Make Sentence Structure Work for You

One of the easiest ways to improve your business writing skills is to create strong sentences. It really doesn't matter what you are writing; it could be an informal memo, an important report, or a proposal. Sentences that are concise, varied, and focused will give your documents a polished, professional touch.

Reviewing the Basics

The Simple Sentence

There are three basic kinds of sentence structure: simple, compound, and complex. The simple sentence forms the building block for the other two. A simple sentence has two requirements. It must have a subject and a verb, and it must express a complete thought. Would the following words make a sentence? Birds fly. If you answered "yes," you are on the right track. Do the following words make a complete sentence? Because the traffic was heavy. If you thought, "No way!" you are right again. It doesn't matter how many words are grouped together; they must express a complete thought.

The Compound Sentence

A compound sentence is formed when two simple sentences are joined together with a conjunction. The most common conjunctions are and, but, and or. We use and to show addition, but to show contrast, and or to suggest a choice. The following example is a "traditional compound sentence": The plane was delayed for 45 minutes, and many of the passengers appeared upset. Note the comma before the conjunction and. Always use a comma before the conjunction in a traditional compound sentence.

The first variation of a compound sentence is called a "compound predicate." Read the following sentence: Bob applied for the job opening, and he was hired. You might wonder if it is necessary to include the word he in the sentence when it is obvious that he refers to Bob . By dropping the second subject, he , you would have the following sentence: Bob applied for the job opening and was hired . Note that when you dropped the second subject, he , you also dropped the comma before the conjunction and . You have created a streamlined version of a traditional compound sentence.

The second variation of a compound sentence is called a "compound sentence with a semicolon." By replacing the comma and the conjunction in a traditional compound sentence, you create a different sounding and looking sentence structure. Read the following sentence: I like Italian food, but my family prefers Chinese cuisine . If you remove the conjunction, you would have a sentence with a brisk effect: I like Italian food; my family prefers Chinese cuisine . The semicolon is also a good choice if you already have too many ands in a sentence: Earning and saving money is a challenge, and investing and increasing the amount is even more challenging . Compare that to the following: Earning and saving money is a challenge; investing and increasing the amount is even more challenging. You have created a stronger sentence by dropping the conjunction and in a sentence that already has two ands .

The Complex Sentence

Of the three types of sentence structures, the complex sentence is the most sophisticated. It allows you to use clauses to change the ordinary pattern of "subject-verb-predicate." A complex sentence contains a clause, which is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb but does NOT express a complete thought. There are three kinds of clauses: adverb, adjective, and noun.

Of the three types of clauses, the business writer uses adverb clauses the most. Adverb clauses answer questions such as "when, where, how, why, and under what condition" something is done. Two examples of adverb clauses are as follows: Since I joined this company... and Because I was promoted ... Both word groups have a subject and a verb, but neither expresses a complete thought.

If you add the clause to a simple sentence, it becomes a complex sentence. Compare the following complex sentences to the examples of clauses above: Since I joined this company, I have been promoted twice. Because I was promoted, I was given a company car and an expense account. Note that in these two examples, the adverb clause was placed in the beginning of the sentence. Be sure to insert a comma after the clause when it is the introductory word group of the sentence. If the clause comes at the end, no comma precedes it. I was given a company car and an expense account because I was promoted.

The adjective clause, like the adjective, describes or modifies a noun. In the following sentence, which word is the adjective? I just read an interesting article . If you chose interesting , you were correct. Compare the following sentence to the previous one. I just read an article, which interested me . The clause, which interested me , is awkward and wordy. Because your goal is to write concisely whenever possible, the one word adjective works better than the adjective clause.

The noun clause, like a noun, can be many different things in a sentence. It can be the subject, a direct object of a noun, a subject complement, or an object of a preposition. Noun clauses are not inherently good or bad; they are merely one type of sentence structure.


The next time you write something for business, keep the three main types of sentences in mind. By using a variety of structures, you can accomplish several goals. First, you can provide your readers with an interesting document. No one likes to plow through boring memos, letters, and reports. Put some pizzazz in your writing by getting away from the predictable subject-verb-predicate formula. Instead, begin some of your sentences with an adverb clause followed by a simple sentence. Try using compound sentences with semicolons. In other words, be creative and stop using the same sentence structure repeatedly.

Second, you create a sense of professionalism by producing documents that are polished and concise. When you carefully craft your sentences, you establish yourself as a professional. Lastly, you will continue to hold your readers' interest if you constantly strive to use a different sentence structure that is interesting, varied, and precise. You may still want to take a business writing seminar, but your ability to construct interesting sentences will provide you with a firm foundation.


Catherine Hibbard

Catherine Hibbard

Catherine S. Hibbard is a nationally recognized expert in business and technical writing. Her company, Cypress Media Group, is an advertising, public relations, and training firm that provides training and consulting primarily related to business and technical writing, presentation skills, and media relations.

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