Write Sentences that Flow

(aka Sentence Structure)

When I was growing up, my Dad taught me about diagramming sentence structure. Ever since, I’ve had a visceral sense of the way a sentence flows.

English is an especially rich language for its amazing variety of ways to express the same idea—not just with word choice but with the order of words within sentences. Diagramming helps me “see the flow” and rearrange words to make the underlying meaning of a sentence both clear and powerful. It can do the same for you.

Basically, a sentence is like a river

It flows from the subject through the predicate to the objects and any additional clauses. (I’ll explain all those terms in a moment.) Some sentence rivers are straight and powerful. Many have L shapes branching off of them. Run-ons meander like a series of S curves. For a few, U-shaped boulders in the middle impede its flow.

The most compelling sentences are straight and direct—like Hemingway introduced to the language of fiction, transforming it forever. However, sometimes the best shape for a sentence is the L or the U, rarely the S. As an author, you need to recognize when and how to prune your river back to the simple, straight clause.

Disclaimer: In the analyses that follow, I use a simplified diagramming process to make the ideas easier to understand. Since my approach differs from classic diagramming, which can get rather complicated, I call it a sentence flow chart instead of a diagram.

What’s a subject, predicate and object?

The subject is the “hero” of the sentence: what it’s all about. Let’s use “The lion roared” as our first example. Here, lion is the star, the actor of the sentence. That’s our subject.

We put lion at the head of our flow chart, like this:

The lion ........

The predicate is the action, the verb of the sentence. Here, the action is roared. That’s our predicate. (Technically, the predicate includes everything that “goes with” that verb, but let’s keep things simple.) We add the action next in our chart, with a vertical line to separate them, like this:

The lion | roared

The object is the action’s target: what the action affects. Most sentences have more elements to them than a single noun and verb. For example: “The boy hit the ball.” Our hero is the boy, the action is hit, and the target of hit is the ball. (‘Ball’ is a direct object, meaning the action has a direct effect on the ball.) We’ll chart it like this:

The boy | hit => the ball

Objects can be indirect, too. For instance, “The girl gave the book to me.” Hero is the girl, action is gave, the target is the book—so what about “to me”? In this case, me is also a target of gave. You can distinguish these two types of object because the direct variety answers the question ‘what’. Ie, the girl gave WHAT—the what is the book. Indirect objects answer different questions, such as ‘how’ or ‘where’. We’ll chart indirect objects like this:

The girl | gave => the book :: to me

Another clue about direct versus indirect objects: direct ones may include an article (the, a or an) or adjectives and even adverbs, but indirect ones are (almost always) accompanied by a preposition—such as: to, from, with, by, on, for, and so on. If the preposition is missing, then the indirect object comes first: “The girl gave me the book.” It still means “The girl gave (to) me the book.” While the meaning of this sentence is identical to the other, we can also chart it like this:

The girl | gave :: me => the book

For the purposes of charting, it doesn’t matter which object comes first. In this sentence, the action is still gave, and the main target is still the book. The book cannot be the target of me, because me isn’t a verb!

Passive voice

This is a good place to look at passive voice, which reverses the natural order of the subject and object. In other words, the target becomes the hero of the sentence. That’s usually a bad thing, because the resulting sentence feels wimpy. Hemingway would not approve!

The ball | was hit :: by the boy
The book | was given :: to me :: by the girl

You can identify passive voice because it always has two elements: the verb to be (usually in the form of ‘was’ or ‘were’) and the preposition ‘by’. Search your manuscript for ‘by’ and transform your passive voice sentences into active!

Note: Sometimes passive voice IS appropriate. Sometimes you do want to emphasize the target of the action: “That table was given to me by my grandfather.”

What about additonal clauses?

At the start of this article, I said that sentences flow from the ‘hero’ through the ‘action’ to the ‘targets’ and any additional clauses. We’ve covered the first three. What about these other clauses?

