Section 5.1

Sentence Structure in Email

Good sentence structure is essential to good writing; it adds both clarity and interest. Poor sentence structure can befuddle or weary the audience, making the task of reading more unpleasant than informative.

5.1.1 Sentence Variety

One important way to enliven a piece of writing is to vary the length and structure of your sentences. Try reading aloud something you have written. Listen to the rhythm and flow of the sentences. Is there interest and variety? Or do you feel as though there is a kind of repetitive drone? If the latter is the case, you may be in a sentence structure rut! Try mixing things up a bit. Vary sentence length. Vary the way you combine ideas.

Many emailers looking for efficiency try to cram as much information as possible into a single long sentence. That approach is a misguided one. In overusing long, convoluted sentences, writers obscure their ideas behind complex syntax. Busy professionals simply do not want to reread sentences to try to figure out what the writer meant.

On the other hand, if a piece of writing contains too many short, simple sentences in a row, the writing may sound choppy and unsophisticated.

Variety adds interest. A simple, punchy idea may be best expressed with a simple sentence structure. A more complicated idea may justify a longer, more complex sentence structure. A mixture of sentence types can make the act of reading your email a more pleasurable and productive experience for your audience.

Consider the following ideas, for example:

Employees have been complaining about the lack of local restaurants. We have decided to build a cafeteria on Lot 5.

These two ideas can be combined into a single sentence in a number of ways, each of which has a different rhythm, emphasis, and style. Read the following sentences aloud so that you can hear the differences among them.

Version 1. Employees have been complaining about the lack of local restaurants, so we have decided to build a cafeteria on Lot 5.

Version 2. Employees have been complaining about the lack of local restaurants; therefore, we have decided to build a cafeteria on Lot 5.

Version 3. We have decided to build a cafeteria on Lot 5 because employees have been complaining about the lack of local restaurants.

Version 4. Because employees have been complaining about the lack of local restaurants, we have decided to build a cafeteria on Lot 5.

Don’t be concerned about beginning a sentence with because, as in Version 4. Unfortunately, many people are told as children not to use this word to start a sentence. Though the advice often comes from well-intentioned teachers, it is wrong — and often very limiting for adult writers. Professional writers use this structure regularly, and with impunity. Needless avoidance of this perfectly good structure reduces the rhythmic variety of your writing and also, depending on what techniques a person uses to avoid it, can lead to unwieldy and inferior sentences such as the following:

Weak

Due to the fact that employees have been complaining about the lack of local restaurants, we have decided to build a cafeteria on Lot 5.

The preceding sentence is inherently inferior to Version 4; it is wordier and unnecessarily convoluted. Clean, direct sentences are critical for crisp, clear writing.

5.1.2 The Dreaded Comma Splice

Many emailers today are in the habit of combining two independent clauses — complete thoughts that could stand alone as their own sentences — with just a comma, like this:

Revenues were plummeting, we decided to close two branches.

Unfortunately, the sentence above is actually a sentence error called a comma splice. If you are writing a creative piece — a poem or novel, for example — you may occasionally find stylistic reasons to use a comma splice. Business writing, however, is a place for traditional punctuation, not experimentation.

Think of the comma as being too frail, too delicate a piece of punctuation, to hold apart two independent clauses without the additional help of some kind of combining word. In business writing, where you can put a period you can virtually never put a comma. If you do, you will usually create a comma splice. Periods and commas are like punctuation enemies; though they may be distant relatives, they do not get along and do not hang out in the same kinds of places.

5.1.3 Passive Voice

Perhaps you have been told before not to use passive voice, examples of which abound in business writing. The idea, though, is not to eliminate passive voice entirely; rather, you should avoid excessive or unjustified use of passive voice.

Defining Passive Voice

To reduce passive voice, one must first be able to identify it. The sentence below offers a classic example:

The proposals were evaluated by the marketing committee.

This sentence is an example of passive voice because it possesses the following characteristics:

ı. The grammatical subject — proposals, in this example — receives the action of the verb. In other words, the proposals don’t do anything; something is done to them.

2. The verbs include the following:

a. a form of the verb to be (were, in this case). Besides were, other forms of to be are as follows: am, is, are, was, be, been, and being.

b. a past participle (here, the word evaluated)

In case the past participle is a hazy memory — as it is for many people — just remember that it is the form of a verb that would fit in the following blank: I have _____. For regular verbs, the past participle is identical to the past tense (I have walked vs. I walked, I have finished vs. I finished, etc.). For irregular verbs, the past participle and past tense differ. For instance, the past participle of to run is run, while the past tense is ran. The past participle of to eat is eaten, while the past tense is ate.

With passive voice, if the entity performing the action is included in the sentence, it typically follows the verbs and appears as part of a prepositional phrase (in the example above, by the marketing committee). A sentence can contain passive voice without including this information, though. Deleting by the marketing committee from the sample sentence does not eliminate the passive voice. The following is still a passive construction:

The proposals were evaluated.

As you look for passive voice, keep in mind that a form of the verb to be does not automatically signal a passive construction. For example, how many of the following three sentences contain passive voice?

1. The presentation was not applicable to my work.

2. The presentation was lost by the marketing department.

3. The presentation was boring the audience.

In fact, only the second sentence illustrates passive voice. In Sentence 1, applicable is an adjective, not a past participle. In the third sentence, boring is not a past participle either (it can’t fit in the following blank: I have _____). In addition, the subject of the sentence — presentation — is performing the action, namely, boring the audience. Sentence 3 is actually an example of active voice.

Reducing Passive Voice

In many passive-voice constructions, the writer would be better off rewriting the sentence using active voice. Compare these two versions:

Passive Voice

The proposals were evaluated by the marketing committee.
 

Active Voice

The marketing committee evaluated the proposals.

Active voice is generally superior to passive voice. For one thing, it is more direct. The reader learns first who or what performed the action, then what the action was, and finally who or what was acted upon. Generally it is easier to process information that way than it is to begin with the recipient of the action, then learn what the action was, and then find out who did it.

Also, replacing passive with active voice in the example above reduced the number of words by two. Active voice is usually the more economical structure.

Watch out for passive-voice constructions such as the following, which recur frequently in business documents:

  • it is recommended that
  • it has been decided that
  • it has been observed that
  • it was noted that

In many cases, these phrases are fillers and can simply be eliminated, often with little or no rewriting of the remainder of the sentences that contain them. Compare the original and revised versions of the following sentences (passive voice is italicized):

Original

It was decided that we need to cut costs by 30%.
 

Improved

We need to cut costs by 30%.

or

Unfortunately, we need to cut costs by 30%.
 

Original

It has been observed that the employee break room is unacceptably messy by the end of the day.
 

Improved

The employee break room is unacceptably messy by the end of the day.

Acceptable Passive Voice

Nonetheless, passive voice is sometimes acceptable, even preferable. For example, it is appropriate in the following cases:

  • when the entity performing the action is unknown

Suppose your dog comes home one night with a cut on his leg, and you don’t know the cause of the injury. When you go into work the next day, you might tell your co-worker, “My dog was injured last night.” If you don’t know how your dog was injured, it is difficult to construct an active-voice version of this sentence. You might have to say something strange like, “A car, another dog, or something else altogether injured my dog last night.”

  • when the emphasis is properly on the entity receiving the action

For example, you might complain to a colleague in the marketing department, “Our website hasn’t been updated in nearly a year.” Here, passive voice emphasizes the fact that your website isn’t current. Now, if you wanted to assign blame for this problem, you would probably gravitate towards active voice instead: “John and Mary haven’t updated our website in nearly a year.”