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TIP 1. Create Sentences around Carefully Chosen Subjects and Vigorous Verbs

Build sentences that use carefully chosen subjects and vigorous verbs to express your central meaning. (Usually, the subject tells who/what is the primary agent, and the verb tells what the agent does.)

Note on TIP 1: Using this tip is often my first strategy for fixing a sentence that lacks a clear focus. Choosing a new subject that reflects the central meaning will often instantly clean up a rambling, confusing sentence. Choosing an expressive verb that tells what the subject is doing can then vitalize the meaning. Look for verbs that go beyond "is," "has," or "does" to really describe the action.

EXAMPLE 1. There is little quantitative data available identifying the relative importance of the many factors in the NICU that produce housestaff stress.

Rev 1a. Housestaff stress in the NICU has not been evaluated in quantitative studies.

Rev 1b. The sources of stress for housestaff assigned to the NICU have not been quantified.

Rev 1c. Few studies have quantified the sources of housestaff stress in the NICU.

Note on Example 1: The author here has thrown away the subject and verb by beginning with "There is." Notice that you have to read the whole sentence to figure out what it is about. This is a good clue that a better subject choice is needed. In my suggested revisions, I offer three possible choices for the subject. Which is better is likely to be determined by the context. A paragraph about "housestaff stress" might use the first option. A paragraph about "studies in the NICU" might use the last.

EXAMPLE2.The effect of withdrawing CoQ10 and its reversibility on cardiac function was another observation that demonstrates the action of CoQ10 having a therapeutic effect instead of mere coincidence.

Rev 2. The therapeutic effect of CoQ10 [on cardiac function] is further demonstrated by the reversibility of its effects when it is withdrawn.

Note on Example 2: This is a good example of a sentence whose structure does little to help the reader capture the meaning. The subject ("effect of withdrawing") is a poor choice because it jumps several steps into the action. It makes better sense, chronologically and logically, to start the sentence with the first step, the "therapeutic effect," and then introduce the topic of withdrawing the drug. Use of the phrase "was another observation" is unnecessary. Bringing the observer into the action just dilutes the central meaning of the sentence. The phrase "on cardiac function" may not be required if this effect is obvious from preceding sentences.

EXAMPLE 3.Loss of revenue in terms of productivity and medical costs due to human and animal diseases caused by these trypanosomes has an overwhelming effect on socio-economic growth of endemic countries.

Rev 3. Trypanosomal diseases can devastate the economies and social structures of affected countries, depleting productivity of humans and animals and diverting resources from economic growth to health care.

Note on Example 3: This sentence is unnecessarily complicated by the choice of a subject ("loss of revenue") which is secondary rather than primary to the meaning. The cause of the problems described ("trypanosomal diseases") rather than one effect of that cause makes a better subject. With this new subject, the verbs of the sentence can now vividly describe the effects of these diseases: compare "has an overwhelming effect" in the original sentence to "devastate", "deplete" and "divert." These verbs allow the reader to visualize the effects rather than guess at them. Notice how much meaning would be lost if we had chosen for our revision the bland verb "affect " rather than ones that convey the quality, intensity and direction of the effect. See the Table below for a sampling of alternative verbs.



involve, entail, require, imply, necessitate, shape, form, mold, manipulate, model, change, alter, modify, vary, transform, adjust, influence, have an impact on, have a bearing on, impinge on


add to, augment, boost, amplify, enhance, improve, enlarge, raise, swell, multiply
decrease (transitive) reduce, cut, diminish, lessen, deplete, drain, lower, exhaust, tire out, wear out, fatigue, weaken, consume, use up
decrease (intransitive) decline, dwindle, shrink, drop off, fall, diminish, wear out, fail


damage, harm, spoil, hurt, break, wound, impair, destroy, obliterate, devastate, hinder


promote, encourage, advance, foster, bolster, assist, improve, aid, facilitate, support, serve, relieve, sustain, maintain, preserve, retain, save, care for, amend

EXAMPLE 4. Once thought to be uniformly susceptible to the penicillins, it is now apparent that resistant strains of this organism may occur.

Rev 4. This organism, once susceptible to the penicillins, now occurs in resistant forms.

Note on Example 4: This sentence has thrown away its subject and its verb by using "it is" for this key element of the sentence. The sentence also dilutes its meaning by focusing on the observer (who "once thought" and to whom it is "now apparent") instead of the action of interest. If we choose for the subject of this sentence its main agent ("this organism"), almost half the words can be eliminated with no loss of meaning and increased clarity.