It is 7:30 p.m. on a freezing Tuesday night in March. You are still at work. You are tired and hungry. The unforgiving NH sky outside your window is as bleak as your soul will soon be if you are forced to spend one more second editing the report in front of you. You have been hanging over a sentence for hours. You can actually taste the frustration rising in the back of your throat.
You know there’s something wrong with it when you try reading it out loud. Your mouth is dry by the time you get to the end. To make matters worse, you wrote it and you aren’t even sure what it means. What’s to be done? How can you untangle the threads of your syntax without losing your sanity in the process?
Find Actors and Actions
Start by reminding yourself that every sentence, at its simplest, contains two things: An actor and an action. That means that every good sentence tells a good story with a clear protagonist and rising action. If you can find the actor buried in your abstract sentence, you’ll be well on your way to clarity.
Let’s take a look at the actors and actions in our offending sentence and see what the problem might be.
Hmm, that ungrammatical “in which” instead of the more appropriate “with which” sure is distracting, but that’s not the biggest problem. The actor here is something of a mystery. We can try looking for it in the subject, but that doesn’t help much, since the subject phrase is 16 words long.
When we pare that phrase down to its essentials, we see that the basic subject of this sentence is “the increase,” and an increase is hardly an actor. An “increase” can’t do much for a good story. It can’t run, jump, fight or filibuster. It can’t conquer or catastrophize. As we can see, abstractions make for bad actors.
The good news is that once we’ve identified this problem, the solution is simple. We shorten the subject and replace abstractions with proper actors. In this sentence, a proper actor could be any concrete entity. In this case, either “students” or “Lehigh University” seem like obvious choices. Let’s go with students.
Actors indicate actions. Therefore, before we can rewrite the sentence, we need to locate the action, too. We can find the action in verbs that appear outside of the subject phrase. In this case, we have these un-supple verb phrases to work with: “is suggestive of the regard” and “is held by.” These are verbs, but they aren’t active. These are static verbs, “to be” verbs (e.g., is), and they rarely carry much information beyond the bare fact of existence.
Never fear: Now that you’ve picked an actor, the verb almost picks itself. You know the subject is students. Can you find the verb that goes with that subject? To find it, ask yourself: What are students doing here? They are holding the program in high regard. So, let’s slot in the verb and see what we have:
Ok, well at least that makes sense and it’s active. But there is still the pesky question of what to do with the rest of the verbiage in this sentence. Now’s the time to look at the phrases left over and ask: Where’s the story? Is there another pair of actors and actions buried in the overflow? Or is the overflow meant to modify the original sentence by describing the actor or action?
These questions bring us full circle, back to “increase” and its stiff, wooden acting:
Is there an actor or an action here? It is easier to spot the action first—it is our old friend, increase. A perfectly good verb has been disguised as a noun. What happens if we free this verb from its nounified prison and give it an actor to pair with, like so:
Clouds are parting. We begin to see the sun.
We’ve got two ideas in this sentence. One is about what students are doing for the program (enrolling). The other is about how students feel about the program (they like it).
Now we just need to figure out how the two ideas are related. Then, we will send this sentence sailing like a ship of victory into a shining horizon.
So how are these two statements related? The second is a conclusion based on the evidence of the first. We conclude that students like the program because their enrollments have increased. In short:
We’ve found our way to something a lot clearer. This is the better sentence, the one that will please readers, uphold the writer’s credibility and strengthen rather than weaken business relationships.
But how did we get there? Let’s retrace our steps:
• Find Actors and Actions. Remember to distinguish subjects from actors. Your subject might not be your actor, especially when it is too abstract. An abstraction can’t do much
• Avoid “to be” Verbs. They drag your sentence down and force you to add verbiage.
• Check the Overflow. Once you have located a core actor and action, check the overflow for other main ideas. Do you have another sentence hidden in your verbiage? Or just more adjectives than one sentence can handle?
• Make it Clear. Once you have found all the usable stories (actors/actions) in your sentence, determine their logical relationship. It might be cause and effect or chronology, for example. Let the relationship between ideas determine your final rewrite.
Untangling your wordy sentences can be a chore, but laying out a process for revision will help you push through. Believe us, your readers will thank you for the extra time you spend.
We all know that great actors will turn any B-movie into a blockbuster. Think Sylvester Stallone—not Syntax-of-Stone. If you cast actors in your sentences, your writing is sure to draw a crowd. n
Michael A. Chaney is an associate professor in the English Department at Dartmouth College in Hanover. Sara Biggs Chaney is a lecturer at the Dartmouth Institute for Writing and rhetoric associate coordinator of the MMUF program at Dartmouth.