like “there” and “it” and overuse of forms of to be such as “is,” “are,” “was,” and “were” are usually indications of the problems noted above.
English teachers talk about “syntactic fluency” or “maturity.” What they are usually talking about are pleasing variations in sentence length and sentence structure. The natural structure of an English sentence is subject, verb, object or “SVO.” It would seem that the clearest most readable writing would consist of short, SVO sentences. However, a long series of short, simple, sentences is boring to read, and often doesn’t represent the subtle hierarchical distinctions of the material. Every idea is not of equal importance. Thus a well-written essay or article is a pattern of coordination and subordination, and a mixture of short and long. Ask yourself
Some students think that college writing needs to have big words. Often, their high school English teachers have encouraged them to believe this, in an effort to inspire them to increase their vocabularies. These students think that an ordinary word will never do, so they use a thesaurus, or the thesaurus function of their word processing program, to sprinkle their papers with multi-syllabic vocabulary. It doesn’t work, because while the thesaurus can remind you of words that have related meanings, it doesn’t tell you anything about the connotations of the word, or the contexts in which it is generally used. Professors have no trouble identifying papers in which a thesaurus has been over used, and usually find them hilarious.
Every individual has both a passive and an active vocabulary. Your active vocabulary consists of words you know and use. Your passive vocabulary includes those words you understand in context but do not use. Every word starts out as unknown. Through numerous encounters, a word enters the passive vocabulary. Through further encounters, some words enter the active vocabulary. A baby who says “mama” as a first word has an active vocabulary of one word, but already understands many more words. Words that may come to mind when you are writing or speaking, but about which you are unsure, are in transition. In such cases consulting a dictionary may be helpful.
A thesaurus is only useful when it reminds you of a word that is already a part of your passive vocabulary and is almost a part of your active vocabulary.
Of course, a tutor can serve as a thesaurus for a student. In that case, the rules are the same. You can remind a student of a word that they know, or almost know. However, do not supply word after word to students, so that they no longer can read and understand their own writing.
When dealing with vocabulary, ask yourself:
Sometimes we feel a desire to say a simple thing in a complicated way, to make our ideas appear more sophisticated than they really are. Often writers accomplish this appearance of complexity through stock phrases that add length and complexity, but no meaning. Style guides often call these phrases “deadwood,” but in some cases it is necessary to use them in order to “sound like a business person,” or “sound like an engineer.” Here is a list:
Does the piece contain unnecessary jargon? How does the writing sound in comparison to the textbook? Is there vocabulary from the textbook that the writer should probably be using? (Note: One person’s jargon is another person’s professional vocabulary. If there are phrases and words that seem mysterious or overly complex to you, ask the student if people in that particular discipline usually write that way or usually use those words.)