Let’s start with “what’s a clause”? A clause contains a subject and predicate: a hero and an action. Examples:

Mary | went :: to the store
The mouse | ran :: up the clock

Some sentences have more than one clause. A compound sentence has two or more clauses glued together with a conjunction (from the Latin meaning ‘with’ and ‘join’). English has only seven conjunctions that make compound sentences: and, or, nor, for, but, yet, and so. We’ll chart compound sentences like this:

The skunk | sprayed => the intruder
& but
he | ran away

Each of these two lines has an independent clause, meaning it could stand on its own as a sentence and not lose any of its meaning. (Well, the pronoun might be unclear, but that’s a different issue.) Here’s another:

John | washed => the dishes
& and
(John) | dried => them

In this example, notice the missing hero in the second clause. We don’t need to repeat John, because there’s no one else it could be. We’ll use this notion of putting omitted-but-obvious words in parentheses throughout later examples in this article.

Hamlet | picked up => Yorick’s skull
& so
he | could soliloquize :: about it

Again, “he could soliloquize about it” can stand on its own as a complete sentence, although the meanings of prounouns he and it might be unclear.

Are there other kinds of clauses?

Yes. A dependent or subordinate clause is one that “hooks into” another clause and cannot stand on its own. Sentences containing a dependent clause are called complex sentences. Some examples:

The rat ate the cheese that Helen put on the table.

I went to the wagon that Jack built and painted it.

The White House, which was built in 1792 and rebuilt in 1817, is the home of the U.S. President.

Here, the dependent clauses are: “that Helen put on the table”, “that Jack built”, and “which was built in 1792 and rebuilt in 1817”. How do we chart these?

Clearly these clauses give us additional information about something specific: the cheese, the wagon, and the White House. So the dependent clauses are “hooked from” those particular words. We’ll chart them like this:

The rat | ate => the cheese
                       ^ that
                       Helen | put :: on the table
I | went :: to the wagon
                     ^ that
                     Jack | built
& and
(I) | painted it

These examples begin to show the value of understanding sentence flow. Concerning the wagon, is it important to know that “I went to” the wagon? If not, a simpler and more direct version is: “I painted the wagon that Jack built.”

Next, let’s look at that sentence about the White House. The main clause is charted like this:

The White House | is => the home
                              of the U.S. President

The phrase of the U.S. President hangs down from home because it further describes home. In classical diagramming, the articles, adjectives and phrases that modify a noun are shown this way, on lines slanting down from the word they expand on.

However, the main thing I want you to notice about the White House sentence is that U-shaped boulder in the middle.

The White House |                     is => the home
          ^ which                                   of the US President
          (it) | was built :: in 1792
          & and
          (it) | (was) rebuilt :: in 1817

The flow from House turns down into the which clause, then comes back up at “is the home…”

The dates between the hero and the action form an obstacle. The reader must remember The White House as the hero all the way through the obstacle until reaching the action is the home at the end of the sentence.

As an editor, I recommend never separating the hero and the action. Move the boulder to the front of the sentence or its end:

The White House is the home of the U.S. President; it was built between 1792 and 1800, then rebuilt in 1817 (after it was burned by the British during the war of 1812).
Finished in 1800 and rebuilt in 1817, the White House is the home of the U.S. President.

For me, those two versions are easier to read and understand than the original. I bet they are easier for you too.

Many dependent clauses start with that or which, but there’s a whole slew of subordinating conjunctions (glue that begins a subordinate clause). Here’s a smattering of them:

after, although, though, because, since, before, if, then, unless, until, when, whenever, where, while … and many, many more, including phrases like ‘as soon as’

All these conjunctions allow us to glue clauses together in a myriad of ways. Sometimes, we wind up with a sentence that meanders all over the landscape.

Page-long sentences usually result from stream-of-consciousness writing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you edit your prose later. Writing nonstop can bypass that pesky editor in your head who claims, like your 5th grade teacher, that you cannot write for beans.

(The previous sentence could have contained one of those U boulders if I’d said, “Writing nonstop can bypass that pesky editor in your head who, like your 3rd grade teacher, claims that you cannot write for beans.” Keep the action with the hero!)

Run-on Sentences

The classic “run on” sentence can be either a series of independent clauses, or a sentence containing lots of independent and dependent clauses. Let’s start with the first, which resembles a repeating E, like this:

Margaret | played => cricket
& but
Henry | enjoyed => soccer
& and
Elizabeth | preferred => to play :: with dolls
& so
her father | built => a dollhouse :: for her
& and
her uncle | painted => it
& but
Margaret’s sister Jenny | got tired
& and so
she | went to sleep

More often though, run-ons combine both kinds of clauses. Dependent clauses can be hooked either to nouns or to verbs. The resulting flow resembles an S curve—or worse, the delta at the end of a river!

