OK, let’s jump on in. Oh you thought there’d be a witty intro, a scene-setting anecdote, did you? You thought you could just sit back and enjoy the ride? Well you can, in just a moment. But first, here’s a question for you: What is a paragraph? Give up? Well cast your mind back to your English class, and you’ll remember that each paragraph should have one idea. When you move on to a new idea, or a new angle on the same idea, then start a new paragraph. It really is that simple. (Paragraphs also allow you a little breathing space, as you can see.) Now if a sentence is part of a paragraph, it too should have a purpose. And it does: it conveys part of the idea, and should have a focus all of its own. Pack too many elements into a sentence, and you’re heading for trouble. Here’s an example from The Guardian newspaper:
Having been one of just 10 women MPs when first elected in 1982, at seven months pregnant, she has long been a critic of the gentlemen’s club culture, and while many of her colleagues are calling this crisis a catastrophe, to reformers it is also an unmistakable opportunity.Feeling seasick yet? I certainly am. This never-ending sentence is taken from an otherwise well-written profile of Harriet Harman, focusing on the MPs’ expenses scandal. It’s a one-sentence paragraph, but look at how many ideas are in it:
Interestingly, and perhaps in a sign that this is changing, Cruddas goes out of his way to praise James Purnell, who resigned on Thursday night with a spectacular call for Brown to do the same, both personally and intellectually.I scratched my head. Aren’t all resignations personal? And how do you resign intellectually? I read it again. And again. Then, in desperation, I read it aloud. And finally, I realised the meaning. It’s this:
Interestingly, and perhaps in a sign that this is changing, Cruddas goes out of his way to praise James Purnell, who resigned on Thursday night with a spectacular call for Brown to do the same, both personally and intellectually.Tip #2: read everything you write out loud (but make sure you’re alone first).
As a valued customer, we’d like to make you a very special offer.Something feels wrong, doesn’t it? (I mean other than the ‘special’ offer, and the fact that you’re valued no more than the 100,000 other recipients.) This problem revels in the delightful name of a (deep breath) dangling non-participial modifier. In plain English, it means that the first part is unrelated to the second. Who’s the valuable customer? You are. So the first word after the comma should be you. The corrected sentence looks something like this:
As a valued customer, you qualify for our great special offer.Alternatively, you could rework the beginning, giving you:
As you’re a valued customer, we’d like to make you a very special offer.See? That works better. Well the English does anyway – I’m not so sure about the offer. But that’s another story. Tip #3: if you begin a sentence with ‘as’, be on your guard. You might just be dangling (and it’s not a pretty sight).