Sentence Style Problems

by David McMurrey.

Reviewed by Anna Sharman

This online book doesn't cover basic grammar or the broader questions of how to write well, but rather considers the intermediate level: problems with sentence style. The author offers defence against 'weapons of mass verbiage', such as wordiness, pompous word choice and overly long sentences. The book is aimed at people who aren't professional writers but have to do a lot of writing, and it could also be useful for editors. Each chapter focuses on one type of problem and includes sections on spotting the problem, deciding whether it really is a problem and fixing it.

'Wonder about education or upbringing'

I like the way the author, who has taught writing at IBM and at various US colleges, describes the 'rules' of sentence style as being different from the strict rules of grammar that have to be followed:

Usage 'rules' are more like dress codes or table manners. Violating them causes distractions, embarrassments, unintended humor … True, violating some usage rules causes serious comprehension problems, but more often people wonder about the violator's education or upbringing.

One example is in the chapter on the passive voice, which the author explains can be useful when used judiciously.

As expected, there is a chapter (no. 7) devoted to 'The copyediting process in action', with examples, each of which you have to work through in order. Three solid chapters related to mastering proofreading symbols and techniques really made light of these, and I'm someone who is constantly having to refer to BS 5261. OK, this is the US rather than the British standard, but the marks are virtually the same.


Wordiness, in the sense of using long phrases when single words will do, is dealt with in depth, including a table of phrases that each could be replaced by one or two words – for example, 'It would be advisable to' with 'You should', 'within the realm of possibility' with 'possible' and so on. In the chapter on 'noun stacks', McMurrey discusses the 'mind-numbing' effect of multiple nouns jammed together, some of which are being used adjectivally.

He comes up with some concepts that I hadn't heard of before, such as the term 'expletives' used not to mean swearwords but rather things like 'it is a fact that' or 'there is the case in which', which can often be deleted altogether to make the sentence simpler without changing its meaning.

Overall, this is a useful source of examples of bad sentence style, with explanations of when and why they should be avoided and how to do just that.

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