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.

Key Terms

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.


Genre Awareness

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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  1. 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.”
  2. Ask students if they can revise this sentence as easily as the Red Riding Hood sentence; generally, the answer is no.
  3. Lead students through the diagnosis and revision strategies introduced earlier:
  4. Identify and circle or bold verbs (from example above: is based, is, does).
  5. Identify and underline subjects (Zipes’s argument…, putting a sexual spin…, Bettelheim).
  6. 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).
  7. Ask who is doing what, and make a list of characters (in this example, Zipes and Bettelheim).
  8. Match character to action (Zipes argues and believes, Bettelheim twists, puts, and spins).
  9. Ask students to revise the sentence in their notebooks, using the characters we identified as the subjects, and their actions as the verbs.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  1. Allow students to work together to comment on each other’s style, and to get feedback on their own.
  2. Use the Sentence Clarity Peer Review Workshop to help students apply these principles to a peer’s writing.

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Remote Implementation of Essential Lesson Activities