Keeping It Simple: The Subject-Verb-Object Structure

Published: 25th May 2008
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Clear writing, direct writing, simple writing, economical writing, easy-to-understand writing. All these phrases mean the same thing, and they have one purpose-Help the reader to understand what you are writing. Their opposites are fuzzy writing, confusing writing, cumbersome writing, complicated writing, and hard-to-understand writing.





How do we produce the first type of writing and avoid the second? This is the question that many writers have asked. They ask this question because they care whether or not their readers understand them. Most people who hire editors are seeking help with this exact problem.





At Precise Edit, we have a powerful, yet simple, strategy for producing clear writing that is superior to all other strategies: use the Subject-Verb-Object sentence structure.





1. Identifying the Subject, Verb, and Object





First, let's define our terms. Then we will examine how this strategy works.





Subjects: The subject of the sentence is the "doer" of the main action. Subjects come in two flavors. The grammatical subject is the word in the subject's place in a sentence. The rhetorical subject is the person, place, thing, or idea that the sentence is about. This distinction is critical to producing clear writing. Let's take a look at an example to see how the grammatical subject differs from the rhetorical subject.





"A major element of the strategy is simplifying that which is difficult."





In this example, "element" is the grammatical subject. This word is in the subject's place in the sentence, followed by the verb "is." However, we ask the question, "What is this sentence actually about?" The answer is "simplifying." Therefore, the rhetorical subject is "simplifying."





You may have noticed that this sentence does, indeed, follow the Subject-Verb-Object structure. The problem with this sentence, however, is that the grammatical subject and the rhetorical subject are not the same. We want only one subject, i.e., the grammatical subject and the rhetorical subject should be the same. When we put the rhetorical subject in the place of the grammatical subject, we get,





"Simplifying the difficult is a major element of the strategy."





Verbs: A sentence may have several verbs. The verb in the "verb's place" following the subject is generally the main verb upon which the rest of the sentence hangs. The main action in a sentence is called the rhetorical action. The main verb and the rhetorical action may not be the same. Generally, when we are trying to identify the rhetorical subject, we first have to identify the rhetorical action.





Objects: The object of a sentence is the recipient of the action or the person, place, thing, or idea upon which the rhetorical subject acts. Not all sentences have an object.





Let's look at an example and identify these parts.





"John sent a bouquet of flowers to Mary to surprise her on her birthday."





Verbs: This example has two verbs, "send" and "surprise," but the rhetorical action is "sent." In this sentence, "sent" is both the grammatical verb and the rhetorical subject.



Subject: The "doer" of the rhetorical action is John, so "John" is the rhetorical subject. In this case, "John" is also the grammatical subject.



Object: What did John send? The action is performed on "bouquet," so "bouquet" is the object. Everything else in this sentence provides additional description or elaboration upon the basic idea of the sentence: "John sent a bouquet."





Here, we can easily see that this sentence uses the subject-verb-object structure.





(For those who REALLY like grammar, notice that the direct object, "bouquet of flowers," is placed before the prepositional phrase "to Mary" instead of using the indirect object "Mary." If we use the indirect object, the sentence will read, "John sent Mary a bouquet of flowers to surprise her on her birthday." By using the indirect object, the simple form of the sentence seems to be "John sent Mary." This may momentarily confuse the reader until he reads the rest of the sentence and figures out that John did not send Mary somewhere but sent something to Mary.)





2. Using S + V + O to Simplify Complex Sentences





Our formula for clear sentences is S + V + O, but, actually, the expanded version of this structure is Rhetorical Subject + Rhetorical Action + Object. When a sentence follows this structure, complex ideas can be presented clearly and simply. Also, based on the above concepts, the grammatical subject should be the rhetorical subject, and the main verb should be the rhetorical action.





Let's examine a sentence that does not follow these guidelines and then see how applying these concepts help clarify the sentence.





"Avoiding ambiguity is a task that many writers find hard to accomplish."





This poor sentence has the following elements:


• Grammatical subject: "Avoiding ambiguity"


• Rhetorical subject: "writers"


• Main verb: "is"


• Rhetorical action: "find"


• Object: none, though the phrase "that many writers find hard to accomplish" is in the object position. However, the object of the rhetorical action is "Avoiding ambiguity," which is currently in the subject position. (What a mess!)





Now let's apply our formula and see if the result is any better. Again, the formula is Rhetorical Subject + Rhetorical Action + Object.





We want our revised sentence to have the following elements:


• Rhetorical AND grammatical subject: "writers"


• Rhetorical action AND main verb: "find"


• Object: "avoiding ambiguity"





Putting these together, we have "Writers" + "find" + "avoiding ambiguity." When we add the descriptors and elaboration, the result is:





"Writers find avoiding ambiguity a hard task to accomplish."





After applying the formula, this revised sentence is more direct and clear.





3. Economical and Efficient Writing





(Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Skip this section. It is off-topic, though potentially useful to those who want to dig deeper into the issue of economical and efficient writing.)





Let's take another look at the sentence: "Writers find avoiding ambiguity a hard task to accomplish."





To use my Aunt Irene's favorite word, Precise Edit's editors are persnickety. We can criticize even this clear sentence to discover whether or not we can make it simpler and clearer. We find that we can.





