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Sentence Level Writing Concerns

Recognizing Wordiness

This resource will help you recognize language that can be made more concise in your writing. 

Concise writing expresses ideas without unnecessary wordiness and makes your writing easier to understand. When revising your paper, take some time to edit specifically for wordiness.  

Notice the difference between each of the following pairs of sentences. What makes the first version of each pair wordy?

Despite the fact that she was not feeling well, she came to the conclusion that she would go to work anyway. 

Despite feeling unwell, she decided to go to work. 

In my opinion, I think that the study of Sociology is very fascinating. 

Sociology is fascinating. 


Use of vague words instead of precise words 

When she talked to him, she used a loud angry voice. 

She yelled at him. 

The crime wave cost people a lot of money. 

The crime wave was costly. 

Use of long expressions instead of individual words 

to come to the conclusion that 

to decide 

to put forward the idea that 

to suggest 

Over-use of passive verbs 

The criminal was caught by the police and convicted by the court.                                         

The police caught the criminal and the court convicted him.   

Over-use of prepositional phrases 

(for example phrases that begin with words like in, at, on, with..) 

In Edmonton in Alberta at 11:00 p.m. in the evening on the first of June, the northern lights gave a wonderful show to residents. 

The Northern Lights gave Edmontonians a wonderful June 1st late night show. 

Over-use of “it” and “there” as meaningless subjects 

It was exciting to go to the New Year celebrations. 

The New Year celebrations were exciting. 

There were thirty-four people waiting for the mayor.  

Thirty-four people waited for the mayor. 

Using longer clauses instead of shorter phrases 

After she had baked the bread, she cleaned the kitchen. 

After baking the bread, she cleaned the kitchen. 

Identifying Passive Voice

Learning how to identify passive voice in your writing will help you improve the clarity of your writing. Passive voice is ok to use in academic writing when used appropriately and sparingly. Taking time during your editing process to identify passive sentences will help you become aware of how and when to use them.  

Clues for Identifying Passive sentences:  

First, notice that an active sentence and a passive sentence each state the same idea, but they use a different word order:   

Active:  Kam reviewed my paper.  

Passive: My paper was reviewed by Kam.  

Look for the “be” helping verb.  

One way to spot passive verbs in your writing is to look for “be” verbs.    

“Be” verbs include be, am, are, is, been, being, was, and were.  

Often, but not always, a “be” verb signals a passive verb.   

  

Look for a “by” phrase.  

Another clue that will sometimes help you spot passive verbs is the “by” phrase after the verb. You might have noticed already that it is possible to show the person or thing that does the action at the end of most passive sentences by adding a “by” phrase.   

Example: Many forest fires are started by lightning.   

The “by” phrase tells us who or what causes the action. 

  

The Grammar Explanation

An active sentence has a different grammatical structure than a passive sentence.  

  

What is an Active Sentence?  

An active sentence begins with the Subject of the sentence;  the Subject is the doer of the action. Below is the grammatical pattern:  

Subject (the doer) + Verb (the action) + Object (the receiver of the action)  

The active sentence “Kam reviewed my paper” begins with “the doer”, who/what is responsible for the action to Kam. The sentence ends with the object (what received the action from the doer), in this case, my paper.   

  

What is a Passive Sentence?   

A passive sentence is almost the reverse of an active sentence because the object of the verb (the receiver of the action) moves to the front position, and the subject (the doer of the action) moves to the end (usually as a “by phrase”).  Below is the pattern:    

Object + “be” + Verb + (optional “by” phrase).   

Experiments + are + performed + (by scientists).


Past Participles

Another important grammatical passive verb feature is the Past Participle form of the main verb. In the table below, notice the difference between Simple Past Tense and the Past Participle forms of some common verbs:

Verb Past Tense Past Participle
eat ate eaten
is was been
steal stole stolen
offer offered offered

You can see in the table above that some Past Participle verb forms are clearly spelled differently than their simple past tense form.  

However, the final example (offer) has the same spelling in both past tense and past participle forms because both the past tense and past participle forms end with “ed.”  This “ed” ending is a reason why passive verbs can be confused with past tense verbs.   

  

Do not confuse Passive verbs with Past-Tense verbs.  

A common misunderstanding about passive verbs is that they are “past tense” verbs.  The following example sentences show that passive verbs can appear in the present, past, or future.  The Passive Voice does not show “time.”  Once again, notice the “be” verbs in every passive sentence below.

