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Building Better Sentences Help

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 13, 2011

Building Balanced Sentences

At this point, you have reviewed the essentials of grammar and you can identify parts of speech and their functions. You also recognize common errors in grammar. Now you are ready to make sure the words you use function correctly in sentences.

For example, you know how to recognize describing words and phrases. However, do you know how to use them to create balanced sentences?

Balanced sentences are ones in which related descriptions, actions, or ideas are written in the same form. Grammarians call this parallel construction. There is power in parallel construction. In fact, some very famous examples of parallel construction exist in history:

    Julius Caesar: I came; I saw; I conquered.

How does this sentence exemplify parallel construction? There are three verbs—came, saw, and conquered—all expressed in the past tense and all preceded by I.

    Abraham Lincoln: But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground.

Again we read three verbs, dedicate, consecrate, and hallow, all in the present tense and all preceded by we cannot.

    Sir Winston Churchill: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

In Churchill's sentence, the parallel is accomplished by using four words, all the same part of speech, that is, nouns.

    John F. Kennedy: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

This is actually a quote from Marcus Tullius Cicero, a first-century Roman statesman. President Kennedy considered it memorable enough to use in his 1961 inaugural address. In it, the repetition of ask not what and can do provide a parallel structure for the sentence. The two halves of the sentence start with the command form of the verb, ask.

Examples of not-so-famous unbalanced sentences follow. Where did the writer go wrong? What part of speech or related idea was not carried forward in a consistent way?

    Incorrect: Cari is attractive and has good sense.

If you say this sentence aloud, you will probably agree that it sounds unbalanced. Why? If you analyze the sentence, you see that Cari is the subject and is is the linking verb. You recall that a linking verb brings together or links the subject to a descriptive word or a word that stands for the subject. In this sentence, Cari is being described. What two elements describe her? Attractive and has good sense are the elements. How can you change the second element, has good sense, to match the first, attractive? Attractive is an adjective describing Cari. Convert has good sense into an adjective, a single word, to match attractive. This is the result:

    Correct: Cari is attractive and sensible.

Now the sentence is balanced.

    Try this sentence:
    Incorrect: Chess is mentally challenging and makes me tired.

The sentence describes chess. What two phrases follow the linking verb is and describe chess? They are mentally challenging and makes me tired. The second phrase contains a verb, makes. The first descriptive phrase does not contain a verb. Immediately, you know that the description is unbalanced. With what simple change can you balance this sentence? Take a clue from the -ing ending on challenging. Place an -ing ending on one word of the second phrase—tiring—and you can eliminate the words makes me. You've created a balanced sentence:

    Chess is mentally challenging and tiring.

You can see that a balanced sentence tends to eliminate unnecessary words, and that's a good thing. In the sentence about chess, the correction eliminated the awkward phrase, makes me.

    How can you tighten and balance the following sentence?
    Incorrect: The deer we saw was tall, alert, and he was obviously hungry.

Because it is unbalanced, this sentence actually carries an extra sentence within it. The deer is described in the sentence. The linking verb was is followed by the adjectives tall and alert but then ends, not with another adjective, with a complete thought—he was obviously hungry. How can you correct the sentence?

    Correct: The deer we saw was tall, alert, and obviously hungry.

The complete thought was changed to a simple adjective, hungry. The adverb, obviously, adds more meaning by describing hungry.

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