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Academic Coaching & Writing
 

V. Use Simple Syntax

Mar 08, 2016 by Amy Benson Brown

Recently, I worked with a brilliant scientist who had won creative writing awards as an undergraduate. She came to coaching because she realized her academic writing was muddled and too hard to understand, and she worried that this was holding her back from winning grants and being published in top journals. She was fascinated by the operation of language and knew that, at one time, she was considered a gifted writer. Where had all that gone, she wondered? I knew: Her graduate-school training knocked the clarity and brilliance of expression right out of her.

The way back for this author to writing clear prose was to embrace a simpler syntax, at least at key moments in her argument. This strategy is an especially important, though often also a challenging one, for scientific writers to follow. Yet, it makes all the difference. The author who once feared she was missing out on winning grants because of the awkwardness of her complicated scientific prose now fields pleas from her colleagues to edit their academic writing and grants because she’s now such a clear stylist.

Understanding a bit about grammar helps a great deal. Though “syntax,” in the field of linguistics refers to a whole range of issues about the order of ideas in languages, the syntax you need to grasp is much simpler. I encourage you to focus on the most basic meaning of syntax—the grammatical structure of a sentence.

By sentence syntax, I mean the sequence in which words are put together to form sentences. In English, the most typical and clear sequence is subject, verb, and sometimes object (often represented as S-V-O in shorthand). A simple way to think of S-V-O is to ask yourself the following question: “Who is doing what to whom?” In other words: who or what is the doer of the action? (the subject); what is the action? (the verb); and who or what is the receiver of the action? (the object).

The basic S-V-O sentence structure helps readers grasp ideas quickly. And that fact applies not only to ideas about something like baking chocolate cookies, but also to ideas about multifactorial drivers of international policy. Do you remember the discussion in the last blog on the role that working memory plays in the cognitive labor of reading? The S-V-O sentence structure often reduces the demands on the reader’s working memory. Readers get the point more quickly because this sentence structure tends to  keep subjects close to verbs and verbs close to the objects that receive the action.

Admittedly, the drive for precision at the heart of rigorous thinking often necessitates complex sentence structures. If you’re like most academics, the length and complexity of the sentences you write probably increases with the intricacy of the ideas you are trying to convey. That’s understandable. Especially when writing a first draft, it may simply be necessary to pile on modifying clauses in an attempt to explain your ideas. However, many academics develop a habit of continuing to use too many such clauses, even when they are not really necessary.

So, consider building a new habit. Revise your prose to feature more simple syntax whenever possible. Reread your drafts with these questions in mind. Are all the  modifying clauses on the page actually necessary? Would the meaning be easier to grasp quickly if you rearranged the sentence to lead with the subject, then state the verb, and conclude with the object of the verb’s action? And, finally, have you used two, three, or even four words, when one would do better? In summary, ask yourself if your sentences are overflowing with unnecessarily complex syntax or overly verbose phrasing.

Exercise: Assess the Clarity of Your Syntax

Try this exercise to help you assess the clarity of your syntax:

  1. Read through the draft with three highlighters in hand.
  2. In one color, highlight any sentence longer than three lines, sentences longer than four or five lines in a second color, and six lines or longer in a third color.
  3. Review the sentence patterns and note where you might want to vary the sentence structure.

This color-coding exercise provides a visual map of your sentence lengths. If a long, sentence is followed by a short, simple sentence, the rhythm of your prose is probably flowing well. For instance, a brief recap that follows and sums up the key point of a long complex sentence gives the reader a moment to pause and digest that point. However, if the visual map you create with this exercise reveals a pattern of many long sentences, your syntax likely is making your meaning unnecessarily difficult for the reader to grasp. As you learned in the last blog, too many long, complex sentences can overtax the reader’s working memory. Aim to break the most complex ones down into the S-V-O pattern.

Finally, though this focus on the basics of sentence structure may feel tedious, it’s essential to improving the quality of prose. By better understanding the syntax of your writing, you are honing your ability to communicate clearly with the reader.

The final blog in this series explains the value of another fundamental strategy for clear communication, well-articulated transitions, which work in tandem with clear sentence structure to greatly improve flow.

  • Samina M. Saifuddin says:

    Apr 28, 2018 at 6:45 am

    Being a non-native speaker of English, I struggle in writing. Thank you for making it simple.

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