Active Passive
Simple Present
Scientists perform experiments. Experiments are performed (by scientists*).
Simple Past 
Scientists performed experiments. Experiments were performed. 
Simple Future 
Scientists will perform experiments. Experiments will be performed.

*Each passive sentence above can include or omit the “by” phrase: “by scientists”

When should you avoid using passive sentences?  

Passive verbs often lead to vague and wordy sentences because they use more complex verbs (be + past participle). Notice below how the passive sentence is wordier than the active sentence:  

Passive: The original purpose was forgotten by the patient.

Active:    The patient forgot the original purpose.

Passive sentences also tend to be vague because they often leave out who performed the action. For example, in the sentence “An investigation was initiated, and interviews were conducted,” the reader does not know who is doing the interviews, so it is difficult to gauge the purpose or rigor of the investigation. In the active version of this sentence, “The homicide squad initiated the investigation and conducted interviews,” the reader can learn more information—that homicide detectives led the investigation.

When is using a passive sentence okay? 

Passive sentences work well when who/what is doing the action does not matter. More important is the action itself (the verb) and the recipient of the action (the object).  

Look at this example: “Breakfast is served every morning.” In this sentence, what is important is that “Breakfast is served,” but who serves the breakfast doesn’t matter.

Using Commas, Semicolons and Colons

This resource shows the most common ways commas, semicolons and colons are used in academic writing to help you begin to understand how to use them correctly.

Using Commas ,

To start to understand how to use commas, you can review these four functions.

  1. Commas separate introductory parts of sentences

    A comma is used after introductory words, phrases or clauses. Commas come before the main subject of a sentence as a sign to the reader that the main subject is coming.

    Words

    Unfortunately, our picnic was rained out.

    Phrases

    Laughing to himself, he drew a cartoon.

    In conclusion, the law needs to be changed.

    Clauses

    After she finished her paper, she fell into bed and slept.

    If I won the lottery, I would travel.

  2. Commas separate ideas inserted within a sentence

    When information is added to a sentence that interrupts the flow of ideas of the sentence, commas are used in pairs like brackets to separate the clause that is interrupting.

    Julie Payette, for example, is an excellent role model for girls.

    John A. McDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, had a drinking problem.

    Nick, who struggled with grades in high school, is doing quite well in college.

  3. Commas separate complete sentences with a coordinator

    A comma often comes before a coordinator which joins two independent clauses. An independent clause expresses a complete thought, like a simple sentence. The most common coordinators are and, but, or, yet, and so. The complete list of coordinating conjunctions can be remembered using the mnemonic FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).

    But    She wanted to order oysters, but the restaurant had run out of them.

    Or      Would you like dessert, or would you prefer to get your bill?

    Yet     They loved the chocolate cake, yet the pieces were too big to finish.

    So      The service was excellent, so they left a big tip.

  4. Commas separate items in lists (3 or more).

    Note the comma that comes before the last item in the list is optional and dependent on style guidelines for your assignment.

    She invited Amanda, Amy, Nick, and Claire to her party.

    Strawberries, watermelon, and apricots are my favorite fruits.

    A student has to go to class, take notes, read textbooks, and write exams.

Using Semicolons ;

Semicolons are strong, end-of-sentence punctuation marks that work much like periods.

  1. Between two related sentences

    As with a period, a semicolon can be used to separate two complete sentences, but a semicolon is used to show a clear connection between the two sentences.

    Anna loves figure skating; she hates hockey.

    He loves her; she loves him.

  2. Before a conjunctive adverb that links one sentence to the next sentence

    Conjunctive adverbs include words like however, therefore, also, for example, in addition, and otherwise.

    Bring your I.D. card; otherwise, you won’t be allowed in.

    She does a lot of travelling between semesters; for example, she went to Mexico last semester break.

    Notice, however, that semicolons are not used before subordinators (e.g. if, because, although, when) or coordinators (e.g. and, but, so, yet).

  3. Between items in a list

    Semicolons are needed in a list when commas have already been used within the individual items within the list; in those cases, semicolons are used to separate the listed items.

    I am struggling to decide what university to attend: U.B.C., which has a big beautiful campus; S.F.U., which is close to my home; or U.F.V., which is smaller and more personal.

Using Colons :

The colon is used to introduce a list after a complete sentence. Like a period and a semicolon, a colon is punctuation that finishes a complete thought.

We have three levels of government: municipal, provincial and national.

Although the battle at Dieppe was a disaster, it served some useful purposes: it distracted the enemy from the Eastern front, it taught the Allies about the importance of reconnaissance, and it gave the inactive Canadian troops in Britain something to do.

