Section 2.2

Sentence Variety

This section covers some common sentence types and considers the stylistic consequences of overusing certain structures — or of avoiding them altogether.

Consider the following group of words:

Revenues were plummeting we decided to close two branches.

That group of words contains two clauses — both independent — with no punctuation or combining word to link them. This is a classic example of a run-on sentence: two independent clauses joined together with nothing but air.

The way you link ideas such as those contained in the run-on above has everything to do with sentence style and readability. Below are the main options for punctuating and/or combining these ideas, with commentary on the stylistic nuances of each.

Version 1. Period

Revenues were plummeting. We decided to close two branches.

Although using occasional very short sentences can be a powerful writing technique, these two short sentences sound choppy next to each other.

Version 2. Semicolon

Revenues were plummeting; we decided to close two branches.

Here the two independent clauses are combined with a semicolon. How does this version differ from Version 1? Well, punctuation marks are often described as the traffic signals of writing. You could associate the comma with a rolling stop at a stop sign, a semicolon with a quick (but fully legal!) stop at the same sign, and a period with a brief wait at a red light.

Linked with a semicolon, these two clauses read more quickly than they did when separated by a period. Some people, unfortunately, are semicolonphobic; they never use semicolons, largely because they don’t know how. While there is no minimum daily requirement for the semicolon, any time you eliminate one entire sentence-combining method because you are uncomfortable with it, you are by definition limiting the range of stylistic options available to you.

Below are the criteria that justify semicolon use between two independent clauses:

1. The ideas being linked are closely related.

2. When you read the sentence aloud, it sounds good; the ideas flow.

Version 2 above may not be an award-winning sentence, but it sounds reasonably good. Whether it works in a given document would depend in part on the surrounding sentences and how they are structured.

Version 3. Coordinating Conjunction

Revenues were plummeting, so we decided to close two branches.

Coordinating conjunctions such as so combine sentence elements of roughly equal weight. There are seven such conjunctions in all. To remember them, think fanboys; it isn’t a word, but it sounds like one. Each letter in fanboys represents the first letter of one of the seven coordinating conjunctions:

for
and
nor
but
or
yet
so

Many businesspeople rely too heavily on coordinating conjunctions as a way of linking ideas. Coordinating conjunctions are useful — in fact, critically important — words in the English language, but overusing them creates writing problems. Because they link elements of similar weight, when they are overused as clause-combining tools, a piece of writing can start to feel like an accumulation of ideas and details, without a sense of hierarchy or a sufficiently sturdy structure. This and that. This so that. This but that. This or that. To add variety to your writing style, be sure to use other idea-combining options, too.

In Version 3 above, note the comma before the so. If you use a coordinating conjunction to combine two independent clauses, it is standard punctuation to include a comma before the conjunction. One exception could be two very short clauses combined with an and. In many other cases, leaving the comma out can confuse readers or at least make it more difficult for them to identify the boundary between two ideas.

Version 4. Conjunctive Adverb

Revenues were plummeting; therefore, we decided to close two branches.

Therefore is an example of a conjunctive adverb — in other words, a conjunction-like adverb. There are many such adverbs, though the following five show up particularly often in business writing:

therefore

furthermore

however

moreover

nevertheless

The structure of Version 4 above is in some ways similar to Version 3, but there are stylistic differences that a writer should be aware of, particularly if he or she is, ahem, a conjunctive adverb addict. Conjunctive adverb addiction is particularly common among consultants, attorneys, and academics, but it can be found in virtually every industry.

The overuse of conjunctive adverbs creates a rather ponderous, heavy writing style. Why? First of all, many conjunctive adverbs are on the formal end of the style spectrum. Also, if you look at Version 4, you will see that there are two breaks in the middle of the sentence: a significant break associated with the semicolon, followed by a fairly formal polysyllabic word (the conjunctive adverb), and then another break associated with the comma.

In isolation, there’s nothing wrong with a structure like that. Imagine, though, a document in which the writer repeatedly uses this structure to combine clauses. It’s a slower structure, with more stops and starts, and more attention drawn to the intersection between ideas, than you see in Version 3. Once again, as with most things, moderation is the key.

Version 5. Subordinating Conjunction

5a. Because revenues were plummeting, we decided to close two branches.

5b. We decided to close two branches because revenues were plummeting.

Versions 5a and 5b illustrate the use of the subordinating conjunction because to combine ideas. In 5a, the subordinating conjunction appears at the beginning, thus turning that first clause into a dependent clause, which is then followed by an independent clause (we decided to close two branches). In 5b, the sentence begins with an independent clause that is then followed by a dependent clause.

Either sentence is fine, but when asked which they prefer, many people will automatically choose 5b. When asked why they prefer it, the response is often: “I was told in school never to begin a sentence with because.” But this ostensible rule is nothing more than a writing myth.

In fact, the prejudice against because as a sentence starter leads to numerous writing problems, as professionals go through all sorts of language contortions to avoid what is a perfectly good sentence structure. In avoiding it unnecessarily, they impoverish their writing style, because Version 5a has a dramatic structure and offers an interesting alternative to the plain subject-verb format.

Consider that same structure applied to even more dramatic content:

Because he embezzled millions of dollars, he spent the rest of his life in jail.

Unfortunately, many people will automatically flip these two clauses to eliminate the starting because:

He spent the rest of his life in jail because he embezzled millions of dollars.

But flipping the clauses sucks much of the life and energy from the sentence.

Other people will meticulously cross out because and replace it with due to the fact that.

Due to the fact that he embezzled millions of dollars, he spent the rest of his life in jail.

This structure is wordy, awkward, and inherently inferior to the version beginning with because.

For those who remain uncomfortable with the idea of beginning with because: if you have spent your whole life avoiding because at the beginnings of sentences, but have at the same time been starting sentences with if, or when, or while, you may have inadvertently been guilty of grammatical hypocrisy! The following four sentences are structurally identical; each starts with a dependent clause and concludes with an independent clause:

Because her train was delayed, Sue missed the meeting.

If her train is delayed, Sue will catch a cab.

When her train is delayed, Sue catches a cab.

While Sue was waiting for her train, she called one of her colleagues.

There is nothing wrong with any of them.