Happy New Year!
I’m sure we all have high hopes for 2021 and for a fresh new beginning now that we’ve finally escaped the clutches of 2020. So it seems only fitting to think about how we can also get our writing off to a good start.
Let’s look back on what I posted just a little over a year ago on this same subject. It’s important to get right down to business at the start of a sentence, especially when you need to get your message across quickly and clearly. Watch out for empty hedge words that add no meaning but only bulk to your writing, such as: almost; apparently; comparatively; fairly; in part; it could be argued that…; it seems that…; I/we/most people think that…; I would argue that…; nearly; partially; predominantly; presumably; rather; relatively; seemingly; so to speak; some say that…; somewhat; sort of; to a certain degree; to some extent.
To see this principle in action, consider the following sentence:
It seems that a COVID-19 vaccine has just become available.
The phrase It seems that adds absolutely nothing to this sentence—we all know that the vaccine is now being given in many places. (To my great relief, my elderly mother in a nursing home in Pennsylvania got her first shot just before New Year’s.) It’s much more effective to simply say:
A COVID-19 vaccine has just become available.
If there is a reason that you need to qualify what you’re saying, be specific about that reason:
Although a COVID-19 vaccine has generally become available, it has not yet reached some areas of the country.
You also have to be careful when you have a sentence that includes a dependent clause. A dependent clause is one that, even though it has a subject and a verb, can’t stand on its own as a sentence. For example:
*When I finish editing the book
*If there’s nothing that needs to be changed
These clauses clearly can’t stand on their own—they need another clause to round out the story. (The asterisk at the start means that they’re ungrammatical sentences.) Starting off a sentence with a dependent clause, especially if it is long, can leave the reader in suspense, such as in this sentence:
Because in all her short five years of life she had never seen even a picture of one, little Maggie was amazed at the size of the elephant at the zoo.
As you start reading this sentence, don’t you get the feeling that you’re being kept in the dark? Who’s the five-year-old-girl? A picture of what? You have to hold all of this in your memory as you work your way through the sentence until you finally get to the main clause with its clear reference to the subject, little Maggie.
The solution is simple—just flip the order of the clauses:
Little Maggie was amazed at the size of the elephant at the zoo because in all her short five years of life she had never seen even a picture of one.
Much better, isn’t it? We know right away exactly what’s going on.
For one more example, let’s round out one of the dependent clauses mentioned above:
If there’s nothing that needs to be changed, the book will be published early this year.
Again, leading off with the dependent “if” clause could puzzle the reader for a short while—what kind of changes, and to what? The mystery isn’t solved until the second part of the sentence, when it becomes clear that we’re talking about a book. So it’s better to put it the other way around:
The book will be published early this year if there’s nothing that needs to be changed.
And if you’ve been paying attention to detail (good for you!) and wonder why the first versions of these two sentences needed commas, but the flipped versions didn’t, check out this post.
The main takeaway here is to start your sentences off with a clear picture of what’s going on. Of course you can switch things up every once in a while to keep from sounding monotonous, but in general, you don’t want to leave your reader wondering what you’re talking about.
Please feel free to share any good (or bad!) examples of these principles that you find “in the wild” below!