A Common Error to Avoid with Colons

You may see examples of colons being used after incomplete sentences in novels, newspapers and magazines, but in academic writing, you must have a complete sentence before a colon. A colon should not come after a verb like “is” or after a listing expression like “such as.”

(Incorrect) The causes of Cathy’s success are: her intelligence, her hard-working approach, and her high level of motivation.

Explanation: “The causes of Cathy’s success are” is not a complete sentence.

(Correct) Cathy is successful for a number of reasons:  her intelligence, her hard-working approach, and her high level of motivation.

Explanation: “Cathy is successful for a number of reasons” is a complete sentence.

Parallelism

Combining parts of sentences with and, but, or or requires parallel structure. Parallel, in this sense, means balanced or equal. Items in a list need to be parallel in both grammar and function.

Parallel Grammar

The grammar of listed elements must be parallel. For example, you can join nouns to nouns, adjectives to adjectives, prepositional phrases to prepositional phrases, or clauses to clauses, but you should not join nouns to adjectives, or phrases to clauses if they are a list of similar items.

Parallel

He is tired, lonely, and hungry. (adjectives are joined to adjectives)

She walked to the skytrain, bought a ticket, and got on the westbound train. (verb + noun is joined to verb + noun)

Not Parallel

He is tired, lonely, and hurry. (tired and lonely are adjectives, but hurry is a verb)

She walked to the skytrain, bought a ticket, and she got on the westbound train. (walked to the skytrain and bought a ticket are verb + noun, but she got on the westbound train is a full clause) 

Parallel Function  

The function of the listed elements must also be parallel. For example, you can join physical description to physical description, but you generally cannot join physical description to feelings. 

Parallel

You can get cell phones in red, blue, green, and black. (all are colours)

Maria likes milk, loves tea, and hates coffee. (all describe emotions about food)

They took vegetables, meat, and fruit on the camping trip. (all types of food)

Not Parallel

You can get cell phones in red, blue, shiny, and black. (red, blue, and black are colours, but shiny describes a different aspect of the phone) 

Maria likes milk, loves tea, hates coffee, and arrives late. (likes milk, loves tea, and hates coffee are all emotions about food, but arrives late is an action) 

They took groceries, drinks, and three green apples on the camping trip. (groceries and drinks are very general food categories that overlap with each other and with the three green apples

Solving Parallelism Problems 

Sometimes it can be hard to put items into a parallel list. For example, if you want to describe a person you know, you may think of adjectives like friendly, kind, and intelligent. However, you may want to say something about the person’s appearance. You may want to say she is tall and has red hair. So, how can these various things be combined so they are more parallel?

Strategy 1: Change parts of speech

Sentence elements can be made parallel by changing the grammatical form or words. For example, to combine two adjectives and a noun into a list, the noun can usually be changed into an adjective form. In the example above, you could change “red hair” into an adjective form “red-headed” like this:

Karen is tall and red-headed.

Strategy 2: Start the parallelism sooner

A second way to solve parallelism problems is to start the parallelism sooner. In our example, you could start the parallelism with the first verb so that the parallel structures are predicate phrases. In this way, you would end up with this sentence:

Karen is tall and has red hair.

Strategy 3: Create multiple parallelisms

This strategy involves making more than one parallel list in a sentence. Let's say you want to combine the following sentences into one.

Karen is quiet.

Karen has red hair.

Karen is funny.

Karen has green eyes.

Karen has a sardonic smile.

In this case, quiet and funny go together because they come after the verb “is” and both are personality qualities. In the same way, red hair, green eyes, and a sardonic smile go together because they come after the verb “has” and all are physical descriptions. So, the combined elements would be like this:

Karen is quiet but funny, and has red hair, green eyes, and a sardonic smile.

Proofreading for Parallelism Problems

You should leave concerns about parallelism until the editing or proofreading stage of writing. These are the steps to follow:

  1. Go through your paper and identify every time the words and, but, or or are used. Circle them.
  2. For each circled word, look for the elements in the list. Underline them and mark where the parallelism begins and ends.
  3. For each list, consider whether all elements are parallel. Consider both grammar and function.
  4. Change faulty parallelism using the three strategies described earlier: change parts of speech, start the parallelism sooner, or create multiple parallel lists.

PDF resources

The tabs on this page are offered here in PDF format for your convenience

PDF iconRecognizing Wordiness

PDF iconIdentifying Passive Voice

PDF iconUsing Commas, Semicolons and Colons

PDF iconParallelism