A Science Communication Intervention: Sentence Structure

I am currently intervening in an undergraduate-level science course. Along with the basic science, students will learn how to communicate their ideas and perspectives effectively. Here’s what we are discussing this week: Sentence Structure.

“Short sentences aren’t hard to make.
The difficulty is forcing yourself to keep them short.


There are innumerable ways to write badly. 
The usual way is making sentences that don’t say what you think they do. 
Which can the reader possibly believe? Your sentences or you?


The only link between you and the reader is the sentence you’re making. 
There’s no sign of your intention apart from the sentences themselves, 
And every sentence has its own motives, its own commitments, 
Quite apart from yours.
It adheres to a set of rules – grammar, syntax, the history and customs of language, a world of echoes and allusions and social cues – that pay no heed to your intentions, 
If you don’t heed those rules.


It’s hard to pay attention to what your words are actually saying. 
As opposed to what you mean to say or what you think you’re saying. 
Knowing what you’re trying to say is always important. 
But knowing what you’ve actually said is crucial.
It’s easier to tell what you’re saying in a short sentence. 


You’ve been taught to believe that short sentences are childish,
Merely a first step toward writing longer sentences. 
You’d like to think your education has carried you well past short sentences. 
But you’ve been delivered into a wilderness of false assumptions and bad habits, 
A desert of jargon and weak constructions, a land of linguistic barbarism, A
place where it’s nearly impossible to write with clarity or directness, 
Without clichés or meaningless phrases. 
True, you can sound quite grown-up, quite authoritative, in the manner of college professors and journalists and experts in every field, 
(You may be a college professor, a journalist, or an expert in some field.) 
How well do they write? 
How much do you enjoy reading them?


You’ll make long sentences again, but they’ll be short sentences at heart. 
Sentences listening for the silence around them. Listening for their own pulse.”


[ Several Short Sentences About Writing – Klinkenborg (2012) ]


The classrooms where students come to learn from their instructors who know a lot about science and practice explaining it have got to change for the sake of their careers.
[ poorly-written sentence ]

What makes this sentence so hard to read and understand?

  • The sentence’s primary subject (classrooms) and primary verb (have) are separated by many clauses. These clauses have their own subject/verb pairs (i.e. students come, instructors teach). As a result, the reader may not immediately make a mental connection between the primary subject and verb.
  • Pronouns are not clear. What is it that the teachers are explaining? For the sake of their careers – whose careers, the students’ or instructors’?
  • The purpose of the sentence is not clear. Do the classrooms themselves need to change, as in the classrooms’ physical structures of walls and chairs? Or do the instructors’ teaching practices need to change?
  • Some clauses are unnecessary to the purpose. If the point of the sentence is to state that teaching practices have got to change, why include that instructors know a lot about science?
Instructors should incorporate instruction on writing skills into science classes. These valuable communication skills will benefit the students in their future careers.
[ well-written sentence(s) ]


Practice good sentence-writing skills when you complete your homework this week. Things to consider:

  • Is the verb close to the subject? Do not separate the subjects and verbs with unnecessary clauses.
  • Are all pronouns clear? There should be no other participant (teacher, boy, dog, etc.) between the pronoun and the participant the pronoun refers to.
  • Is the purpose of the sentence clear? There should be no alternative interpretations of the sentence. Try reading the sentence out loud or asking a friend for their interpretation.
  • Are there any clauses unnecessary to the purpose? If you don’t need it, get rid of it.



Week 1 9/26 Overview and Motivation
Week 2 10/3 Sentence Structure
Week 3 10/10 Purpose and Paragraph Structure
Week 4 10/17 Word Choice
Week 5 10/24 Jargon
Week 6 10/31 Demonstration
Week 7 11/7 Audience and Framing
Week 8 11/14 Review

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