Our Essential Lessons are a sequence of lessons that form the backbone of the Writing Program curriculum, illustrating what we want all students to learn across our program’s diverse course topics.
Readers of English find sentences easier to understand if they begin with a short, concrete subject followed quickly by a specific verb. The clarity of an English sentence is highly dependent on this subject-verb duo. In this lesson, students practice and apply this principle, learning to avoid the pitfalls of dense academic prose and to revise their writing with readers’ ease in mind.
Rather than imposing rules on language use, as in much language-centered instruction, this lesson helps students think about language choices in terms of reaching readers and in an inclusive, interactive setting.
Students will be able to revise sentences based on an understanding of the structures that readers perceive as clear.
subjects, verbs, nouns, nominalization, clauses
This lesson will work best later in the semester in WR 120, perhaps when students have completed a draft of their longest and most complex academic essay. By this point, students have (hopefully) a well-developed sense of what they want to say, and are at the stage of revising their most complex prose with the goal of clearly articulating sophisticated ideas to their audience.
Why the focus on subjects and verbs? Unlike many other languages, in English, a correct sentence requires at least a subject (typically a noun or a phrase that stands for a noun) and a verb working in grammatical agreement. Thus, the clarity of an English sentence is highly dependent on this core subject-verb duo. Though there are many other factors that can influence the clarity of expression in writing, it is appropriate to focus on these two core sentence elements and to help students understand how to align these grammatical elements with what Joseph Williams describes as “characters” and “actions” of the “story” the sentence communicates.
Williams points out that English sentences are clearer when the main “characters” of the story the writer is telling appear as the grammatical subjects, and the “actions” those characters take are the verbs. To put it another way, readers of English find sentences easier to understand if there’s a short, concrete subject and a specific verb near the beginning of the sentence or clause. Unfortunately, confusing academic sentences commonly feature wordy, abstract subjects full of nominalizations (verbs or adjectives turned into noun form), which are often paired with nonspecific verbs. The problem is not grammatical. The problem is that such sentences obscure the answer to the question that readers bring to every English sentence: “Who is doing what?”
It is worth noting that the kind of obscure academic writing that this lesson seeks to amend is not necessarily characteristic of the prose of first-year writing students. When students write in many everyday genres or first-person narratives such as their self-assessments, they don’t typically use excessive nominalizations or impenetrable introductory phrases. Rather, these stylistic issues are more likely to appear as students read academic writing and attempt to imitate its features while wrestling with how to put complex new ideas in their own words. This lesson helps students to become explicitly aware of the pitfalls of dense academic style and to appreciate readers’ preference for clarity (a preference they surely share) and to revise their own academic writing with these principles in mind.
Help students recognize that it is unlikely that anyone telling the story of Red Riding Hood would utter the example sentence that begins this lesson, but in academic writing, confusing sentences full of abstract nominalizations are common. That’s because these writers are wrestling not only with academic language, but also with abstract and difficult academic ideas.
In addition, while the focus here is on academic writing and the problems of clarity that this genre is especially prone to, these general principles of clarity, once understood, translate well to other kinds of writing and communication as well–especially professional, business, and legal writing.
PART I: START WITH AN INTUITIVE EXAMPLE
- Project an unclear sentence. It is up to you whether you want to present the unclear sentences to students on a handout, for group or independent revision; write them on the board; or project them as slides that can be revised together in class. Consider this example from Williams’s Style: “Once upon a time, as a walk through the woods was taking place on the part of Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf’s jump out from behind a tree occurred, causing her fright.”
- Ask students if it is a good sentence, and when they say no, ask them to revise it. Students should easily be able to produce something close to: “Once upon a time, as Little Red Riding Hood was walking through the woods, the Wolf jumped out from behind a tree and frightened her.”
- Ask students why the second sentence is better than the first. Students probably won’t be able to explain it.
Creating Topic-Specific Example Sentences
The “unclear” sentence here is a variation on an example sentence from Williams, Style: Basics, that has been revised to reflect a specific course topic. It is crucial for instructors using this lesson to create example sentences that are about ideas familiar to your students based on your own readings. Course-specific examples are more readily decipherable, which makes the in-class version of the lesson much more accessible to students than the Turabian or Williams texts alone. Consider these examples:
- Williams, page 10:
UNCLEAR: The Federalists’ argument in regard to the destabilization of government by popular democracy arose from their belief in the tendency of factions to further their self-interest at the expense of the common good.