Patience | went :: to the grocery store
                                    ^ which
                                    (it) | was painted white
& but
she | could not find => any plums
& so
she | continued (walking) :: down the street
         ^ until
         a streetcar |               appeared :: in the distance
              ^ (that was)              ^ at which time
              () | named => Desire      she | returned :: (to her) home

Patience went to the grocery store, which was painted white, but she could not find any plums so she continued down the street until a streetcar named Desire appeared in the distance, at which time she returned home.

Here, dependent clauses are hooked to the store and the streetcar, as well as the actions continued and appeared. The boulder “named Desire” is small, so we don’t need to move it.

Cleaning Up the Run-on Mess

So, what do we do with a run-on monster? First, we break it down into its clauses. We’ve got:

Patience | went :: to the grocery store
The grocery store | was painted white
Patience | could not find => any plums
Patience | continued :: down the street
              ^ until
              a streetcar | appeared :: in the distance
                   ^ (that)
                   (was) | named => Desire
^ When
      the streetcar | appeared
Patience | returned :: (to her) home

Then we can rearrange them. Here’s one way:

Patience went to a white grocery store in search of plums. When she didn’t find any, she continued down the street until a streetcar named Desire appeared in the distance. She then returned home.

The result is only 4 words shorter, but much easier to read. We could even omit the color of the store, which seems irrelevant to her trip.

Notice too, we wound up with one sentence that started with a dependent clause. Is that okay? Yes, indeed.

Introductory clauses and phrases

Until now, dependent clauses (or phrases) have been “hooked onto” some other word in the sentence, making the flow resemble an L. What about when the dependent clause starts the sentence? Is the conjunction still hooked to something? Using her name instead of the pronoun and including the plums, we have:

^ When
      Patience | didn’t find => any plums
she | continued :: down the street
         ^ until
         a streetcar | appeared :: in the distance

Here, the When conjunction is hooked to the notion of searching for plums in the previous sentence. We might have said, “When Patience saw the color of the store…” or “When Patience saw she’d forgotten to bring her money…” In both instances, When is still related to events taking place at the store. We might chart the flow of this similar sentence as:

(while searching for plums at the store )
          ^ When
                Patience | saw
                            ^ (that)
                            she | had forgotten => to bring => her money
          she | fainted :: on the floor

While we’re on the subject of dependent clauses, one more construction deserves attention. My favorite example: There was a lion that roared.

Wimpy Main Clauses

Sometimes, elements of a powerful clause get scrambled into a dependent position. Strive to eliminate the phrases “There was” and “There were” from your writing vocabulary. Compare the result:

The lion | roared


There | was => a lion
                   ^ that
                   (it) | roared

Yikes! You’d think that no respectable author would pen such a sentence. But we do. All the time. In our first drafts, anyway. That’s why we always need to edit and rewrite and do second and third drafts—and ask friends to read our prose.

It’s easy to think and therefore write, “There were three people walking down the street and they …” instead of “Three people walked down the street.” So search for there was and there were in your manuscripts and transform those wimpy sentences into powerful, direct ones.

In summary …

When you visualize sentences as flowing like a river, it becomes easy to see obstacles and awkward flow patterns. The ways you can fix them also become clear:

  1. Keep the hero with the action: Don’t stick words between the subject and verb.
  2. Search for by and convert passive voice to active.
  3. Be wary of the verb to be in all its forms—especially when it shows up as there was or there were.
  4. Move the obstacles to the front or back—or to their own sentence altogether.
  5. Simplify those complex structures into their components.
  6. Strive for no more than three clauses in a sentence; more becomes confusing.

Want to learn more about diagramming sentences and grammatical structure?

I highly recommend Elizabeth O’Brien’s English Grammar Revolution. Covering both grammar and diagramming, her website is fun, thorough and illuminating!

There’s also Wikipedia on English grammar, which is not nearly as much fun but certainly thorough.

And Wikipedia on diagramming sentences.

And Wikihow on diagramming sentences.

Got a tangled sentence you want help with?

Send your sentence problem to me. Time permitting, I’ll see what I can do. (By sending me your sentence, you give me permission to publish the sentence and my thoughts about it in my blog.)

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