Plain Writing Tips - Wake Up Your Sentences
This week's Plain Language writing tip comes to us from Sentence Uplifter Jim Worsham.
How many times have you seen sentences that begin like this:
There will be a meeting of the Town Council on Thursday night from 7 to 9.
There are many things that the council has to consider at its brief meeting.
The use of "There is. . ." and "There was. . ." only means something exists. No action is involved. In most cases, you can eliminate it and shorten the sentence to:
The Town Council will meet Thursday night from 7 to 9. The council has to consider many things at its brief meeting.
Then there's "it."
It was known by everyone in the town that Margaret was going to resign that night.
It was morning by the time I woke up.
Get rid of those "its" and you've got more concise sentences with more important words near the beginning.
Everyone in town knew Margaret was going to resign that night.
I didn't wake up until morning.
Morning arrived before I woke up.
Technically, grammar scholars call "there" and “it," as we used them above, "expletive constructions." Whatever they're called, they dull down the sentence and make it longer. In addition, they bury the real verb of the sentence—the actual action that has occurred, is occurring, or will occur.
Here's another downer for sentences, and nearly everyone is guilty: Putting the date first, even if it has no meaning.
On February 28, 1967, the court made three rulings on three unrelated cases involving . . .
On October 12, 1954, the band began a three-month tour of European countries . . .
The dates are unimportant and not worthy of being the first words in the sentence; in these two cases, you're just asking the reader to remember an extra detail that isn't very significant. It's easier to slip in something like "late February" or "mid-October" later in the text if you need to indicate the time of year.
On rare occasions, you might want to begin with the date if it's a historic, well-known date like December 7, 1941, or November 22, 1963, or September 11, 2001. Or when the date and possibly the time of day are important to whatever you're writing about.
Exceptions exist to everything—"there" and "it" and dates—but you should stop for a moment when you write "There are . . ." or "It was . . ." or begin with a date that may or may not be relevant to what you’re writing about. And many an accomplished writer has found that beginning with "It was . . ." was the best way to say what you want to say.
(Although we'll excuse Snoopy's "It was a dark and stormy night.")