REVISED: The Federalists argued that popular democracy destabilized government, because they believed that factions tended to further their self-interest at the expense of the common good.
- Fairy tales:
UNCLEAR: Zipes’s argument in regard to Bettelheim’s twisting of fairy tales according to a Freudian agenda is based on his belief that putting a sexual spin onto everything is something Bettelheim does.
REVISED: Zipes believes that Bettelheim twists the meaning of fairy tales by viewing them through a Freudian lens.
- Philosophy/gift theory:
UNCLEAR: Emerson’s argument about the necessity of maintaining independence and equality in relationships relates to his belief that exchanging gifts makes people dependent on one another.
REVISED: Emerson argues that people should maintain their independence, and he believes that when people exchange gifts, it makes them dependent on each another.
- Turabian, page 148:
UNCLEAR: The United Nations’ insistence on acceptance by all nations of the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples is a product of its recognition that maintenance of stability in the world order requires that nations be guided by values beyond narrow self-interest.
REVISED: The United Nations insists that all nations accept the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, because it recognizes that maintaining a stable world order requires that nations be guided by values beyond narrow self-interest.
As a whole, this lesson asks students to reflect on why they make language choices instinctively in certain contexts and gives them tools to analyze those choices and make them more actively.
PART II: ANALYZE EXAMPLES
- Model for students a three-step diagnosis strategy to start analyzing sentences, and at the end, emphasize the takeaway from this strategy: We instinctively revised the sentence to “Little Red Riding Hood was walking” and “the Wolf jumped” without necessarily knowing why, but what we did was make the main characters into the grammatical subjects, and their actions the sentence’s verbs.
- Identify the verbs (circle or bold). Students will often first misidentify walk and jump as the verbs because walk and jump are the actions in the story this sentence is telling. Help them recognize that grammatically, this sentence’s verbs are “occurred” and “was taking place.”
- Identify the subjects (underline). Walk and jump are the simple subjects, but of course, as students have already recognized, they ought to be the verbs.
- Ask who is doing what. Who are the main characters of the story of Red Riding Hood? (Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.) And what are they doing in this sentence? (Walking, jumping, and frightening.)
PART III: DISCUSS NOMINALIZATIONS
- Introduce the concept of nominalizations: a noun that is created out of a different word form, such as an adjective or a verb. For example, the verb “to evaluate” becomes the noun “evaluation.” The verb “to decide” becomes the noun “decision.” The adjective “persuasive” becomes the noun “persuasion.” The verb “to argue” can be made into a noun as “argument.” Gerunds such as “arguing” in a phrase like “their loud arguing kept her up at night” are also nominalizations.
- Note that nominalizations appear frequently in academic writing, partly because academic language often deals with complex and abstract ideas. While nominalizations aren’t always bad, they can make sentences harder to understand when the key actions that ought to be the verbs of the sentence get buried in noun form, as they did in the Red Riding Hood sentence.
- Help students find the verbs in nominalizations. Writers are frequently given the advice to choose strong, active verbs and to avoid overusing nonspecific verbs such as “to be,” “to do,” or “to have.” Writers may find this advice confusing because it’s difficult to avoid those common and useful verbs. However, the advice makes more sense when you understand the problem of nominalizations. Overuse of “to be” is a sign that the important verbs may be hidden in abstract nominalizations.
- Consider a sentence such as “It is our requirement that a review of the data be done by you.” Ask students to spot the nominalizations. (“requirement” and “review”) Ask students to make those nominalizations into verbs, and make people the subjects of those verbs. They should be able to produce something close to: “We require that you review the data.”
PART IV: PRACTICE USING THE STRATEGIES TOGETHER
- Project another example, this one with abstract academic content. Be sure to use your own course-specific example “unclear sentence” in place of this one: “Zipes’s argument in regard to Bettelheim’s twisting of fairy tales according to a Freudian agenda is based on his belief that putting a sexual spin onto everything is something Bettelheim does.”
- Ask students if they can revise this sentence as easily as the Red Riding Hood sentence; generally, the answer is no.
- Lead students through the diagnosis and revision strategies introduced earlier:
- Identify and circle or bold verbs (from example above: is based, is, does).
- Identify and underline subjects (Zipes’s argument…, putting a sexual spin…, Bettelheim).
