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Grammar


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Sentence Structure

Use Clear Referents in Phrases

Demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those) and personal pronouns (he, she, it) can take the place of nouns, while relative pronouns (which, that) connect nouns to modifying clauses. When using these pronouns, however, the writer must take care to delineate which nouns are being referenced.

Unclear: “The discussion had become a heated debate about her terminology, which was very disappointing.”

Clear: “It was disappointing that the discussion had become a heated debate about her terminology.”

In the first instance, it is unclear whether the disappointment is with the terminology, the debate over it, or the fact that the discussion degenerated into a debate. The second sentence resolves the ambiguity. More information about correcting grammatical errors related to reference is given in the grammar and editing section

Keep the Subject and Verb Close Together

A complex sentence structure often causes the subject and verb to be separated by modifying clauses and phrases. While not grammatically incorrect, such sentences can be difficult to comprehend, and a simple rearrangement can often improve readability. The subject and verb are underlined in the examples below.

Difficult: “The fact that Deuteronomy is an anthology of hortatory speeches demanding fidelity to Yahweh and giving instructions for Israel’s corporate life with an omnipresent concern for the land as the inheritance of faithful Israel, draws attention to the theological character of Deuteronomy as a covenantal renewal document."

Easier: “Deuteronomy is an anthology of hortatory speeches demanding fidelity to Yahweh and giving instructions for Israel’s corporate life with an omnipresent concern for the land as the inheritance of faithful Israel. These speeches point to the theological character of Deuteronomy as a covenantal renewal document.”

Use Passive or Indirect Constructions Selectively

In a passive construction, the object of an active verb becomes the subject of the sentence. Passive forms are used when the agent who performs an action is not as important as what is acted upon. Unless a passive is necessary to keep the topic of the paragraph in focus, the active voice and an assertive tone is preferable.

Passive:  “When the news was told to him, he wondered if it might not be better if he were to call.”

Active:  “He heard the news and accepted his duty to call.”

Make Clear Pronoun Referents

Pronouns are useful in creating variety and avoiding repetition within a sentence. However, sometimes a pronoun is used and it is not clear what the referent is. This should always be avoided.The point of using pronouns is to point clearly back to something already mentioned.

Unclear: “The Goths sacked Rome during the time when Augustine was writing City of God. It was widely discussed in years to come. [What was widely discussed, the sack of Rome, “the time when Augustine was writing,” or City of God?]

Clear: “The Goths sacked Rome when Augustine was writing City of God. This work was a very important contribution to theology and it is one of the works which brought Augustine fame during and after his time.” 

Use the Appropriate Verb Tense

Using a verb tense correctly does not necessarily mean that the writer must stay in that same tense throughout the entire work or even throughout the whole paragraph. But too much fluctuation between tenses causes confusion and can make a sentence incoherent. Note the correct use of varying tenses in the example below. 

Confusing: “The Reformed tradition produced some great theologians and encourages us to read Scripture thoughtfully. Martin Luther read Scripture carefully and it leads him to communicate great ideas in his writing. When we read Scripture thoughtfully we learned how to challenge corrupt practices.”

Clear: “The Reformed tradition produced some great theologians that continue to encourage us through their writings to read Scripture thoughtfully. Martin Luther read Scripture carefully and it led him to communicate great ideas through this writing. When we read Scripture thoughtfully we learn how to challenge corrupt practices.”

Seek Help for Additional Grammar Questions

For help with other grammatical questions such as questions on article use, word order, modification, and word choice, visit the Center for Theological Writing on the top floor of the library. We would love to work with you, answer your questions, and point you to further resources that will enhance your ability to communicate through writing.


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