To improve sentence grammar, start with clauses and phrases. This post explains how to unravel dense logic in writing by looking at its core chunks first.
At a recent inhouse writing workshop I ran, a sore-headed participant looked at me in exasperation one hour into the grammar session. “But why does any of this matter in the workplace, anyway?”
I should say, straight off, that we can solve a lot of grammar problems just by chopping long sentences down into two or three shorter ones. Main subject and verb are instantly clarified, and your natural intuition for logic and language will do the rest. Easy.
But my full answer to that workshop question is twofold.
Firstly, understanding grammar helps you resolve workplace disagreements more effectively. Grammar is like the science of words and their relation to each other. So being able to explain that a main clause is buried in the middle of a bunch of other clauses, or that subject X takes verb form Y when it’s plural, is handy.
Secondly, understanding the logic behind grammar helps you make quicker decisions on the go. When someone flicks you a sentence like, “There is much fragmentation in Sydney’s consumer legal market,” your built-in grammar detective immediately spots a dud subject. Revise the sentence so the subject is clearer, and you get the more useful: “Sydney’s consumer legal market is greatly fragmented.”
So, where to start?
First off, take a deep breath and be prepared for the basics to take a while to sink in. (Confession: I spent a full two days getting my head around grammar so I could present it in this one-hour training session).
If you’re teaching yourself, make sure to use resources with built-in tests so you can practice your newfound skills on the go. Grammar.about.com is useful, as is the grammar chapter in John Seely’s 2005 Oxford Guide to Effective Writing and Speaking.
Then start with an overview of grammar, from big-picture to small-picture. Grammar operates at four essential levels: sentences, clauses, phrases and words. In this post I’m going to focus on clauses, because this is where most of the potential disagreements lie. We’ll talk about phrases in the next post.
Anatomy of sentence clauses
A clause is a group of words that generally contain a subject phrase and a verb phrase; some also have an object phrase. A correct clause can stand on its own: for example, “He ran” or “She told me.” A simple sentence has just one clause, while more complex sentences may have coordinating, subordinate or relative clauses – or a combination of several.
Coordinating clauses (underlined): The forum is in November and registrations close in October.
Main clause (not underlined) and subordinating clause (underlined): The forum is in November, when many top delegates are already in town.
Main clause (not underlined) and relative clause (underlined): The forum is held the same month that many top delegates are already in town.
- Coordinating clauses are linked with conjunctions including: and, but, or, nor, then, yet, after, as, before, until, so.
- Subordinating clauses are linked to the main clause with conjunctions including: while, when, because, as, since.
- Relative clauses are linked to the main clause with relative pronouns: who, whom, which, that, where, when.
When writers use several kinds of clauses in one sentence, they end up with a complex compounding sentence where the logic sometimes becomes hard to follow. The following sentence uses the following clauses:  main;  subordinating;  relative; and [4a] and [4b] coordinating clauses.
 The forum is in November,  which is the same month  that many top delegates are already in town, [4a] so we can guarantee great speakers and a large turnout, and [4b] ensure we meet our sales targets.
So uh, why does this matter?
You’ll want to know the different kinds of clauses, and the conjunctions you’ll need to combine them, so you can check whether the main point is at the start of the sentence, or at the end or somewhere in the middle.
Compare this (subordinating clause + main clause):
In the 50 years since founding, ABC Accounting has helped thousands of Australians with their tax issues.
With this (main clause + subordinating clause):
ABC Accounting has helped thousands of Australians with their tax issues since its founding 50 years ago.
By moving the main clause to the front of the sentence, you help busy readers get to the main point more quickly. If your writing is for any online format, you will help search engines find your article more quickly. You can read more about clauses, and how to combine them, here: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/clauses.htm and here http://www.dailywritingtips.com/25-subordinating-conjunctions/.
Our post on grammar continues here with a look at the phrases that make up clauses.