Performing a task implies accomplishing something or attempting to achieve some result, so "to accomplish" can be removed. This gives us "Writers find avoiding ambiguity hard."





This sentence is still not good enough, especially if we, too, are trying to avoid ambiguous writing. "Hard" has multiple meanings, including "Not easily compressed" and "difficult." In this sentence, "hard" refers to "difficult," so we'll use that word. Now we have "Writers find avoiding ambiguity difficult."





Looking a bit deeper, we find another issue to address. "Writers" implies writing, and "avoiding ambiguity" refers to the writing that writers produce. Thus, two parts of this sentence refer to writing, which is one too many. The sentence really isn't about writers; it's about writing. The rhetorical subject is "writing," or, in this case, "ambiguous writing." We can remove the current subject, "writers," and place "writing" in the subject's place. Now we have "Ambiguous writing is difficult to avoid."





(Note: We could also assume that the sentence is about "avoiding," in which case we could use "avoiding ambiguous writing" as the rhetorical subject. This would give us "Avoiding ambiguous writing is difficult.")





Finally, we try to use positive statements. Instead of the negative term "ambiguous writing," we want to write about "clear writing," or "writing clearly." What is clear writing? Difficult. After all these changes, we are finally left with "Writing clearly is difficult."





Let's look at the evolution of this sentence:


1. Avoiding ambiguity is a task that many writers find hard to accomplish.


2. Writers find avoiding ambiguity a hard task to accomplish.


3. Writers find avoiding ambiguity hard.


4. Writers find avoiding ambiguity difficult.


5. Ambiguous writing is difficult to avoid. / Avoiding ambiguous writing is difficult.


6. Writing clearly is difficult.





4. S + V + O in Action





Let's examine another example to see how this simple formula helps clarify complicated sentences.





"John was the man, not me, to my dismay, preferred by Mary when she examined her choices of suitors."





You can fight your way through this sentence to understand its meaning. Or we can use the S + V + O structure to revise this sentence so you won't have to. First, let's identify the elements.


• Grammatical subject: "John"


• Rhetorical subject: "Mary"


• Main verb: "was"


• Rhetorical action: "preferred"


• Object: none, though the phrase "when she examined her choices of suitors" is in the object position. The object of the rhetorical action "preferred" is "John," which is in the subject position. (What a mess!)





We want our revised sentence to have the following elements:


• Rhetorical AND grammatical subject: "Mary" (or "she")


• Rhetorical action AND main verb: "preferred"


• Object: "John"





Putting these together, we have "Mary/she" + "preferred" + "John." When we add the descriptors and elaboration, one result is:





"When Mary examined her choices of suitors, she preferred John, to my dismay."





5. Three Final Tips for Using the S + V + O Sentence Structure





Let me show you one really poor sentence, give you the final three tips for using this sentence structure, then show how these three tips can clarify complicated writing.





"The old man, who had been sitting at the same bench for as many years as I could remember, never speaking, always watching the cars as they raced by, read his newspaper."





To revise this sentence, we need to give you three more pieces of advice:


1. Keep the subject, verb, and object close together.


2. Keep the subject-verb-object combinations separate.


3. Limit the number of subject-verb-object combinations in a sentence.





The main subject, verb, and object in this sentence are "man," "read," and "newspaper," respectively. However, this sentence also has the subject-verb combinations "who had been sitting," "I could remember," and "they raced." "They raced" serves as the object to "watching," which is not the main action of the sentence. Finally, this sentence has two verbs that relate to the man but that are not part of the main verb: "speaking" and "watching."





The most important combination is, obviously, the main subject, the main verb, and the main object: "The old man read his newspaper." We'll start with that one and add the floating verb "sitting," which he is doing while reading. This gives us: "The old man sat reading his newspaper."





What else do we know about the man? "He had sat there silently watching the cars go by." (Note: We changed "never speaking" to the adverb "silently," which means the same thing and removes the unassociated verb "speaking.") Finally, we'll use the combination that tells when he has sat there: "For as many years as I could remember...."





Putting all these together, the revised version is as follows:





"The old man sat on the bench reading his newspaper.
For as many years as I could remember, he had sat there silently watching the cars race by."






Why is this better? First, the two new sentences keep the subject-verb-object combinations tight. The first sentence has "Man sat reading newspaper." The introductory phrase in the second sentence has "I could remember." The main clause of the second sentence uses "He had sat watching the cars." Very few words are interspersed within these statements.





Second, unlike the original version, the S + V + O combinations are separate.





Third, the number of S + V + O combinations are limited in each sentence. The first sentence only has one, and the second sentence only has two.





6. Summary





At Precise Edit, our most important editing technique is to create the S + V + O sentence structure. We believe that you will find it similarly useful. Since this article is a bit long, we'll leave you with a quick summary of everything above. If you can apply these ideas, your writing will be clearer.





Use the S + V + O sentence structure. All following ideas spring from this one.


1. The grammatical subject and the rhetorical subject should be the same.


2. The main verb and the rhetorical action should be the same.


3. Keep the subject, verb, and object close together.


4. Keep the subject-verb-object combinations separate.


5. Limit the number of S + V + O combinations in a sentence.




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