- Identify nominalizations and make a list of them in verb form (argue, twist, believe, spin, put). Students are likely to notice that some of the verbs on the list are redundant (argue and believe, and twist and spin).
- Ask who is doing what, and make a list of characters (in this example, Zipes and Bettelheim).
- Match character to action (Zipes argues and believes, Bettelheim twists, puts, and spins).
- Ask students to revise the sentence in their notebooks, using the characters we identified as the subjects, and their actions as the verbs.
- Remind students explicitly that the revised sentence should be shorter than the original, that they don’t need to use all the words from the original, and that they may need to connect the parts of their revised sentences with a word such as “by,” “because,” or “and.” For example, Zipes believes that Bettelheim twists the meaning of fairy tales by viewing them through a Freudian lens.
- Have multiple students share what they came up with. Students will probably not produce the exact same revision; nevertheless, as long as they use the brief and concrete subject-verb pairs as directed, their revised sentences will be clearer than the original.
PART V: APPLY THE STRATEGIES TO PEER WRITING
- Allow students to work together to comment on each other’s style, and to get feedback on their own.
- Use the Sentence Clarity Peer Review Workshop to help students apply these principles to a peer’s writing.
Variations and Follow-Ups
Alternative lesson ideas
Instead of following the lesson with the peer review workshop, you may prefer one of these options:
- Have students revise their own paragraphs for clarity, applying the diagnosis and revision strategies taught in the lesson. Follow up with an in-class activity at the next class in which students share their revised sentences with classmates in small groups and ask peers to identify moments when sentences are still wordy, clunky, or confusing. This option allows them to discuss moments when different principles of style seem to conflict, and talk about how to choose between different principles of clarity, concision, and coherence.
- For a more high-energy alternative, see Clarity Races, in which students practice the skills of clarity in a competitive “relay race” that gets them moving and debating.
- Introduce students to the complexity of revising for clarity; sometimes, different principles conflict with each other. This exercise attempts to walk them through that dilemma.
- Revisit this lesson in WR 15x, revising example sentences to align with the new topic and making connections to principles of clarity in other kinds of writing and communication when possible.
Suggested flipped learning modules
- Turabian, Kate L. “Ch. 15: Revising Sentences.” Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers, 5th ed., 2019, pp. 147-157 (or just to p. 152 for the concepts most relevant to this lesson).
Turabian’s chapter is a condensed version of the Williams theories that underlie this lesson, and Turabian’s articulation of the “Five Principles for Clear Sentences” (p. 148) is a handy list of tips.
- Williams, Joseph M., and Joseph Bizup. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, 5th ed., Pearson, 2014, Ch. 2-3.
If Style: Basics is a required text in your class, you might prefer to assign it directly rather than Turabian, as it goes into more depth about the principles of “Characters and Actions” and is the direct source of several of the lesson’s example sentences. We recommend assigning the “Actions” chapter (chapter 2) before the lesson and the “Characters” chapter (chapter 3) afterwards, because students are likely to get lost in the weeds if they try to read both without the support of the instructor’s in-class explanations.
- Williams, Joseph M., and Joseph Bizup. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, 5th ed., Pearson, 2014, Ch. 1-4 and 8.
The whole book is worth reading, but these five chapters (“Understanding Style,” “Actions,” “Characters,” “Cohesion and Coherence,” and “Concision”) are arguably the most relevant to clarity, while the rest are more pertinent to Williams’s other area of stylistic focus, grace.
- Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press, 2012.
Sword, Helen. “Zombie Nouns.” The New York Times, 23 July 2012.
Sword campaigns against dry, abstract, wordy academic writing and pushes back against the idea that academic writers must write in a dense, impersonal style in order to be published. In her New York Times column, she argues for “vigorous, verb-driven sentences that are concrete, clearly structured and blissfully zombie [nominalization]-free.” You may wish to assign the column, which is brief and lively, to students, and/or to use Sword’s online tools such as the Writer’s Diet Test or her Ted-Ed talk on “Zombie Nouns” in your classroom.
- Bizup, Joseph. “Teaching with Style: Using Joseph Williams’s Classic Guide with Students,” Speaking About Pedagogy and Practice in English, Pearson English featured speakers series, 12 March 2015.
Bizup offers an overview the linguistic theory underlying Williams’s principles of style and guidance for using these concepts effectively in a first-year writing context, including example assignments and teaching practices, as well as advice for incorporating considerations of genre.
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