Open Government at the National Archives

Plain Writing Tips - Breaking Up is Easy to Do

[Breaking up (a sentence) isn't hard to do. Just ask Sentence Structure Sultan Jim Worsham, who gives us this week's writing tip.]

One of the most common "sentence structure" problems that editors run across is the distance writers put between the subject and the verb.

You see this mostly in academic, government, and business writing. For example, an announcement of a new hire might have a sentence like this:

Chuck, who oversaw the development of the new internal distribution program at the Apex Company, which saved the company $54 million and boosted sales 29 percent over five years, received many accolades for his work.

That's a long one. By the time you get to the main verb, "received," you've almost forgotten who or what the subject was. (It was our old friend Chuck.) So how about this:

Chuck received many accolades for his work at the Apex Company. He oversaw the development of the new internal distribution program that saved the company $54 million and boosted sales 29 percent over five years.

Here, you have the subject, verb and object—Chuck received accolades—all close together and easy to understand. And you've achieved something else. Shorter sentences.

Let's take another one.

Office heads, responding to the new budget constraints imposed by the Office of Management and Budget for the coming fiscal year, have reduced their operating expenses, such as administrative and travel costs, duplication of programs, and the use of contractor services.

It's not only long (42 words), but convoluted. Try this:

Office heads have reduced operating expenses in response to new budget constraints imposed by the Office of Management and Budget for the coming fiscal year. Among the reductions are administrative and travel costs, elimination of duplicate programs, and use of contractor services.

Same number of words, but the two sentences are easier for the reader to digest. Now you have "Office heads have reduced expenses."


Do you have any examples to add to this list? If so, please share them with us! Email plainwriting@nara.gov

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