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Writing tip 7 – keep your subordinate clauses short and sweet

Imagine you’re starting to explain something in a document, but you keep your reader guessing before you get to the point. That’s what can happen if you begin your sentence with a long subordinate clause. Why is that?

A subordinate clause, also called a dependent clause, is a group of words with a subject and a verb that cannot stand alone. It does not provide a complete thought and the reader is left wondering. It depends on the rest of the sentence, the main clause, for its meaning.

Avoid starting a sentence with a long subordinate clause because the longer it is, the longer you leave your reader in the dark as to what you’re trying to say. You are effectively discussing your message before having explained what it’s about.

How much is long? The following is an example of a sentence that opens with a 23-word subordinate clause:

“Because sources who are of substantial political or intelligence interest may have their computers bugged or their homes fitted with hidden video cameras, we suggest that if sources are going to send WikiLeaks something very sensitive, they do so away from the home and work.”

I found the sentence on the About page of whistle-blower WikiLeaks. I had to memorise a host of details before arriving at the main clause, which explains that if you want to submit something very sensitive you’d better do it away from home or work. Personally, I would have broken up the information into two sentences to make it an easier read.

Here is another, shorter example from the same About page:

“Because we are not motivated by making a profit, we work cooperatively with other publishing and media organisations around the globe …”

Here, a nine-word subordinate clause takes you effortlessly to the main one, where the meaning of the sentence becomes clear at once. One rule of thumb is to keep a subordinate clause to within six to nine words if it starts a sentence, but you can make it longer if it’s not too complicated. Trust your gut feeling.

It’s much easier to get away with adding a long-winded subordinate clause at the end of a sentence because the main clause has already informed the reader of the subject. Another example from the same source:

“We accept leaked material in person and via postal drops as alternative methods, although we recommend the anonymous electronic drop box as the preferred method of submitting any material.”

That’s straight-forward, but imagine starting with the subordinate clause: Although we recommend the anonymous electronic drop box as the preferred method of submitting any material, we accept leaked material in person and via postal drops as alternative methods.

The sentence is now unnecessarily complex. I wouldn’t leak it to anyone.

I welcome your comments.

Rolf Soderlind

http://www.absolutwriting.com/ absolutwriting

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